Column: ‘An unimportant girl’ turns into a fairytale princess
Film captures the gratitude of Vivianne Knebel of La Jolla, who suffered through WWII as a child in Germany
Vivianne Knebel’s life is a Cinderella story.
She came from the cinders and ash of bomb-torn Berlin during World War II where gnawing hunger drove her to beg the butcher for discarded fish heads for her mother to make soup, and where she gathered wood crates for fire kindling.
Her fairytale ending is revealed in the title of her 2020 memoir, “From Rubble to Champagne: Rising from the Ashes of War-Torn Berlin to a Life of Grace, Beauty and Gratitude.”
Her story didn’t end there, though. The book attracted the attention of a film producer who asked her to bring history alive in front of cameras.
“The documentary allows me to have a voice,” Knebel says. The 90-minute film is modestly called “An Unimportant Girl.”
Why? “Because I felt very unimportant,” explains the refined woman with a gentle but commanding presence. When not gardening in her La Jolla yard, she’s apt to be seated at a nearby Peet’s Coffee shop writing.
Knebel, now 79, was barely a toddler when air raids sent her, her sister and her mother scrambling to a bomb shelter.
“All I remember was destruction. Everything was rubble, void of color. I recall playing in the ruins. We had no choice,” she says.
The ravages of war were especially hard on Vivianne and her sister, Yvonne, because their mother, Marija Pavic, was not German, but Yugoslavian, and they were illegitimate.Through the squalor, cold, frozen tap water and constant threat of death, there was one warm constant — their mother’s love.
Eventually their mother reconnected with a former schoolmate who was released after five years of labor in Siberia for stealing bread.
The man, who was to become Knebel’s stepfather, returned a bitter and changed man. But his skills as a tailor provided them with clothing and a modest income.
In 1956, they emigrated to Montreal, where Vivianne received government clearance to work at age 14. “I thought, with a job, I can make something out of myself.”
She was employed at a dentist’s office, in a Woolworth and then at a Volkswagen dealership. But it was an unhappy time. She didn’t fit in with the older VW employees and ended up feeling alienated and alone.
One day, at 17, she decided to end her misery, closed the garage door, climbed into her car and started the engine.
She was saved that day by a child about age 6, who appeared from nowhere. “What are you doing?” the waiflike figure asked.
Startled at what seemed like an apparition, Knebel snapped out of her suicidal trance and quickly found an alibi. “I’m going to wash my car.” The little girl skipped away.
Knebel does not know where the girl came from but suspects she entered through an interior door from the adjoining duplex unit.
That day, Knebel came perilously close to missing her chance to say later that her life of despair turned into a life of beauty. She calls this brush with death the most formative moment of her life. And she is forever grateful for that child. “After that little girl saved me, I clung to a sliver of hope, and I kept on going.”
She enrolled in evening secretarial courses, studied stenography and was promoted to VW customer service.
A couple of years later, a handsome young man named Wiland Knebel walked in, bought a Porsche and asked her out. They married after nine months of dating. Her life of gratitude began.
They moved to the Midwest where her husband became involved in real estate investment. Nearly 30 years ago, they settled in La Jolla.
She always had dreamed of returning to Berlin in style — wearing a fine suit, eating in gourmet restaurants and staying in fine hotels.
The dream came true. She and Wiland visited Berlin, and they checked into a five-star hotel, where they sipped champagne. The transition was complete.
Anthony Mora, who has a PR firm and a film production company in Burbank, publicized Knebel’s book. He found her story so compelling that instead of pitching it to a film studio, he opted to produce it himself with the help of filmmaker Daxton Dubach.
“Vivianne is the most positive person I’ve met in my life,” Mora says. “Her focus is so strongly on gratitude.”
While her story is one of hardship, rather than becoming bitter, she remains resilient as she moves through trauma after trauma.
Author and friend Walter Green observes, “She chooses to capture the wisdom and life lesson rather than victimhood. Vivianne also sees the beauty in everyday moments.”
Knebel wants people to understand the perils and life-changing effects of war. She points to the conflict in Ukraine and how badly she feels for its citizens.
“Young people can learn from the past,” she says. She hopes her documentary will help them develop empathy.
She is joined on camera by her sister, her husband and one of their two adult children, Yvonne Anderson, of Rancho Santa Fe, as she takes viewers by the hand and walks them through her past to the present.
The documentary, completed two months ago, is being entered in film festivals.
“I have a profound sense of gratitude for everything in life from morning to night,” Knebel says. “I’m grateful for another beautiful day, for the bread I put on my table because I remember what it was to be hungry. I’m grateful for the harmonious relationship with my family. Negativity is gone when you feel grateful. It is a choice to be positive.”
She even expresses gratitude for her traumatic childhood. “I feel it made me resilient. I would not be able to appreciate the way I am today if I hadn’t gone through that experience. For me, everything is a miracle. I go through life that way.”
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