Read Finding Sophie Online

Authors: Irene N.Watts

Finding Sophie

For Sarah Elizabeth Duncan

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to my editors at Tundra: Kathy Lowinger, who asks the right questions, and Sue Tate, for her patience and careful copyediting.

Also to my daughter Julia Everett, who converts early ideas and writing into a readable manuscript, and to Catherine Mitchell, for her ongoing support.

Heidenröslein.
Words by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1771. (1749-1831).

Music by Franz Schubert, 1815. (1797-1828).

THE TRAIN, BERLIN, GERMANY
DECEMBER
1, 1938

J
ust before the guard reached their compartment door, a woman threw in a rucksack, then lifted a little girl and stood her beside Marianne. “Please look after her! Thank you.” She moved away without looking back.

One of the boys put the little girl's rucksack on the rack for her.

“Thank you,” she said. “I'm Sophie Mandel. I'm seven.”

After lunch they practiced English phrases and taught Sophie to say, “The sun is shining.”

At the Dutch border, the Gestapo came on board. An officer pointed to the luggage. “Open up,” he ordered.

The children put their suitcases on the seat for inspection. The Gestapo officer, with a quick movement, overturned each case and rifled his black-gloved hand through the contents. He pulled out Werner's stamp album and flicked carelessly through the pages, then put the album under his arm.

The officer stepped deliberately on Brigitte's clean white blouse, which had fallen to the floor. Josef's prayer shawl was thrown aside. Sophie's doll was grabbed, its head twisted off. Then the officer turned the doll upside down and shook it. Sophie cried quietly.

After the officer left, Brigitte twisted the doll's head back onto the neck and said, “Good as new,” and handed the doll back to Sophie.

LIVERPOOL STREET STATION, LONDON, ENGLAND
DECEMBER
2, 1938

“Come on, Sophie, keep up,” said Marianne as they walked along the platform to the waiting room to meet their sponsors. She could see some women talking about them and shaking their heads, the way mothers do when their child has been out in the rain without a coat.

“See them poor little refugees.”

“What a shame.”

“Look at that little one. Sweet, isn't she?”

“More German refugees, I suppose. Surely they could go somewhere else?”

“We'll have to try to speak English all the time,” Marianne told Sophie, taking her hand.

“But I don't know how. I want to go home,” Sophie said.

Marianne was too tired to answer.

The woman in charge called: “Sophie Mandel.”

“That's you, Sophie. Come on, you've got to wake up.”

“Hello, Sophie,” said a lady in gray, picking up the rucksack at Sophie's feet. “I am Aunt Margaret, a friend of your mother's. I've come to take you home.”

Sophie put her arms around Marianne's neck and hugged her, as if she didn't want to leave her behind.

“Good-bye Sophie. She looks very nice,” Marianne whispered and kissed her cheek.

D
o people know the precise moment when their lives change? All I know is that, for me, it happened just before my fourteenth birthday.

I've had six birthdays in England, five of those in wartime, and now at last everyone says peace is just around the corner. It's hard for anyone my age to remember a time before blackouts and rationing and bombing. I think of peace as being like one long holiday.

Unless you count being evacuated, I've only ever had one real holiday. It was the last summer before the war. I think it must have been August 1939. I was eight. Aunt Em – that's what I call Aunt Margaret – and I went to Brighton and stayed in a brown-and-cream painted boardinghouse near the beach. She bought me a bucket and spade and a red bathing suit. I built elaborate sand castles all day long and Aunt Em rented a striped deck
chair and sat with the mothers, who watched the children. I got sunburned and my back peeled, so did Aunt Em's nose.

There was a pier with a puppet show. We ate ice-cream cones and I had a ride on a merry-go-round on a shiny pony with black leather stirrups. Aunt Em taught me a nursery rhyme:

I had a little pony,
His name was Dapple Gray;
I lent him to a lady
To ride a mile away.

At night the pier lit up with thousands of colored lights. We walked along it before I went to bed, and I sang all the way back to the boardinghouse.

I remember the salt water splashing my face when I jumped up and down in the knee-high waves. I remember my first taste of fish-and-chips, sprinkled with brown vinegar, which we ate straight out of the newspaper wrapping and not off plates. The sun shone every day, just like the first English sentence I'd learned, which was, “The sun is shining.”

When we got back to London, I drew everything in a sketchbook Aunt Em let me choose in Woolworth's. I've still got some of those drawings.

Funny how everything about that week is so clear. If I go further back, there are lots of gaps. I don't remember much about the
journey to England, or about my mother and father who stayed behind in Germany. They seem like photographs you haven't seen for a long time. You can't quite recall where they were taken, or who all the people are – they're like figures in a dream. By the time you wake up, most of the dream's evaporated.

I haven't heard from my parents since before the war – six years. I'm not sure how I know, or who told me, but my father's Jewish and my mother isn't. He used to call her Lottie, which is short for Charlotte. I've almost stopped missing them.

I did wonder at first what happened to Marianne – the girl who took care of me on the train to England. For a while I pretended she was my sister, and that one day she'd come and live with Aunt Em and me. In the beginning I didn't know the words to tell Aunt Em about her, and so Marianne began to fade away.

On the first night, when I arrived in London, Aunt Em tucked my doll into my bed with me. I screamed and screamed.

“Why, Sophie? Tell me what's wrong.”

I hurled Käthe across the room. I refused to have her near me. I never wanted to play with or own a doll again. Next day we went to a toy shop and Aunt Em bought me a furry gray monkey, which I loved passionately. He still sits on my desk.

The last time I consciously thought about Marianne was when Aunt Em waved me good-bye at Paddington Station, two days before war broke out, in September 1939. I half expected to see
Marianne lining up with all the other school children who were being evacuated to safe places too.

Once we had boarded the train, the guard walked up and down the corridor outside our compartment and I hid under the seat with Monkey, afraid the guard would steal him.

“Did you lose something, Sophie?” my teacher asked. “You don't want to arrive in the country looking all dusty, do you?”

Mandy and Nigel Gibson, red-haired twins my senior by three weeks, promptly joined me under the seat. “She's looking for her pencil, Miss,” they said in unison. “We're helping her.” We've been best friends ever since.

Evacuation was a miserable experience for all three of us. The twins were separated. Mandy told Nigel she wasn't getting enough to eat, so he stole food for her from his foster mother's larder, got found out, and was beaten.

I was put with an old couple who spoke to me only when necessary, and reminded me daily to be grateful that they were giving me a home. I talked to Monkey a lot.

We lasted six months before Mrs. Gibson and Aunt Em brought us home.

It was still the “phony” war. Air raids hadn't started. When the Blitz proper began, Aunt Em murmured about sending me to a safe place. Instead she ordered a Morrison shelter, which had an iron top, mesh sides, and served as both a dining room table and a comfortable and safe place in which to sleep if air raids continued all night.

Mrs. Gibson had her cupboard under the stairs reinforced, and the twins stayed home too.

The person who's cared for me since I was seven is Aunt Em. Her real name is Margaret Simmonds – Miss Margaret Simmonds. We're not actually related.

She explained it very carefully: “I'm your temporary guardian, Sophie, which means I protect you and take care of you because your parents live in Germany. One day you'll live with them again.”

When I started school, the girls asked me, “Is that your gran?” I wanted Aunt Em and me to belong together, so I told them she's my aunt.

“Did you know we have the same initials, Aunt Em?” I asked her. “Only they're in a different order. My first name starts with the same letter as your last –
S
– and my last name starts the same as your first –
M
– Sophie Mandel.” I sort of hoped she might suggest I change Mandel to Simmonds. Sophie Simmonds sounds a lot more English. I never liked having a German name. Once the war began, I never spoke German again, and now I've forgotten it all.

One night the sirens wailed for the third night in a row, so Aunt Em brought her photograph album for me to look at in the Morrison shelter. “It will keep our minds off the war,” she said. But it couldn't shut out the noise of the planes and the ack-ack guns trying to shoot them down, or the thump of the bombs not so very far away, but it helped.

“I was the only girl in the family. Don't I look solemn? I was seven when this was taken,” said Aunt Em.

“Well, you're not solemn now,” I replied.

Aunt Em has a lovely smile, and her brown hair is only a little bit gray. She wears it twisted into a bun. You can see it's naturally wavy.

“Who are the boys standing beside you, Aunt Em?”

“The tall one is Gerald; you've met him. He's my eldest brother. He lives in a village in Suffolk, in the house where I was born. This little boy is William, my youngest brother. He was my favorite.”

We put our hands over our ears as bombs exploded nearby.

“What happened to him?” I asked, when the noise had died away.

“He was a soldier in the First World War. He died on the Somme, in France, in 1915.”

“I'm sorry. Poor Aunt Em. Is this a brother, too? He looks very handsome.”

“That's Robert, the boy who lived next door. We were all great friends. Sometimes the boys got tired of me tagging along when they went fishing, but I could beat them all at tennis.”

“You liked him a lot, didn't you, Aunt Em? What happened next?”

“Robert and I got engaged when I was eighteen. He was killed in France, two years after William. At Passchendaele.”

“Please don't be sad, Aunt Em.”

“I'm not. It happened a long time ago, Sophie.”

A long single note sounded. “There's the all clear. Off to bed, now. School tomorrow, and I have lots of new recipes to test for Lord Woolton.”

Aunt Em works for the Ministry of Food. The Ministry rations food, and distributes pamphlets to help people make it go further. Aunt Em tries out all the new recipes on me. Sometimes they're quite disgusting. I think carrot marmalade was the worst. Not even Nigel Gibson would touch that and he devours almost anything.

“Tell me about one more, please, Aunt Em,” I said.

“One more.” Aunt Em turned the page of the album.

“After Gerald married Winifred, I decided to move to London to train as a secretary. I bought this little house with a small inheritance from my parents, and settled down.

“In 1928, I traveled to France. I wanted to see the country where William and Robert were buried. Then I hired a bicycle and toured Germany. The countryside there was quite lovely.

“At a youth hostel I met your parents and we became good friends. This is a picture of your mother and me standing outside Heidelberg Castle. I'd forgotten how much you resemble her. Your hair is fair, just like hers, but your eyes are brown like your father's.”

It was strange to think that laughing girl, her arms linked with Aunt Em's, was my mother.

“Your father took the photograph, Sophie. It was the evening before your parents announced their engagement. They were so happy. He was going to work for a famous firm of architects in Berlin. When Hitler came to power, he wasn't allowed to work
there anymore. Your mother wrote me later that he became a landscape gardener.

“After I returned to England, your mother and I corresponded – we became pen friends. She and Jacob invited me to their wedding, but of course I couldn't afford to go to Europe again so soon. Later, much later, after you came along, she loaned you to me to take care of.”

Loaned, like a book from the library?

I went to sleep thinking,
you have to take books back to the library, but I never want to be taken back and leave Aunt Em.

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