Sonia Kam, who lives in Riverdale, likes to talk about her happy family life and celebrating Chanukah and other Jewish holidays while living in Belgium as a young girl. Kam, who is turning 89 on New Year’s Day, especially liked Chanukah, when she was given small gifts from her parents and coins for riding the merry-go-round, and lit the Chanukah menorah.
On December 22, Kam attended the Selfhelp Community Services annual Chanukah party held for Holocaust survivors in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Kam often attends Selfhelp events and enjoyed celebrating with her friends at the Chanukah party.
Katie Foley, director, public affairs, Selfhelp Community Services, explained the importance of the gathering: “On December 22, Holocasut survivors served by Selfhelp Community Services gathered together to mark the first night of the last Chanukah of the decade. As an organization, celebrating Chanukah allows us to uphold tradition, create connections, while offering older New Yorkers the comfort of the holiday. This comfort is a reminder: though change is constant, holidays and traditions withstand the test of time. This year we’re focused on helping the thousands of Holocaust survivors reflect on their own traditions of lighting the menorah and enjoying the opportunity to come together and celebrate.”
Kam was born in Germany. Her father and mother were living in Belgium, but her mother returned home to Germany to be with her parents prior to Kam’s birth in 1931. A few weeks later, with their new baby in tow, Kam’s parents returned to Belgium, where Kam was raised, along with her younger sister, Hanni, born several years later. Kam’s grandparents would not leave Germany; they were enjoying a good lifestyle and did not want to believe they were in any danger. Kam’s grandparents and many members of the family died in the Holocaust. Kam’s father, who had been a professional football player, was rounded up with many others and killed in Auschwitz. Only Kam, her mother and her sister survived the war.
Kam said, “It was pure luck that we survived. It’s not that one person was smarter than another person. It was just luck.”
In 1949, Kam, at the age of 18, traveled to America on her own, without being able to speak a word of English, planning to meet up with an uncle who lived in New York. She couldn’t believe that her uncle did not meet her when the boat landed, but she found her way to a Girls’ Club in Brooklyn where she rented a room and, almost immediately, found a job working for the Bulova watch company. Her mother and sister followed Kam to New York two years later.
Sonia and Charles (now deceased) Kam married in 1954. They have two children, a son who lives in Florida and a daughter who lives in Israel, and five grandchildren. She told us the irony of her life story is that her Israeli son-in-law is the current ambassador from Israel to Germany and their family has been living in Germany for the past two years. When Kam was growing up, her mother often spoke of the little park near their home in Germany. When Kam visited her children in Germany, she found the park her mother reminisced about. The rest of the town had been demolished.
The Kams owned a stationery store in Riverdale, where the family lived for many years. Kam reflected on the importance of upholding traditions. Her family was not overly religious, but it was important for them to light the Chanukah menorah and celebrate with gifts and latkes, like her family had been doing for generations.
Kam, who volunteers in the gift shop of a local nursing home, also participates in an intergenerational group facilitated by a Selfhelp social worker, bringing Holocaust survivors together with SAR High School students. Conducted for many years, the group meets for two six-week sessions in the spring and fall at the Riverdale Y. During the weekly meetings, survivors share their stories about their history and lives today, and topics are discussed that bring the students and survivors a sense of connection and meaning. The 2019 fall session consisted of 15 survivors and 20 SAR students in their sophomore and senior years. The group’s “Chanukah Meeting” involved participants preparing Chanukah gifts and cards for homebound survivors, as well as a pizza party. Student participants are all volunteers. In addition to the Selfhelp social worker, the group consists of a teacher and two student leaders who plan discussion topics.
Selfhelp Community Services was founded in 1936 to help refugees fleeing Nazi Germany maintain their independence and dignity as they struggled to forge new lives in America. Today, the organization serves nearly 20,000 older adults and vulnerable individuals throughout New York City and Nassau County. Survivors served by Selfhelp have celebrated Chanukah for seven, eight, nine or even 10 decades! For someone like Sonia Kam, these celebrations help maintain traditions and connections.
By Yvette Finkelstein