Born in Kovno, Lithuania, 1902
By Elly Gotz
Sonja Gotz's life very nearly ended exactly 50 years ago. Sitting in a hidden room in the Kovno Ghetto with her family, she was equipped and ready to inject them all, and herself, with poison, if their hideout was discovered.
After waiting for several days, the family left the hideout and joined the remaining Jews of Kovno into the train that took them to concentration camps in Germany. She was one of the few who survived the Holocaust, and one of the very, very few who found her husband and only son alive as well.
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1902, she experienced her first refugee status in 1916, when all Kovno Jews were removed deep into Russia - the Czar regarded them as a possible ally of Germany in the first world war and wanted the Jews away from the border with Germany.
Returned to Lithuania in 1918, Sonja finished high school and was trained as a paediatric nurse. She worked in a hospital and later in an orphanage established by the Jewish community for war orphans. There she met Julius, who worked as a volunteer in the orphanage, and married him in 1926.
When Elly was born she decided to give up nursing and work from home. To do that she took a course in cutting/designing at the ORT Institute in Kovno and opened a dressmaking workshop in their apartment, to augment the family income, while Julius worked at the Jewish bank.
She was a very attractive woman, had a presence that always evoked respect. She loved music and opera, had a good voice herself. She had a point of view on many life issues that was based on a worldly and liberal outlook derived from literature and art. She was fluent in Yiddish, Russian and German, read a great deal, was familiar with the great writers of world literature.
Then her world fell apart - in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Lithuania was in the path of destruction. In the first days of the war Jews were ordered to walk in the gutter on the streets. Sonja's proud bearing prompted a nazi officer to bark at her: "Don't walk so proud, Jewess!"
Locked up with all the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, she went back to nursing and became a surgical nurse in the Ghetto hospital. She survived the first "Selection", when half the population of the Ghetto was removed and killed a few days later outside town. Incidentally, the Nazi officer in charge of that operation was Helmut Rauka, who lived after the war in Canada, right here in Willowdale, Toronto, before he was discovered and extradited to Germany for trial.
In 1944 Sonja was taken to Germany. While the men were sent to Dachau concentration camp, the women were taken to the Stutthoff concentration camp. There Sonja was the chief nurse in the small camp hospital. She showed great courage, staying in the operating room and doing her job while bombs were falling around the hospital. Half the staff were killed by a direct hit on the shed they were hiding in, while the operating room remained intact. She always cared about her appearance, which made her wash her few clothes every night after a 12 hour shift and she always looked clean, as reported later by surviving inmates who worked with her.
When the war came close to its end, the few surviving women of the camp were placed on a barge to be drowned in the sea. An Allied bomb broke the barge in half. One half sank immediately, the other half was on fire. Sonja was wounded and unconscious on the burning barge, when a German navy hospital ship pulled alongside and announced that the war was over. They lifted the remaining women onto the ship and took Sonja with them, since she was still alive. They operated on her onboard ship and saved her life.
After the war the family was luckily reunited and moved, first to Norway, then to Rhodesia in Africa, before coming to Canada in 1964.
Sonja learned a new language - English. She opened a factory for women's clothes in Rhodesia. She loved to experience new things. Travelled, whenever possible. Elly persuaded her once to try skiing, with somewhat unfavourable results... She had a dramatic bent and participated in theatre productions. She was a good story teller - an event took on life when she told about it. Her letters to friends and relatives were admired and retained. In another time she might have been a writer.
Sonja lived to see three grand children and four great grand children. She was full of life till recently, though at the end she hated the frailty and dependence and she did not wish for this state to continue.
She Died August 12, 1994
and Esme Gotz
This eulogy is published here with the permission of Elly Gotz.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.