February 8, 2006
CHAPEL HILL – The children of Johannes (Hans) and Sonja van der Horst have established a distinguished professorship in Jewish studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in honor of their parents – and in fulfillment of the wishes of Sonja van der Horst, a Holocaust survivor.
The family used Holocaust reparation funds to establish the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish Studies; their gift qualifies for matching funds from the state endowment trust funds. UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences will conduct a search to fill the position with a scholar whose teaching and research will contribute to the work of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.
"My parents were always interested in public education and religious and racial tolerance," said Dr. Charles van der Horst, a professor of medicine at UNC. "It is fitting to honor them through this distinguished professorship at the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, where the teaching and study of Jewish history and culture is flourishing at a leading public university committed to providing a first-rate education to a diverse student body."
Sonja van der Horst was still a teen when the Nazis invaded Poland, executed her father and sister, sent her mother to die at a concentration camp and began the systematic elimination of 18,000 Jews in her hometown of Tarnopol. She survived the Holocaust by assuming false identities and working under Nazi watch in German labor camps.
After the war, Hans and Sonja van der Horst immigrated to the United States and spent their lives supporting organizations that promote public education, civil rights, religious freedom and Jewish culture. Hans van der Horst, a chemical engineer who was fluent in seven languages, died in 1978.
Last fall, Sonja van der Horst, nearly 82 years old at the time, learned that she had a brain tumor. She had received Holocaust reparation funds and had invested them since the early 1960s – and she decided to use them to establish a distinguished professorship at UNC to be filled by an expert in Jewish history and culture, enhancing knowledge of the culture that Hitler had tried to destroy.
In January, as Sonja van der Horst’s illness was advancing, her grown children acted quickly to fulfill her wish. Charles van der Horst; Roger van der Horst, the education editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh; Jacqueline van der Horst Sergent, a 1982 master of public health graduate of UNC and health promotion coordinator at the Granville Vance District Health Department in Oxford; and Tatjana Schwendinger, chief administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in St. Louis, established the professorship.
"We’re deeply moved that the family has chosen to honor Hans and Sonja van der Horst in this manner," said Dr. Jonathan Hess, director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. "Close to 1,000 undergraduates enroll in Jewish studies courses at Carolina each year, and student interest in Jewish history and culture is clearly on the rise. The Van der Horst Professorship will enable us to recruit another leader in the field to teach at UNC, bringing us closer to our goal of creating a Jewish studies program with national prominence."
Sonja van der Horst was born Chaya Eichenbaum Teichholz on Dec. 16, 1923, in Tarnopol, Poland. The Nazis entered the town on July 2, 1941, and killed 5,000 Jews in one week alone. After her family was destroyed, Chaya hid under a series of false identities, the last being Sonja Tarasowa. She eventually boarded a train carrying non-Jewish workers to labor sites in Germany, where she worked at a coal mine, a lumberyard and a farm. At the end of the war, she was a translator for the English forces.
Johannes Martinus Arnold van der Horst was born Sept. 22, 1918, in the Netherlands. He fought the Nazis in the Dutch Army and was a scout with the U.S. Armed Forces invasion of southern France in 1944. At the end of the war, he worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and met his future wife when he took Russian lessons from her.
In the summer of 1945, the Soviets began the forced repatriation of displaced persons to their countries of origin. English friends agreed to hide Sonja. When Sonja told Hans her story, he asked her to marry him. They were wed in the Netherlands that year and left for the United States in 1952, eventually settling in Olean, N.Y.
The Van der Horst gift counts toward the university’s Carolina First Campaign goal of $2 billion. Carolina First is a comprehensive, multi-year, private fund-raising campaign to support Carolina’s vision of becoming the nation’s leading public university.
More information about Sonja and Hans van der Horst and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies is available at www.sonjavanderhorst.org