Knoxville resident Sonja DuBois was the latest speaker to bring the past to life for Roane State associate professor John Brown’s modern American history class.
Born in 1940 in Rotterdam, Holland — the same year that Nazi Germany invaded that country — DuBois’ birth parents soon feared for their child’s safety and placed her in the care of a member of the Dutch underground resistance.
She lost her identity to save her life: Born the Jew Clara Van Thijn, she was renamed Sonja DuBois and raised as a Christian.
She was almost two-years old when she became the foster daughter of a childless couple. She learned when she was 11 that her parents had been killed in the infamous Auschwitz death camp.
DuBois expressed hope that her father didn’t suffer long and was quickly killed. How long her mother endured Auschwitz’s horrors and when she was murdered remains unknown, she said. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and others were crowded into showers and killed with poison gas at Auschwitz. Their bodies were then incinerated in ovens.
She said she’ll never visit Auschwitz. “Why would I want to see the ovens?” she asked.
While living in Holland, DuBois and her foster parents identified themselves as Christians, she said. Jews were forced to wear a Star of David emblem on their clothes. Jews not wearing the emblem “were shot on the spot.”
The horrors inflicted by the Nazis are an example of “extreme racism,” DuBois said. But history repeats itself, she said, and today, “we’re surrounded by racism.”
“What have we learned?” she asked. “Not much.”
DuBois wore a garnet necklace during her speech at Roane State’s Oak Ridge campus. She said it’s the only item that belonged to her mother that she was given.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to fight racism, DuBois said. Prejudice can only thrive when there is indifference, she told the students. “Please use your freedom of speech and tell someone if something is wrong,” DuBois said.
Brown has in the past invited speakers to discuss historical events with his students. Recently, Knoxville engineer Barry Thacker dressed in a period outfit as he discussed labor strife during the Coal Creek War in Anderson County.
“I think students can learn a lot from firsthand accounts of events that we discuss in class,” Brown said. “It’s very important that we not forget the past, because it could happen again.”