Everyone’s existence can be attributed to bashert to varying degrees, but Roslyn Franken’s belief that she was “meant to be” is not an idle boast.
During the Second World War, her father was held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war for 3½ years and was in Nagasaki when the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb. He survived only because he was underground, toiling in a coalmine.
Her mother survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps as a teenager. On three separate occasions, she was sent to the gas chamber, and each time, her life was spared because of a malfunction.
Both endured near-starvation, disease and daily brutality.
Franken has written an inspirational book, titled, Meant to Be: A True Story of Might, Miracles and Triumph of the Human Spirit, as a tribute to her remarkable parents’ will to live and to share her own wonderment and gratitude for being here today.
Franken, 52, was born and raised in Montreal by John and Sonja Franken, who passed away in 2016 and 2004, respectively. Though she now lives in Ottawa, Franken returned to her hometown recently to launch Meant to Be (a frequent saying of her father’s) at Congregation Shomrim Laboker, her family’s old synagogue.
Their stories are filled with what can only be described as incredible strokes of luck, coincidences or acts of divine intervention, which allowed John and Sonja (née Pagrach) Franken to get out of the war alive, meet, marry and make a new life together in Canada.
Their daughter oscillates between whether this was the result of predestiny, or “the power of choice.” What she is certain about is that her parents’ example of perseverance and positivity has helped her cope with her own challenges, including a bout with cancer when she was 29.
“It’s (a) miracle I’m here,” she says. Watching how her parents kept going helped her get through her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as other personal trials, such as divorce, financial troubles and a car accident.
John Franken was born in 1922 in the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where his Dutch parents owned a small hotel. At 18, he was drafted into the Dutch Armed Forces and a few months later, the Netherlands and Japan went to war.
John Franken’s ship was captured by the Japanese as it sailed for Australia. After nine months in a PoW camp in the East Indies, he and the other crew were relocated to Nagasaki, where they were put to work as slave labourers in the shipyards.
He actually volunteered for the coal mine, mainly because it meant that he would get a regular shower, rather than one every 10 days, according to his daughter.
That may seem like an irrational decision, but it saved his life, she points out. Her father did not know what the huge explosion was until days later, when the Americans liberated him and he saw the devastation first-hand.
A qualified aircraft mechanic, he emigrated from the Netherlands to Montreal in 1951 and went to work for Canadair, and later for Air Canada.
Sonja Franken, who survived with two of her sisters, lost three other siblings and her parents in the Holocaust. The three girls, who were separated from the rest of the family, were put to work as slave labourers at the Philips electronics company in the Netherlands; then, after being deported to Auschwitz, they did backbreaking railroad work.
On at least two occasions, Sonja escaped summary execution due to her courageous actions, her daughter relates.
When she returned to her small town of Rijssen, she discovered their home occupied by strangers.
Unlucky in love for some years, Sonja was introduced to John by correspondence. They married in 1960 and Sonja made the leap of faith to join him in Montreal.
The cover of Meant to Be bears a charming photo of the young couple gazing into each other’s eyes, which was taken just after they first met in Amsterdam.
Although never rich, they made a happy home for themselves and were unfailingly cheerful, says their daughter, because they were grateful for each day they had.
When they developed serious health problems, each of them beat the prognoses. At 56, Sonja was diagnosed with late-stage cancer of the stomach lining. She was given a couple of years, but lived another 22, despite several recurrences.
‘It’s a miracle I’m here.’
“Hitler didn’t get me and neither will my cancer; I have too much to live for,” Franken recalls her mother declaring.
At 67, John Franken had a massive heart attack and underwent a quintuple bypass. Doctors also gave him a bleak outlook, but he lived to 94 – and they were good years.
Until he was no longer able, he led a campaign to get Japan to apologize for its abhorrent treatment of PoWs and civilians, including the so-called “comfort women” – girls captured in occupied territories whose sexual abuse he witnessed – during the Second World War.
Every year, he demonstrated outside the Japanese embassy in Ottawa.
“My parents believed that each of the miracles bestowed upon them was meant to be,” Franken says, and she is convinced that a higher power is at work in all our lives, but God can only do his part if we do ours, as well.