Survivor: Sonja Telias

From the upstairs bedroom she shared with four girls, Sonja Blits heard the soldiers marching through the quiet village of Zaandijk, outside Amsterdam, where she was being hidden by a generous Dutch family. “Remember, stay below the windowsill,” Moe Haidel, the other girls’ mother, reminded her. But, drawn to the unusual noise, Sonja stood up and peeked through the curtain. Her eyes fixed on the SS troops’ black boots making clicking noises on the brick street. That sound continued to haunt her.

Sonja Blits, living under the false name of Rietje Knox, had been with the Heidels since she was 3, placed there in early 1943 after first being hidden on a farm for just a few months. Her blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to blend in with Saakje (known as Moe) and Hank Heidel’s four daughters, becoming the middle sister.

Sonja was born in Amsterdam on June 8, 1939, to Eva and Louis Blits, a successful toy manufacturer. Germany invaded Holland in May 1940, but it wasn’t until July 1942, when they received notice to report for relocation, that the family felt the need to escape. A few days later, Sonja’s father, who had connections with the Dutch underground, escorted her, her mother and his parents to various safe houses.

Sonja’s father, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, with his blond hair, blue eyes and fluent German, was able to work for the underground while passing himself off as an agricultural expert, even though, Sonja said, “He didn’t know the difference between a pea and a beet.”

An older Jewish woman, whom Sonja called Aunt Catoetje, and a Jewish couple also lived in the Heidels’ tiny, immaculate home. The three adults shared a small upstairs bedroom, rarely leaving. Sonja remembers them mostly playing cards.

Sonja spent her days in the girls’ bedroom, playing with dolls, coloring and avoiding the window. “We can’t tell anybody that you’re here,” Immy, the second oldest sister, said to her. “It’s a big, big secret.” In the afternoon, the two older girls taught Sonja to read, draw and other skills they were learning in school.

In the evenings, Sonja joined the family for dinner, which was often just rice. Afterward, Hank, whom Sonja remembers as distant, retired to the living room, while Moe played the radio and danced with the five girls. “I felt so much love,” said Sonja, who wasn’t able to remember her own parents.

During this time Sonja’s father, dressed in bib overalls, rode a rickety bicycle to various farms and traded small loose diamonds from his brother-in-law’s diamond business for food, regularly delivering eggs, rice and cheese to the Heidels and to other families harboring Jews. “That’s what saved us,” Sonja said. She didn’t recognize him as her father, but she liked him.

Three times, when the Nazis searched for Jews inside the houses on Oud Heinstraat, Sonja and the three adults had to crawl backward into a hiding place behind one of the headboards in the girls’ room. The opening, about 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet, resembled a hollowed-out rain gutter, Sonja said. Each time they remained in the dark hole, with little air circulation, for several hours. Sonja sat silently on Aunt Catoetje’s lap.

A Christian couple next door, Joop and Lena Keijzer, also were active in the Dutch resistance. Several times Joop came to the Heidels’ house at night, hoisted Sonja on his shoulders and walked along the canal behind the houses. “I was amazed to be outside in the fresh air,” she said.

Shortly before the war ended, in May 1945, Sonja’s parents came for her. She was almost 6 and had spent two and a half years in hiding.

The Blits family, including Sonja’s father’s parents, returned to their house in Amsterdam, where they learned that Sonja’s mother’s parents and two brothers had perished in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Her mother never talked about it and never cried, even when friends gathered in the garden and sobbed. “It was sad times,” Sonja said.

Sonja’s mother, despite being in bad physical shape, gave birth to Sonja’s sister Grace in 1946. But Grace was always troubled, and Sonja was never close to her, or to their mother. “Moe Heidel was a better mother to me than my mother ever was,” Sonja said.

It was Sonja’s father, who was gregarious and always hugging, Sonja said, on whom the light shone. On Sunday mornings, he took her to Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, where they talked and where, later, he told her stories about the war.

Finally Sonja’s family, including her father’s parents, was permitted to immigrate to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on Oct. 26, 1949.

A week later, her father enrolled her at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica. It was a hard adjustment, but a girl soon befriended her, staying after school and teaching her 10 English words each day.

Sonja graduated from Santa Monica High School and attended Santa Monica City College. Then, on May 10, 1958, she married Larry Faber and together they had three daughters: Deborah, born in 1959; Michele, in 1963; and Lisa, in 1965.

Sonja said she has always felt like a survivor. In 1964, she was in a serious car accident, which led to two unsuccessful back surgeries. She was told, erroneously, she would never walk again.

In 1965, she enrolled at West Valley Occupational Center, where she learned medical office skills. She worked for several doctors, retiring in 2005.

Sonja also survived what she described as “a difficult divorce” in 1983, as well as two bouts of cancer, in 1986 and 1996.

Grace, Sonja’s sister, died at age 46, in 1992, of complications from multiple sclerosis. Their father died in 1989, their mother in 1994.

In May 2000, Sonja traveled to Holland to witness Moe Heidel being recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. She also visited the house on Oud Heinstraat, where subsequent owners have preserved and continued to honor the hiding place.

While Sonja has always suffered a deep sense of abandonment, today she values her 24-year marriage to her second husband, Leon Telias. She also enjoys spending time with her three daughters, their husbands and her nine grandchildren.

“There are good people in the world who make the best of everything,” Sonja said.