It’s one thing to read about historical events or see them depicted on television and in the movies. However, it’s much more powerful to hear about these events from someone who grew up surrounded by memories of them.
On Tuesday, January 29, a representation of students from all five area high schools and Winding Waters K-8 School gathered at Springstead High School Theater to listen to a riveting presentation by local author Roslyn Franken relating the experiences of her parents who were both imprisoned during World War II.
Interim Hernando County School Superintendent John Stratton welcomed the students, teachers and members of the public who made up the audience of approximately six hundred people. He thanked Mr. Carmine Rufa, Springstead High School principal, for hosting the program, along with the Hernando County Education Foundation and school board member Linda Prescott for bringing Ms. Franken in to speak.
History teacher, Michael Cooper, stated in his introduction, “Roslyn Franken has dedicated her life to trying to be an inspiration to others.”
Utilizing a Powerpoint presentation, Ms. Franken told about her mother, Sonja, a young Jewish girl growing up in the Netherlands. When the Nazis came to power Sonja and her family were sent to concentration camps. During several years of imprisonment, her mother cheated death numerous times. She stood up to a Nazi guard who pointed a gun at her head and narrowly avoided dying in the gas chambers three times.
On the other side of the world at the same time, her father was a prisoner of war in Japan. John grew up in Indonesia which was a Dutch colony at the time. Shortly after being drafted into the Dutch Navy, he was captured and sent to a POW camp. He survived through his wits and determination, eventually ending up working as a slave laborer in a coal mine in Nagasaki, Japan. When the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, John was thousands of feet below ground and survived the blast.
Many years later, John and Sonja met through a mutual friend. They married shortly afterward and raised a family in Montreal, Canada. Ms. Franken tells their incredible story in her book, Meant to Be, a True Story of Might, Miracles, and Triumph of the Human Spirit.
Several themes permeated Ms. Franken’s book and her presentation. One is her belief that her parents’ survival and triumph over their incredible challenges was not a matter of luck or coincidence, but it was “meant to be.” Even her mother’s surviving cancer at age fifty when she was given a grim diagnosis was “meant to be.” Ms. Franken, herself, developed cancer at the young age of twenty-nine and it was her mother’s example of a fighting spirit that brought her through the battle.
Another theme that Ms. Franken brought up is that it is very important to maintain a positive attitude, even if we have suffered through negative experiences.
When asked by a student if all the Holocaust survivors had the determination and positivity of her parents, Ms. Franken replied, “Some people choose to be bitter about their experiences. My parents chose to be better. We all have a choice. You can be bitter or you can be better.”
Perhaps the most important theme that Ms. Franken expounded on is the destructive nature of hate and discrimination.
“We cannot forget those times [World War II] because we need to be reminded of what this kind of hate, evil and discrimination can lead to if we don’t stop it. This is about remembering who we are and where we come from as human beings regardless of our nationalities, our religious beliefs, the color of our skin or anything else that differentiates us so that we can live with tolerance instead of terrorism, with harmony instead of hate, with more kindness, caring and compassion instead of all this killing and chaos and that we pursue goodness and peace instead of greed and power.”
After the presentation, students were invited to make comments and ask questions. Their comments showed that even the youngest among the group had taken Ms. Franken’s story to heart.
Victoria Manella, a seventh-grader at Winding Waters, stated, “The speech was very touching to me and a lesson for people to keep trying.”
Austin Alley, also in seventh grade remarked, ” I thought it was a very moving story on how everything happens for a reason.”
One high school student observed, “You are one of the most inspirational speakers I’ve heard. Audiences around the world – kids, adults, adolescents have to hear your story and understand that every day that you get up and you have your health and you have your freedom is a blessing.”
Springstead High School tenth grader, Abby Marks commented, “I think this was an amazing story. Growing up I heard a lot about WWII. It’s amazing that two people could experience such horrible conditions and they come out of it with such positive attitudes about life.”
André Brooks a ninth-grade student at Springstead remarked, “It’s a very inspirational story about courage, how you’re put in the worst conditions and you still make it through.”
Haileigh Singer, a Springstead tenth grader stated, “I think that what shocked me the most was learning that she [Ms. Franken’s mother] survived the gas chambers. I’d never think they [the Nazis] could run out of gas.”
Ruby Silver, a Senior at Springstead, remarked, “I think it’s important that we keep sharing these stories and we keep addressing that this happened, but that we also keep showing that there are positive things that came out of it. That we just don’t address the negative.”
It was evident that Ms. Franken was also touched by the students’ reception of her presentation and their grasp of the implications of her parents’ story.
“I really felt that the students were paying attention, not just with their ears, but with their minds and hearts as I asked them to do. To have a full room standing ovation from students cheering me on the way they did, as well as the number of insightful comments and questions afterward was also extremely rewarding.”
“One young lady mentioned something about having a difficult home life. She said that listening to my presentation about what my parents suffered and were able to not just survive, but also thrive beyond, was extremely inspirational for her. Knowing that my parents and I were able to inspire her with a greater sense of hope in her own struggles is a feeling that is beyond words,” Ms. Franken concluded.
The school system and the Hernando County Education Foundation are to be commended for bringing such a worthwhile program to the schools – one that teaches, not just about the past, but how the past relates to the present and the future. It is hoped that more of these types of educational programs will be available to our students.