“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Sonja: A Holocaust survivor story

By Nadav Weil
Heritage, Florida Jewish News

Jews and non-Jews alike recognize the importance of the Holocaust. We acknowledge the horrifying impact on the world, and search for the lessons we must learn in order to make the promise of “never again” a reality. In working with students, the Holocaust Center urges the next generation to think deeply about the community of Survivors, their eyewitness accounts, and their life stories. Through knowing them, we can more fully appreciate the terrible losses caused by bigotry and intolerance.

Some students, more than others, take that challenge to heart. One in particular, Nadav Weil, who recently graduated from the Jewish Academy of Orlando, has clearly taken it on as a personal mission. In February 2014, on the day of his bar mitzvah, he adopted the memory of his cousin Giza Farbenblum (z”l) through “twinning,” recognizing that she was unable to become a bat mitzvah, having lost her life in the Holocaust at age 13. He wrote an essay on the meaning of remembrance and presented it during the Holocaust Center’s community Yom HaShoah program.

Wanting more involvement, he recently received permission to interview a local survivor. He met with Sonja Marchesano, and below is his thoughtful essay he wrote about her life.

The Holocaust was a very destructive, hard time for many different people. The Nazis ruled Germany with an iron fist. Six million Jews lost their lives. Ten million died. Some survived to tell their story. Sonja Marchesano was one of the survivors.

Sonja was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929. Her father, Leon Morgenstern, owned a clothing and linen store in Frankfurt. Sonja’s mother helped Leon at the store except when Sonja was too little to go to kindergarten. Her kindergarten was called “Philanthropic.” When Sonja was just four years old, her mother asked her to go the store below their apartment to get milk. On her way down the stairs she tripped. While she was getting up, a passing boy said, “Get up filthy Jew.” That was 1933. It was Sonja’s first experience with anti-Semitism.

Nothing like that happened again for the next few years. As she grew up, she became closer with family members, such as Uncle Izze, Uncle Chaskel, Uncle Mendel, Aunt Berta, Aunt Regina, Aunt Sasha, and Uncle Leo. She also had two little sisters, Zelma and Gale.

In 1938 Uncle Leo left for the United Kingdom and urged the rest of the family to come too, but they didn’t. They still didn’t leave after Aunt Regina fled to Switzerland, Aunt Sasha fled to Argentina and her grandmother went to Poland. Although many of her family members left, some still stayed (Uncle Mendel and Aunt Berta, who later died in an unknown concentration camp.)

One morning in particular, Sonja was taken to school by her Uncle Chaskel. When she had finished school that day her uncle came to pick her up. The second that her uncle dropped her off, he left and disappeared knowing that the SS would be looking for him. Sonja was left with her Aunt Lotte. After a couple of hours they heard banging down stairs and within four minutes, men in brown suits and black boots kicked down the door and started throwing things like furniture out the window and destroying the house before they left looking for Uncle Chaskel. Her father was arrested and sent to Buchenwald on Kristallnacht.

After that Sonja’s mother got Sonja and her family visas to go to Great Britain. After three months of bartering, the Nazis let Sonja’s father out of Buchenwald with the understanding that he leave his business and be out of Germany in the next 24 hours.

On the way to Britain on the train, they had to stop at the Holland border. Two SS guards came on board. When they got to Sonja’s mother they picked up the baby’s bed with the baby inside and just as they were about to start looking for Judaica, her mother said there’s a baby in there and they put the bed down and kept on walking.

When they got to Great Britain, Sonja and her sister were split up and sent to the country to be away from the war. They only got to come back for holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. They stayed there until the end of the war. Sadly, during that time Sonja’s mother died of TB in 1942.

After the war, her father went back to Germany to restart his business with his brother. So Sonja stayed with her aunt. Sonja also found out that she had another sister named Gale. Sonja ended up staying in Britain and finishing high school and then became a seamstress for four years. She then went back to Germany in 1950 to work at her father’s and uncle’s clothing store.

Sonja was married in 1954 in Germany to Max Unger. They moved to Idaho for a year and had a child named Larry. They moved to New York for a year, and then to Connecticut in 1960 and had another baby named Geoffrey. They moved to Orlando in 1962. Her husband died of a heart attack the next year. Sonja was remarried in 1978 to Armand Marchesano.

Meeting Sonja Marchesano was very meaningful for me. Talking to any person who went through something as momentous as this is a significant event. What we must learn from this story is that to preserve the past and to protect the future we must never forget what happened.

If you have specific questions about Nadav and his essay, you may contact him directly at davisoccer13@gmail.com.

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