Sonja Poppenga

Wednesday, November 16, 2022
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Sonja Poppenga passed away peacefully the afternoon of November 9, 2022. She was 86 and a resident at Strawberry Roan. She was born May 7, 1936, in Sondershausen, Germany. Her father Arno Holzhauser was German and her mother Hedwig (Gottlieb) was Swiss. Sonja’s only sibling, a sister Ingeborg, was just one year older.

Before WWII, Sonja’s father was contracted by several European zoos to capture/secure a variety of African wildlife for those zoos. One of Sonja’s favorite photos shows the family sitting on a bench in the Sondershausen Zoo with an African lion cub relaxing across their laps. The cub was one of the lions her father had brought to the zoo, with Sonja at left. Sonja’s lifelong love of animals surely stemmed from those early memories and contact with many species of wildlife. When Sonja’s father Arno realized WWII was inevitable, he began seeking a way to get his family out of Germany and possibly relocate in South Africa. Thinking he’d secured safe passage via France, the family boarded a train. Stopped at the border crossing, they were detained, arrested and split up, with Sonja and Ingeborg placed temporarily in a Catholic- run orphanage. After the family was reunited, Arno persisted in speaking out publically against the Nazis. Soon he was accused of being an enemy of the state and the day came when he was forcefully taken from his home without warning and shot in the street while his wife and daughters watched. Sonja and Ingeborg were placed again in a Catholic orphanage while their mother Hedwig was sent to a concentration camp; Hedwig leveraged her Swiss citizenship to gain her release and the return of her daughters. Sonja was then sent to live with her Uncle Max’s family on a farm in an area of Germany that saw less of the war while Ingeborg remained with Hedwig. When the war ended, Sonja was reunited with her mother and sister in what became East Germany. Believing they were at risk if they remained in the Russian Zone, Hedwig, Sonja, and Ingeborg eventually made a nighttime crossing on foot into West Germany.

In 1952, at age 16, Sonja met the love of her life, Ray Poppenga, Sr., when he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Schwetzingen, Germany. They married in 1953 and when his tour of duty ended, they made their rural home near Ray’s hometown, Freehold, New Jersey. On June 16, 1958, Sonja was proud to become a naturalized American citizen. Although she spoke with a noticeable German accent, she insisted on speaking only English.

Sonja and Ray had two children, a daughter in 1954 and a son in 1956. Sonja enjoyed her role as a wife, mother, and homemaker. She liked crocheting, making many afghan bedspreads to give away to family, friends, and charity. She also helped on the family farm, packing fresh produce for market. A strong swimmer, she also enjoyed any time spent at the shore to swim in the Atlantic.

Once her children were teenagers, Sonja began working outside the home, beginning with a lunch counter job at a J.J. Newberry’s store. Later, she was employed by Freehold Raceway Concessions.

In the late 1980s Sonja and Ray moved to Montana to be closer to their grandchildren north of Seeley Lake. Another move in 1998 took them to Jamestown in northern New York State. Their final move was made in the early 2000s when they moved to Lewistown. If asked if she missed anything when first moving to Montana, she’d say without hesitation, “the ocean.” However, Montana’s mountains and winters reminded her so much of northern Germany that she soon forgot about her “ocean” memories.

Sonja was preceded in death by her parents, her husband of 54 years, Ray (in 2007), and her sister, Ingeborg (in 2021).

She is survived by son, Ray Poppenga, Jr. (Linda) in Middleburg, Fla.; daughter, Carol Poppenga (Tom) in Lewistown; grandsons, Nathan Bourne (Andi) in Seeley Lake, and Warden Bourne (Christa) in Portage, Mont.; and three great-grandchildren: Olivia Bourne (Seeley Lake), Natalie Bourne (Great Falls), and Derek Bourne (Lewistown).

A Graveside Service will be held at the Lewistown City Cemetery on Thursday, Nov. 17, 11 a.m. A Celebration of Life will be held in the spring of 2023.

Arrangements are under the care of Creel Funeral Home. Sonja’s family and friends can share memories and condolences at www.creelfuneralhome.com.

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