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Sofia's Story

 Three years ago I had the privilege of meeting a lady named Sofia Yovanovich through the Befrienders group of ESRA. I started visiting Sofia once a week, for a couple of hours each time. She had requested a Befriender from ESRA, so that she could practice her English.

Although she lives in Netanya and I in Petah Tikva, I agreed to go, even though it was a bit far. The first time I visited her, I wasn't sure whom I would meet - I knew nothing about her - I just knew I wanted to bring some company to a lonely person. After three years I can say it was the right decision. I look forward every Monday to spending a couple of hours with Sofia and listening to her stories.

She is almost 90 years old, with a very lucid mind, although she has a few physical problems. Sofia's story is quite unbelievable: She was born in the former Yugoslavia to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father in October 1926. Religion was not an issue in the family. Both parents respected each other, but being born to a Jewish mother according to Judaism the child is Jewish.

Sofia was an only child, and lived a very happy and carefree childhood until the war broke out. Most of her family on her mother's side were taken and killed by Hungarian troops. Sofia's father, since he was not Jewish, had to save his Jewish wife and child, so he hid them in the cellar of their house and brought them food and water. There was always a shortage of food, so he sold some of their belongings to provide for his wife and daughter. At night, when it was safe and no one was around, Sofia and her mother would come outside for some fresh air for short periods of time, otherwise they spent their days and nights in the dark, damp cellar. There was one small brick in the wall that they would remove to get some air during the day. They were there for almost one year. It meant that Sofia could not go to school or meet her friends, so as a teenager she missed many good times.

At the beginning when the troops came looking for Jews with their dogs that had been trained to sniff out Jews, Sofia's father sprayed pepper all around the entrance so the dogs could not smell, and when asked about his wife and child, he told them they had been deported to Germany. When the war ended life slowly got back to normal for Sofia and her parents, although it would never be the same again - so many relatives gone, and such terrible memories could not be erased easily, if ever.

But Sofia was one of those survivors who somehow are very strong people and set their minds to making a new life for themselves. She finished high school and set out for the big city, to go to university where she studied languages, including English and German. To this day she still speaks and reads in six or seven languages. She did not want to be a burden to her parents and wanted to be independent, so she worked to support herself by translating foreign movies into Serbian, sometimes working through the night to meet deadlines, sleeping 1-2 hours and then going to classes. She was determined to make a good life for herself and make her parents proud of her.

At age 24 she got married to a man who was an archaeologist. They had a problematic marriage; he was a very demanding man, and made her life difficult. She got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy who unfortunately died of meningitis at the age of six months. This was very traumatic and did not help the relationship between Sofia and her husband. But she continued to stay with him and they moved to Germany for a period of time and then to Tunisia, both locations for her husband's job. She became a housewife and had to entertain all their guests, which she did with class. She enjoyed cooking and entertaining and also enjoyed sewing her own clothes. From the outside, everything looked wonderful but she was tied to her husband, and he would not let her go anywhere; in fact he took her passport away, so she could not leave.

She was at her wits end when an "angel", as she calls it, came to visit her husband and somehow found out that Sofia was unable to travel due to the lack of a passport. This "angel" provided her with a passport and she was able to flee from Tunisia and return home.

Finally, after 20 years of a bad marriage, she left and went back to Belgrade, to her mother and her friends.

At that point she had to start providing for herself again so she went to look for a job and because her strength was languages, she was able to get a job at the American Embassy, followed by the Indonesian Embassy and finally the Ethiopian Embassy. In all three embassies she held high ranking positions, working directly with the ambassadors as their secretary and translator. Five years after leaving her husband, Sofia finally got her divorce. Eventually she got married again and it was a very happy union, but unfortunately, short lived; her second husband died in a car accident after four years of marriage - the end of romance in Sofia's life.

In her spare time, she visited her many friends. Sofia managed to save enough money to buy an apartment in Belgrade, which was not an easy task, but with hard work she succeeded. She dedicated her time to her mother until she passed away

in 1985.Sofia decided to follow her mother's advice, which was, "Sofia, go home", meaning 'move to Israel', which she did in 1987 via Vienna. This was her dream come true. She had two aunts who had survived Auschwitz and had moved to Israel. She contacted them, but did not receive much help from either. However, Sofia, being the independent and resourceful person she always was, contacted ESRA, and they helped her find a job working as a "nanny" with a wonderful family in Herzliya. They had three daughters and wanted a reliable person who would look after them while the parents worked. So for six years Sofia tended the three girls, taught them English, cooking, manners and general life skills. It was a win-win situation - the parents did not have to worry at all about their daughters and Sofia found the children she had never had. After six years, the family decided to move to Modiin, and asked Sofia to come with them. But the time had come for Sofia to move on; she was getting on in age, and so she looked for a place to live, and found a hostel in Netanya through the help of someone at the Herzliya municipality. It was not an easy move since she did not know anyone in the new place, but Sofia was used to changes even at this late stage in her life, and she adapted. She made some friends, taught English to the other residents, and so life went on.

ESRA has played an important role in Sofia's life in Israel, and she is very grateful to the organization for all the help it has given her. She tries to reciprocate by collecting items for the second-hand store from all her neighbors, and telling everyone how wonderful the organization is.

Health-wise Sofia has had many ups and downs and the fact that she was hidden in a cold damp cellar for almost a year caused many health problems, mainly with her bones. But Sofia is a survivor and she continues her life as best she can. I was fortunate to have met her, and we became good friends. I have tried to help her in whatever way I can, but she is quite capable of managing her own life. I enjoy our afternoons together, and look forward to many more.



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Tuesday, 05 March 2024

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