Palo Alto artist, Holocaust survivor dies at age 71

Like many Holocaust survivors, Sonya Loebner spent much of her life trying to put those experiences behind her.

But the Palo Alto artist began opening up about her war years after her husband and fellow concentration-camp survivor, Egon Loebner, died in 1989.

She became a founding member 3-1/2 years ago of the Peninsula chapter of Tikvah, a survivors' support group. She also began talking to schoolchildren about her life in Auschwitz.

On Sept. 9, Loebner died at age 71 in Mountain View's El Camino Hospital after an extended illness related to diabetes.

Gary Loebner, one of Loebner's three children, said his father was long the family's Holocaust "spokesman." Egon Loebner traveled to Germany three times to testify at the war crimes trial of a Nazi corporal, for example. But apparently Sonya Loebner felt the need to continue her husband's efforts after his death six years ago.

"I feel good for her that she was able to do that," Gary Loebner said.

Born Sonya Sajovics in Bilky, in what was then Czechoslovakia, she was sent to Auschwitz in early 1944. She worked in a camp warehouse, sorting prisoners' clothing. Her parents and two of her three sisters perished in the camps, while her brother fought as part of an underground resistance group.

In January 1945, she became one of the thousands forced to join what was later termed the March of the Dead. She and her sister Terry were finally liberated by American troops in April 1945 on a road in Poland.

She met her future husband at Rosh Hashanah services after the war in his hometown of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. They immigrated separately to the United States in the late 1940s and then married in New York in 1950. She earned a master's degree in early childhood development.

The couple lived in Massachusetts and New Jersey before moving to Palo Alto in 1961, when Egon Loebner became a researcher for Hewlett-Packard.

The family lived for two years in Moscow in the mid-1970s while Egon Loebner worked for the American Embassy there. In 1975, the Loebners were part of the official American delegation to the 30th anniversary celebration of the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

Sonya Loebner spoke seven languages, including Russian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Czechoslovakian. She used her talent for languages by volunteering as a tutor of children and seniors who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

She was a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

As an impressionist-abstract painter, Loebner concentrated on landscapes, still lifes and portraits. She painted nothing related to her Holocaust experience, Gary Loebner said.

"She was trying to get beyond all that," he said. "She was always looking for life and beauty."

Eva Maiden, coordinator for Tikvah's Peninsula chapter, agreed.

"She was very remarkable," Maiden said. "Her life demonstrated that a person can transcend the horrors of the Holocaust."

Services were held Sept. 12, and she was buried at Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma. She is survived by her sons, Gary and Ben Loebner, both of Los Altos; her daughter, Dr. Mindy Loebner of Portland, Ore.; her brother, Aaron Sage of Los Angeles; and five grandchildren.

Memorial contributions can be made to Congregation Beth Am's Egon and Sonya Loebner Holocaust Remembrance Fund, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills, CA 94022.