The late Sonja Franken survived the Holocaust. Her husband, John Franken, now a resident of Hillel Lodge, survived the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki as a prisoner-of-war. Their daughter, Roslyn Franken launches a book about her parents, November 4, at Congregation Machzikei Hadas. Hannah Berdowski reports.
In her new book, Meant to Be: A True Story of Might, Miracles and Triumph of the Human Spirit, author Roslyn Franken tells the unforgettable story of how her parents, Sonja and John survived the Second World War against all odds.
“I’m the daughter of two incredible World War II survivors,” said Franken in an interview with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. “Well, ‘incredible’ is an understatement.”
When she was 15, Sonja and her family were taken by the Nazis from their home in the Netherlands. While Sonja and her sisters were transferred to slave labour camps, her parents and brothers perished in Sobibor. Sonja continued to be transferred to a number of concentration camps, among them Auschwitz, and miraculously escaped death in the gas chambers on three separate occasions.
John was born in the Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia – and was recruited to the Netherlands Naval Aviation Service at age 18. Captured by the Japanese, he spent three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war and survived the atomic bomb explosion at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Today, he lives in Ottawa at Hillel Lodge and is the sole living Canadian survivor of the Nagasaki blast.
After the war, John went to the Netherlands to finish his navy service. There he met Sonja who had returned after surviving the Holocaust. But, finding little work after his naval contract was up, John moved to Montreal. John and Sonja corresponded, and Sonja soon followed her heart and her dreams and moved to Montreal to start a life with John.
Meant to Be includes excerpts from the love letters Franken’s parents sent to one another during their time apart. Originally written in Dutch, Franken translated the letters after finding them a few years ago.
“She didn’t even know the language,” said Franken of her mother’s move to Montreal, “but, had she been afraid of the unknown, she could have missed out on her dream to have kids.”
Having the courage to take a risk is one of many lessons Franken says she learned from her parents, who also taught her to focus on the meaningful things in life and not on what is missing.
When Sonja, who died in 2004, was diagnosed with cancer and John suffered a severe heart attack, Franken said her parents channelled the same courage and determination that got them through the war. And when Franken herself was diagnosed with cancer at age 29, she turned to her parents’ perpetual courage as inspiration to overcome adversity.
“Surviving to me is not about the quantity of life, but about the quality,” said Franken who associates survival with finding the inner strength to face each day with a renewed determination and appreciation for life.
For years, Franken says people would ask her about her parents’ triumphs in the face of such overwhelming adversity, but it wasn’t until she was giving a presentation in Clearwater, Florida, that she decided to write the book.
During the presentation, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor interrupted her, exclaiming that her parents’ story should be shared with the world in a book.
So Franken, already a published author, wrote Meant to Be. And, although it tells a Jewish story, she says she wrote the book for everyone.
“My mission with the book is not just to teach about history, but humanity and triumph of the human spirit,” she said.
Franken is also hoping to present her family’s story to students.
“Young people need to be made aware of stories like this,” said Franken, who hopes that in sharing her stories she will instil the lesson that you can triumph over any challenges you face and live a joyous life.
Meant To Be: A True Story of Might, Miracles and Triumph of the Human Spirit will be launched at a special event called “In Their Daughter’s Words,” in support of Hillel Lodge and in celebration of its 60th anniversary, on Wednesday, November 4, 7:30 pm, at Congregation Machzikei Hadas, 2310 Virginia Drive. Admission is $25, which includes a complimentary copy of the book. Visit www.hillel-ltc.com or call 613-843-0155 for reservations.
Visit www.roslynfranken.com for more information about Franken, her books, speaking engagements and contact information.