The life of Holocaust survivor Sonja van der Horst is honored by the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish Studies. The fund was established in memory of van de Horst and her husband, Johannes (Hans), by their four children, Charles van der Horst, a professor of medicine at Carolina; Roger van der Horst, an education editor at The News & Observer; Jacqueline van der Horst Sergent ’82, a health promotion coordinator at Granville Vance District Health Department in Oxford, N.C.; and Tatjana Schwendinger, chief administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in St. Louis.

The family’s gift of $666,000 was supplemented with $334,000 in state matching funds by the states Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund to create a $1 million professorship.

As a teenager forced to live in a Jewish ghetto in Tarnopol, then in Poland, during World War II, Sonja dared a Nazi soldier to shoot her.  He had ordered her to leave the basement where she was hiding. Instead of shooting her, the Nazi soldier hit her on the head and let her be. She soon learned that her mother, father and sisters were killed by Nazis.

Sonja made an escape plan. She snuck onto a Russian train headed for Dortmund, Germany.  She changed her name from Chaya Eichenbaum Teichholz, to Sofia Kubasyk and eventually to Sonja Tarasowa to blend in with the Russians. She worked in Germany as a slave laborer at a mine, a lumber company and a couple of farms until the end of the war. Sonja then made her way to the town of Greven, where United Nations officials were processing refugees.  There, she met Johannes Martinus Arnold “Hans” van der Horts, a Dutch man who was working for the UN. She spoke no English and Hans spoke no Russian. The two met for language lessons often.  Sonja later faced deportation to the Soviet Union and decided to go into hiding. When Sonja told Hans the news, he said, “Why don’t you marry me?” Sonja said, “Why not?”  Although the two had not courted, Sonja liked what Hans stood for and knew he was a good man.

After living with her in-laws in Holland and learning Dutch, Sonja and Hans decided to move to New York in 1949.  There, the two raised their four children and spent their lives supporting organizations that promote public education, civil rights, religious freedom and Jewish culture.

In October 2005, Sonja was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died a year later, at age 82, surviving her husband Hans, a chemical engineer who was fluent in seven languages, by 28 years.

Since the 1960s, Sonja saved monthly reparations checks from Germany. These checks were combined to create the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish Studies.

(Excerpts taken from 2006 News and Observer articles by Jane Stancill “A survivor’s enduring gift.” and “Sonja van der Horst, 82, Holocaust survivor funded Jewish studies at UNC-CH.”)

The JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professor in Jewish Studies:

Flora Cassen