Sonia Tomara

Sonia Tomara

Sonia Tomara was born into a prosperous family in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1897. During the Russian Revolution Sonia and her mother fled the country and eventually reached France. Her father stayed behind and was never heard of again.

Sonia found work with the French newspaper, Le Matin. She concentrated on political reporting and in 1928 was recruited by the New York Tribune. In the 1930s she covered the rise of Adolf Hitler and spent some time in Nazi Germany.

In 1937 joined the staff of the newspaper in New York. However, on the outbreak of the Second World War she returned to Europe as a roving correspondent. She covered the German Western Offensive and the invasion of France in May 1940. After the armistice she escaped to Portugal before returning to the United States.

Tomara told Jean E. Collins, the author of She Was There: Stories of Pioneering Women Journalists (1980): "I never tried to have scoops, because a scoop lives one day and dies the next. Newspaper articles last only one day. You don't have to have any illusions about that. I think it's more important to cover the events behind the scene rather than the obvious, which everybody covers. Any foreign correspondent for a serious paper wants to cover history, or at least have the illusion that he or she covers history."

In 1942 Sonia received accreditation as a war correspondent and visited India, China and Burma. In 1943 she was transferred to North Africa before moving to France in 1944. Sonia resigned from the New York Tribune when she married Federal Judge William Clark in 1945.

Sonia Tomara died in 1982.

Primary Sources

(1) Sonia Tomara, New York Tribune (14th June, 1940)

For four days and four nights I have shared the appalling hardship of 5,000,000 French refugees who are now fleeing down all the roads of France leading to the south. My story is the typical story of nine-tenths of these refugees.

I left Paris Monday night, June 10, in a big car which was to take me, my sister, Irene Tomara, and a Canadian doctor, William Douglas, who has been working with the American and civilian refugees. We loaded our car with whatever we could carry. We had enough gasoline to take us at least to Bordeaux. It was quite dark when we left. All days cars had been going toward the southern gates of Paris. Just as we departed dark clouds rose above the town, obscuring the rising crescent of the moon. I thought at first it was a storm. Then I understood it was a smoke screen the French had laid down to save the city from bombing.

We drove across the Seine bridge and in complete darkness past the Montparnasse station, in which a desperate crowd was camping. We found the so-called Italian Gate and drove past it, risking all the time the chance of being hit by trucks. But all went well for about fifteen miles. Then, as we started up the first hill, the gears of our car refused to work and the car would not move.

We managed to pull off the road and park. We were in a small suburb of Paris. As nothing could be done during the dark hours, we rolled into our sleeping bags in a ditch alongside the road and tried to sleep. But cars roared by us incessantly. Then came an air-raid alarm. Then the cars started again.

When dawn came we tried to get the car going. It would not start. We waited for hours for a mechanic, while cars passed at the rate of twenty a minute. Then we learned there were no mechanics. They had all been called into the army. But the driver of a truck stopped and inspected the car. He said it could not be repaired on the road.

We tried to buy a little truck that could take our luggage. Finally the gendarmes on the road took pity on us and stopped a military truck, asking its driver to tow us. Fortunately we had a chain. We started off at noon on the road to Fontainebleau. At that time the road was a dense stream of army and factory trucks carrying big machines. We drove all day, and at 8 P.M. got into Fontainebleau.

In Fontainebleau we located a garage. The mechanic looked at the car and said it could not be repaired in less than two days. "We have no men to repair it, anyway," the manager of the garage said. "We work only for the army." We passed the night at a hotel and in the morning started to look for a truck that could tow us. Douglas found a youngster who had a country truck, but no gasoline. He was going back to Paris. We promised him gasoline and he said he would take us to Orleans and then drive to Paris.

We were abandoning our car, which was worth at least 40,000 francs (approximately $875), but money had ceased to have significance. We reloaded our bags on the truck, which had no top, and sat on them. It was 5 p.m. We drove five miles without difficulty and then got into a stream of refugees and army cars. Refugees blocked the road by trying to get past the main line of cars, thus interfering with oncoming traffic.

At 10 p.m. we had driven less than fifteen miles from Fontainebleau. The boy driving our car was in despair. He wanted to turn back to Paris, but we would not let him. We saw thousands of cars by the roadsides, without gasoline or broken down.

We drove on in the night. Presently the road cleared, but we were off our route. Soldiers had detoured traffic to permit movement of military cars. We were driving south instead of toward Orleans. In a small village we turned off and started at a good speed through the dead of night, with lights turned off. It was fantastic. The clouds parted and the moon came up. The country seemed phantom-like. There were piles of stones in front of each village we passed, and peasants

with rifles guarded these barricades. They looked at our papers and let us pass.

We arrived before the Orleans station at 3 a.m. on Thursday. After three nights and two days we had made only seventy miles. The scene near the station was appalling. People lay on the floor inside and the town square was filled. We piled our baggage and waited until daylight.

There was nothing to eat in the town, no rooms in the hotels, no cars for sale or hire, no gasoline anywhere. Yet a steady stream of refugees was coming in, men, women and children, all desperate, not knowing where to go or how.

I walked around and found a truck that was fairly empty. I talked to the driver, offering him money to take me to Tours. He would take us near Tours. For food, we had only a little wine, some stale bread and a can of ham.

The scene of the refugees around the station was the most horrible I had ever seen, worse than the refugees in Poland. Fortunately, there was no bombing. Had there been any attacks it would have been too ghastly for words. Children were crying. There was no milk, no bread. Yet social workers were doing their best and groups were led away all the time, but new ones continued to arrive.

All morning we sought means of transportation. There was none. I decided to go to Tours. I started to walk in the rain with my typewriter and sleeping bag, at last getting a lift in a car which moved slowly through a mob of refugees moving in the opposite direction. In Tours, I learned that the government had left. Also gone were most newspapermen, but a press wireless operator and the French censor were still there.

As I finish this story there is a German air raid. The sound of bombs is terrific. I hope the German bombers have not hit at the road which leads to the south, for there refugees are packed in fleeing crowds.

The catastrophe that has befallen France has no parallel in human history. Nobody knows how or when it will end. Like the other refugees, and there are millions of us, I do not know tonight when I shall sleep in a bed again, or how I shall get out of this town.

(2) Sonia Tomara talking to Jean E. Collins for her book, She Was There: Stories of Pioneering Women Journalists (1980)

I never tried to have scoops, because a scoop lives one day and dies the next. Newspaper articles last only one day. You don't have to have any illusions about that. I think it's more important to cover the events behind the scene rather than the obvious, which everybody covers. Any foreign correspondent for a serious paper wants to cover history, or at least have the illusion that he or she covers history.