Beacon of Light in a
Time of Darkness
By Carin Chea
Vivianne Knebel's story is one for the ages, but especially now during a time where the social, political, and material climate can be described as "bleak" on its most optimistic day.
Vivianne has endured intense physical, emotional, political oppression and struggle in the most visceral ways since the day she was born. Many would say that she experienced more trauma before the age of fourteen than many will in their lifetimes.
In her memoir, From Rubble to Champagne, Knebel courageously shares her story with the bravery that she has sustained her entire life. In bleak times such as these, her story is one we should all hear.
Is your name pronounced Vivian or Vivi-anne?
In French, it's Vivi-anne, but here in American it's Vivian.
Have you always been a writer?
No, I have a story in me which is my life. It's an unusual one with hardships. It's a Cinderella story. I know that sounds cliché, but it's true because the end is beautiful but the beginning was so hard. I wanted to share that with the world.
As long as you have hope, things will get better. I had so many strikes against me. I was born as an illegitimate child in Nazi, Germany (in Berlin). My mother was a free-spirited woman, but fiercely devoted to her children. Everyone at that time looked down on illegitimacy.
My sister was illegitimate as well, from another father, so that was another strike. However, I did have an extremely loving mother who instilled compassion in us. It was tough.
Being a foreigner, I swear, if Germany would have won the war, they would have eliminated me as well because they hated foreigners. Since I had no father, I was deemed stateless in my mother's passport. That was another strike.
They wouldn't accept me as a German even though I was born there. On top of that my mother gave me a French name, which was another strike against me. We joke about it now, but back then it was difficult.
What or who inspired you to write From Rubble to Champagne? Describe the moment when you knew you had to write this memoir.
I always knew I had a movie or story within me. It has so many facets. I felt it was a story that needed to be out there, and it has a woman's voice.
I wrote it as a gift for my husband, for his 80th birthday. When I met him, my life changed. It was like a pendulum that swung from one end to another. I went from a life of despair and hopelessness, to one full of hope. He inspired me to live a life that I didn't realize I could. I wrote this book out of gratitude to him.
This book is about gratitude. I'm living this incredible life now, but if I look back, I came from nothing. He always told me, "You can do it!" I ran a marathon, I learned to pilot a plane. I also had trouble in school, not because I was incapable, but I needed a different method. I was left behind in school and the teacher said I was dumb. That was another strike. That was so hard.
Hunger and cold were a constant. We were always hungry, always cold because after the war there were only rubbles and ruin. My sister wouldn't go and beg because she was a beautiful child. She was revered.
I would stand beside her and feel inferior because I never got the lavish praises she got. I survived because I always ran the extra mile. I want to show people that I can do things, and I'm like that still.
When I was about seven, my mother met an old schoolmate. He had just returned from being incarcerated in Siberia for 5 years. That changed him forever. He was also a custom tailor.
One day, my mother brought him home and said, "Now you have a father." I was delighted and called him papa right away. My sister, who is two and a half years older, was more hesitant. He provided for us regularly and we no longer had to beg.
Because he was a tailor, he made clothes for us, but when he moved in with us, there was another side of him. He drank on weekends, and he and my mother had brutal verbal fights.
What is the main message you'd like your readers to get from your book?
There's always hope. Obstacles can be overcome. I want to encourage anyone who is in despair or feels suppressed to always have hope and determination. I was always determined.
Determination and perseverance - those things are key. Things will get better. Life is not static. Hope and gratitude are important. They unlock life.
It's not just good enough to have a good job. Perseverance and resilience are key. The beauty is that resilience can be learned. This time we're in is very challenging. People need to have this message of hope. This is a good time to give people this message.
What have you learned from your experience writing From Rubble to Champagne?
It felt liberating to me. I have a need to help others, perhaps young people. I tried to commit suicide at the age of seventeen. That was the lowest point of my life.
When I was fourteen, I left school and immigrated to Canada. My mother had married this man (the one whom she had fights with) and she encouraged him to immigrate to Canada.
The first year we were hungry there because he couldn't find a job as a tailor. So, my mother went to the church and the priest gave us $35 out of sympathy.
I went into the work force at the age of fourteen. My mother had to get a special permit because of child labor laws. I worked for a dentist who wanted to teach me to become a dental assistance. I was excited for that.
But, from there, I experienced serious sexual harassment from one of his friends who would be there when the dentist wasn't there.
So, I left that office, and from there, I worked at Woolworth's. I worked at the lunch counter, at the sandwich station. I took pride in making the best sandwiches - I gave it my all! I had a drive to improve my station in life. I went to night school and learned typing and stenography. I was self-taught.
Eventually, I left Woolworth's and went to Volkswagen. I was so unhappy in the accounting department working with women who were twice my age and had no aspirations of advancing. It was boring and depressing; there was no motivation there.
In the meantime, I purchased a used car. I heard somewhere that if you closed the garage door and started the car, the carbon monoxide would bring you to your end.
But, then, a little girl appeared in front of me. She must have been six years old. I still remember her cropped hair and short dress. She asked me, "What are you doing?" And, I told her, "I'm going to wash my car."
I then realized she came in through the side door. It was such a small garage and she just appeared from nowhere. She saved my life. She skipped off blissfully, not even aware that she had saved my life.
Anyway, while working at Volkswagen as a secretary, one day a man walked in, bought a Porsche, and became my husband.
If you were to sum up your book in a few sentences, what would you say?
It's a book of gratitude for my husband, and a book of hope for others. I think we need to be grateful for every little thing.
At the root of gratitude is paying attention - noticing and giving thanks to the ordinary.
Are there any follow-ups to your book, or any future projects you'd like to tell us about?
I don't see it, really. This book engages a sole purpose; I want to help others and give my husband that recognition for all that he has done for me.
If you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, what would you say to her, and at what age?
I would approach her quite young, and say, "Keep doing what you're doing. Always put your best foot forward. Persevere. Have willpower. Never give up."
That's a message I want to give to young people - have hope. Things will change. I went through that pain.
In their hearts, their pain is real and they think life will always be like that. I turned seventy-seven this month, and it really feels like my life is just beginning.
You mentioned before that your life could be a movie. Who would play you in a movie?
It would have to be someone with character. I love to watch old movies, the black and whites. Like Bette Davis. She has to be dramatic because my life was drama, and then it just blossomed, and I blossomed along with it!
You know, when people meet me, they think I'm full of confidence, but when I started out, I was the weakest link. I grew into my confidence. I brought out what was already in me.
When I went to New York and saw Les Misérables, that little girl on the poster? She reminded me so much of myself.
That is a very strong image that pretty much everyone knows! And you see all the sadness in her eyes, too. Do you have anything to add or advice to give?
Yes! Go to your local dealership and you can meet your future husband there!
Just the right message to hear during these times! While I check out the local Lexus dealership, feel free to peruse Vivianne's book here.
You can also find photos of Vivianne and more information about her story on her website at VivianneKnebel.com.
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