‘From Rubble to Champagne’: La Jolla author publishes her memoir
La Jolla resident Vivianne Knebel has written her first book, a memoir titled “From Rubble to Champagne: Rising From the Ashes of War-torn Berlin to a Life of Grace, Beauty and Gratitude.” The book details her many triumphs over hardship.
Born Vivianne Pavič under Nazi rule in 1943 in Berlin, “I had so many strikes against me,” Knebel said. “I was illegitimate, which was taboo.”
Her mother’s father was Yugoslavian and Knebel was deemed “stateless, a foreigner,” which further added to her struggle.
After growing up “among rubble, constantly hungry,” Knebel left Germany in her teens for Canada, where she begged for food and left school at 14.
“I went to work for a dentist,” she said. “I encountered severe sexual harassment there. I was taken advantage of.”
Knebel left the dental office and worked the lunch counter at a Woolworth store, determined to “improve my station in life. I went to night school and learned stenography and typing” and was eventually hired at Volkswagen.
Her trials led Knebel to despair, however. “I had become so depressed,” she said, lacking camaraderie among her co-workers and tired of struggling. “I didn’t think my life would get any better.”
“I was 17 and I decided to end my life,” Knebel said. She attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning while seated in her running car in a closed garage.
“As I waited to drift off, a little girl stood in front of me, about 6 years old. I remember her short-cropped hair and dress. She asked me what am I doing. I immediately paid attention, turned off the motor, opened the garage door. … She just skipped off blissfully, never realizing she’d saved my life.”
Knebel realized later that the girl had entered the garage through a side door Knebel didn’t know existed. “It sounds almost made up,” Knebel said. “It makes you wonder.”
Shortly afterward, she met Wiland Knebel as he walked into the Volkswagen dealership to buy a car. Himself a German immigrant, “Wiland changed my life,” Vivianne said. “He gave me hope.” The two were married in 1965.
Wiland said he was “very fortunate to find her.” He likened finding Vivianne to picking up “a stone that looked different from all the others. I had the foresight to polish that ‘stone,’ and it turned into a diamond.”
The Knebels later immigrated to the United States, finding financial success in Wiland’s wood exporting business while raising two children in the Midwest.
“This country has given us so much, and we are forever grateful for that,” Vivianne said.
They found further stability in a real estate investment partnership with close friend Karsten Joehnk, another German immigrant with whom Wiland is still partnered 40 years later.
Throughout their marriage, Wiland “inspired me to take risks and embrace new challenges,” Vivianne said. She learned to pilot a plane and run a marathon.
The Knebels retired to La Jolla 25 years ago, in the Upper Hermosa neighborhood.
But then another obstacle presented itself: Vivianne was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 2013. In surviving the disease, “life became more vivid,” she said. “I started meditating. I don’t think there is a more content person than I am.”
Vivianne experienced a “deep desire to embrace a spiritual life” after all her hardship. She examined how she’d come so far and realized Wiland had been the impetus for her finding happiness.
“The book is a present to Wiland for his 80th birthday,” she said, “to thank him for all he has done for me.”
“I encouraged her to write the book,” Wiland said. “I was very proud of her when she finished it. I think it’s a legacy for the family, for the grandchildren.”
The book, he said, also “helps others strive, to never give up and to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Vivianne said she also realized she perhaps could help others with a “message of hope and light,” sharing “philosophies that enrich my soul.”
In writing her memoir, she wants to encourage others to “embrace life’s trials the same way I welcome its joys,” she said.
“The message is gratitude,” Vivianne said. In being grateful, “we become our best selves.”
“From Rubble to Champagne” is available for $23.95 at bit.ly/knebelmemoir. ◆
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