Sonia came to live in New Zealand in 1941; she was 26yrs of age. Born in 1914, the eldest of five siblings, her early years spanned two World Wars. Sonia was born in Widze, Lithuania (today it is in Belarus), the family also lived in Saratov, Russia then Riga in Latvia. When Sonia was 11yrs of age they settled in Ponewesz Lithuania. Sonia recalled having a very sheltered life as a child. She enjoyed the regular family holidays at Riga on the Baltic Sea; she enjoyed school and the company of her friends.
Sonia’s Father, Moshe Nechemia Zilberman was a grain trader, labourer and worked in a paint factory. His father too had been a trader. Sonia’s father did not serve in the First World War due to his health.
The family were observant Jews but not orthodox. Her Father attended Shule regularly and was the Treasurer. The family always shared Seders with Sonia’s grandparents and kept Shabbat, for one exception; Sonia had to still attend school. However she was exempt from writing on Shabbat. Sonia said that she did not experience anti-Semitism while at school, only as a young adult did she then realise the immediate threat to herself, her family and the Jewish community.
Sonia grew up speaking, Russian, Lithuanian and some Yiddish. Education was highly valued and she grew up surrounded by books. Sonia attended an all girls gymnasium and did well in her studies. In 1932, Sonia went to Kaunas University and studied pharmacology, for almost 6 years. She gained some paid work experience in a local chemist for just one month before the Russians invaded Lithuania.
Sonia was married in March, 1939 to Bezalel Svirskis in Radwilichkis Lithuania. They had been childhood friends and long time neighbours. When Sonia was married she remembered her mother’n law asking her to keep a kosher home to which she agreed. Bezalel studied at Yeshiva for a short period before taking up work as a manager on a building site. He left Germany and came to NZ in 1939, just one week before war broke out. He then saved enough money to pay for Sonia’s transport out of Germany the following year. Sonia’s Father did not follow the rest of his extended family and leave Lithuania early on, his two brothers and three sisters and their families all immigrated to South Africa. Sonia lost touch with her parents and her brothers. It is presumed they perished. Her sister Roza left Lithuania for South Africa.
Sonia left Lithuania in December 1940, just before New Year’s Eve. She travelled by herself on the Trans-Siberian railway from Lithuania through Siberia to Vladivostok - Russia, eventually arriving by boat in Kobe, Japan. There she had to wait for 20 days until she got passage on another ship to Australia and then to NZ. Bezalel had arranged accommodation for her at a Cooks Hotel; but Sonia did not have any money when she arrived and therefore had to stay her first night at the HAIS refugee camp. When she finally did get to the hotel and was able to rest in such luxurious accommodation she thought that her husband must be a millionaire. Sonia arrived in Auckland February 1941. Sonia and Bezalel had four children – three survive today. Sonia later moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1989 and passed away in 1998.
Sonia was interviewed in 1994 by the Jewish Oral History group. An excerpt from her interview is used for the accompanying podcast.
Header Image (above:) Sonia Svirskis. Image/Permission to reproduce from the Svirskis family © JoM