Roslyn Franken doesn’t take life for granted.
She understands its precarious nature.
Her father was a prisoner of war in Japan, surviving the Nagasaki atomic bombing.
Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and later, a cancer survivor.
And, in 1994, the then 29-year-old Franken also survived cancer.
She shares what she has learned through her book, “Meant to Be: A True Story of Might, Miracles and Triumph of the Human Spirit,” and through inspirational talks.
She spoke on Jan. 24, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Hugh Embry Library in Dade City.
Franken, who lives in St. Petersburg, delivered a clear message: Take life as it comes, and be grateful for every blessing received.
“As we’re going through our lives, it’s so easy to just coast along,” Franken said.
“A lot of us are on automatic pilot, just so busy trying to get everything done on our to-do list that we neglect things that are most important and meaningful.”
She offered guidelines to members of the audience, to help them live fulfilling lives. She advised them:
- Choose to be happy now
- Stop being a victim of past events and circumstances
- Be grateful for what you have
- Make the best choices you can everyday
Her personal battle with cancer, along with her parents’ experiences in captivity, give her perspective regarding the challenges of daily life.
“Things happen,” she said, “but, we can all find a way to keep going.”
Perhaps the most remarkable element of Franken’s presentation was the retelling of the story of her mother’s survival of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Franken’s mother, Sonja, was 15 years old when she was forced from her family’s home in the Netherlands and taken to the first of 11 different concentration camps.
One of those camps was Auschwitz, arguably the most notorious extermination camp built and operated by the Third Reich.
It was there where Sonja was tattooed on her left arm. The numbers read “78491.”
“The living conditions were brutal,” Franken told the audience. “For people who weren’t killed in the gas chambers, they would die of starvation, malnutrition, infectious diseases, individual executions, or horrific medical experiments.
“It was one of the most streamlined, mass-killing centers ever created in human history,” Franken said.
Yet, Sonja survived Auschwitz.
She, too, survived the poisonous gas chambers — three separate times.
“There was either a malfunction in the gas supply, or, they had put so many people through that day that they had run out of gas,” Franken explained. “Every time, before they fixed the problem, she was being shipped to another camp.
“It’s a miracle that she survived.”
In 1945, Sonja was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross.
The adversity didn’t stop there, however.
More than four decades later, Sonja was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – primary peritoneal carcinoma, which affects the lining of the abdomen.
Her physician gave her two years to live.
Sonja made it 31, despite her cancer coming back five times.
“It would have been so easy for her to play the victim and feel sorry for herself, and to want to give up,” Franken said. “Not my mother.”
The story of Franken’s father is inspiring, too.
John Franken was 18 when he was conscripted to the Dutch Navy Air Force in 1940.
Just months later, he became a Japanese prisoner of war. He was held captive for 3½ years in Makassar, Indonesia and Nagasaki, Japan.
He experienced torture, starvation and brutal winters, Franken said. He saw death and murders of fellow POWs.
Yet, he found ways to survive. He applied his trade skills, like welding, to become an asset as a slave laborer.
One day, he volunteered to work in the Japanese coal mines.
It ended up saving his life.
During the Nagasaki bombing attack, he was mining coal several hundred meters underground.
Franken’s father was liberated in 1945, by the United States.
Like Franken’s mother, her father’s adversity didn’t end with the war.
He underwent a quintuple bypass surgery in 1981, following a massive heart attack.
One surgeon predicted he might live another 15 years. But, he nearly doubled that, living for another 27 years before dying in 2016.
Franken said her father’s secret to longevity was “appreciating every moment.”
Having an optimistic outlook on life, the author said, also helped her to overcome her own bout with cancer.
She drew strength from her parents’ example.
“As I started the treatments and the ugly side effects of it, I started to think about my parents and everything they went through.
“They didn’t just sit around, and wait for and pray for a miracle. They believed they had their own active role to play in their fate,” Franken said.
Franken said her parents’ experiences, and her own survival, serve as a constant reminder.
“Never forget how precious life really is, and how things can change on a dime,” Franken said.
To learn more about the author, visit RoslynFranken.com.
Published February 8, 2017