Chapter One – Opening the Door
September 1975 – Sheffield, England
Sally unlatched the small wooden gate and walked the short garden path. The tiny lawn was scattered with fallen red and yellow leaves of autumn but the borders were neatly trimmed and full of seasonal colour. Late blooming roses added their perfume to the sunny afternoon and as her coat brushed a silvery bush the scent of lavender filled her nostrils. She breathed deeply, remembering her grandmother. Millie would have been proud of her today.
Sally had been given this interview assignment for the local broadsheet and was determined to use the opportunity to make her first noteworthy mark in the world of journalism. In her mid twenties, she was still considered a novice, but she had dreams. She wouldn’t always be writing about local galas or the latest fly-tipping scandal. Sally aspired to becoming a sought after esteemed journalist like the American, Tom Wolfe. She greatly admired his narrative method of writing. The term for this man’s style of reporting was coined, New Journalism, and Sally was eager to embrace the more intimate technique of telling the story behind the bare facts.
With this in mind, she had spent hours at the local library reading old newspaper accounts from the war years. She had saturated her mind with facts from the era, and hoped her research would help her to empathise with her subject. The compiled list of questions was in her satchel but she hoped to hear more than one word answers. She hoped her subject would be cooperative.
The Polish immigrant worked as a nurse in the Accident and Emergency unit at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital. She had her mother to thank for giving her the lead on the nurse. Sally’s mum worked on the reception at the A&E department and often talked about the quiet nurse she had taken under her wing many years ago.
Most people knew the Polish nurse had arrived in England during the war, but not many knew her story. Sally’s mum had helped in the resettlement of refugees at that time and knew Catherine Jagoda quite well. Her mother didn’t know much about the woman’s past, though. She only knew that she had once escaped from a Polish ghetto, but her mother didn’t elaborate on how a young girl of sixteen managed to get to England in the middle of World War Two.
“It isn’t my place to gossip about the people I helped, Sally,” her mother had said. “You’ll have to ask her if you want to know the details. I can see if she’ll agree to speak with you, but I can’t promise she’ll talk about her past. She never brings it up in my company.”
Sally had been tasked to write a heart-warming story for the Remembrance Day edition of The Sheffield Telegraph. The editor had given her some general guidelines, but essentially, the article could be angled any way she wanted. She had an opportunity to break new ground and bring the ancient newspaper into the twentieth century with some creative writing.
She sighed. Perhaps she was being a touch ambitious. The middle aged nurse might have a touching war story to tell, but it would take a miracle for Sally to work it into something sensational enough and radical enough to make her boss sit up and take notice of her journalism skills.
She raised her hand and knocked on the neat wooden door.
Cassie was expecting a young woman, but she was surprised how young the journalist seemed when she opened the door. She would know Susan’s daughter anywhere, though. The Sally was the living image of her mother. The girl’s long blonde hair was wavy and silky, just as Susan’s had been thirty years ago. Cassie patted her own dark curls and tucked a stray strand behind her ear. They exchanged introductions and Cassie showed the young woman into her lounge.
“Can I get you some tea?”
“Thank you.” Sally was already opening her satchel. “Would you mind if I get organised while you make it?”
Cassie shook her head. “Not at all. I won’t be long.”
She went into her tiny kitchen and busied her hands making tea. Teabags were the new fad, but she still preferred to use the loose leaf tea. The hospital canteen used bags, and she always thought the resulting tea tasted like dust. Like the tea they had to drink during the war.
Susan’s daughter was eager to know some of her stories from the war years, but Cassie felt nervous about the questions she might be asked. The war had taken so much from her and she had worked hard to put those years behind her. She had been a child when Hitler came to power. She was twelve-years-old when his troops invaded Poland and by the time she was sixteen her world had changed dramatically. In those four years of German occupation, before she escaped, she had seen things no child should ever see. She had suffered starvation, lost many family members, including her father, and she had endured a violent assault that stole her innocence.
Her experiences could not be explained without enduring the pain of them again. She hoped this young woman would not want to delve too deeply into her past. She didn’t know whether she was strong enough to face the memories she had pushed into the far recesses of her mind.
She carried the tea tray into the lounge. The low table next to the small sofa was now partially covered with note books and a scattering of photographs. She winced when she saw a black and white scene of stacked bodies in a concentration camp. She’d seen images like this many times. They showed them on the television quite often and she always switched the channel when they came on. She placed the tray deliberately on top of the offending pictures.
Sally glanced up with a frown. “I went to a lot of trouble to get those photographs.” Her tone was officious but she tempered it when she asked, “Could you move the tray please?”
“I’ll move the tray if you promise to put those pictures away.” Cassie would not be intimidated in her own home. “They have nothing to do with me. I have no wish to see them.” She lifted the tray.
“I’m sorry.” The young woman quickly gathered the photographs and put them back in her leather bag. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Why are you here?” Cassie didn’t suffer fools easily and timewasters got on her nerves. She only agreed to this interview to make Susan happy. “You mother boasted that you were a promising journalist and wanted to do a piece about me for your newspaper.”
“That’s right. It will be published in the Remembrance Day edition.”
“So I understand.” She replaced the tray on the table. “How do you think I can help you with that?”
“I was hoping to get a different angle on the war years. You know? I hoped you could give me an alternative perspective, seeing as how you lived in Poland when Hitler invaded.”
“So ask your questions and let’s get on with this.” Cassie sat in her usual chair and crossed her arms defensively.
“You don’t waste time, do you Mrs Jagoda?”
“It’s Miss Jagoda, and my time is precious.”
“Sorry.” Sally seemed flustered but gathered her notes and took a deep breath. “I truly am sorry, Miss Jagoda. I was hoping to set the scene by showing those photographs. I know you came from Poland and that’s where some of these places were found. I thought—.”
Cassie interrupted, “Then you were wrong to make assumptions.” Her stomach knotted with tension and she blurted, “You know nothing about me.”
The young woman hesitated, looked at her feet and spoke quietly, “I can only apologise again.” She smiled tightly and continued, “I seem to have got off on the wrong foot, don’t I?” Sally shrugged apologetically. “Could we start again, please?”
Cassie began to pour the tea into two dainty china cups. “Do you take milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, please.”
Cassie poured milk from a jug and handed the cup to Sally.
“I understand you have some questions for me.”
“Yes, I do, but I’d like to get some background first, if you don’t mind.”
“What kind of background?”
“Oh, you know…” Sally hesitated again. “Perhaps you could tell me about your work at the Northern, and I’d like to know a little about your family. It’s always nice to begin with some local interest for the readers. Mum said you have a son. Does he live locally?”
“My son has nothing to do with my past. We don’t need to talk about my family.”
Sally placed her cup on the delicate saucer and sighed resignedly. “Perhaps I should simply ask my questions, then.”
“I wish you would.” Cassie made a point of looking at her watch. “I don’t have all afternoon.”
“All right.” Sally gathered her research notes from the table and dropped them into her satchel next to the photographs. She drew out a pen and a ring-bound notebook and flipped open the cover. Her pen was poised above the page. “I was hoping for something more than the bare facts, so if you could answer these questions with as much detail as you can remember, I’d be very grateful.”
“Ask what you like. I’ll tell you as much or as little as I can.” Cassie’s heart was beating fast and she could feel the moisture gathering on her brow. She told herself she didn’t have to do this, but she remembered she had promised her friend. Sally’s mother was not a close friend, even though they had known each other for more than thirty years. Cassie didn’t make friends easily. She kept most people at a distance, but Susan had always treated her with kindness and a promise was a promise.
“I heard you escaped from a Polish ghetto,” Sally began. “Where was that, exactly?”
Sally wrote down the name of the city and lifted her head. “Can you tell me what it was like to live in the ghetto?”
“It was difficult.” Cassie didn’t want to elaborate but the girl was obviously expecting more from her. “We had little food and cramped living conditions.” Cassie saw flashes of the tiny room she shared with eight other members of her family.
“What made you decide to escape?”
“After the rest of my family died, my sister and I had no choice.” She shuddered at the memory of the events leading up to their escape. She couldn’t talk about them. She stuck to the plain, bald facts. “We would have been sent to Chelmno if we’d stayed.” It was a simplified explanation, but she couldn’t give more.
“I’m sorry, but can you tell me what Chelmno was?” Sally looked thoughtful. “I don’t think I came across that name in my research.”
“It was a place of death. Jews were taken there to be gassed.”
The young woman’s face paled but she quickly regained her composure. “You are a Jew?”
Cassie nodded and waited for the change in attitude. Most English people were wary of Jews, but she should have known better. Susan knew of her Jewish origins and had never treated her differently because of her heritage.
“I’m sorry, of course you are.” Sally wrote a few words in her book. “Why else would you have been in the ghetto in the first place?”
“I might have been a member of the Gypsy race or a Roma.” Cassie lifted her chin defiantly. “Jews weren’t the only people to be treated this way.”
“No, of course.” Sally took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good at this, am I? I really wanted this to go well. It’s my first proper interview and I’m afraid I’m making a terrible hash of things.”
Cassie felt some sympathy for her friend’s daughter. The young girl was trying to make her way in a world dominated by men. The sexual revolution of the last decade had gone a long way to change things for the youth of the times, but women were still being left behind.
“What is it you want to know, Sally?” Cassie asked in a less confrontational tone. She wanted to help her friend’s daughter, as long as she didn’t have to give too many of her secrets away. “What would make a good story for you to print in your newspaper?”
“I want to know what it was like for you. I want to get inside your head and really understand what you lived through; what you experienced and how you felt about what was happening to you.”
Cassie shook her head sadly. It was a different world now. There was tolerance to a degree, but a girl like Sally would never understand the world Cassie had escaped from. Susan had told Cassie that her daughter was eager and ambitious. She decided to go easy on her and try to help.
“All right, I’ll try to explain what I can, but be patient with me. Some of my memories are buried deep. Where would you like me to start?”
“I’m sure my readers would be interested in how a young Polish Jew could escape the ghetto and get all the way to England. I’m interested in your thoughts and feelings. The fears you might have had and the difficulties you may have faced on the journey. I want to get to the heart of your story.”
“You don’t ask for much, do you?” Cassie was warming to the na´ve girl. Sally reminded her of Susan. The younger version of Sally’s mother had been a little bold and full of confidence. She was a few years older than Cassie but treated her as an equal. Susan was the first person she met in England who was kind to her.
Cassie thought back to that epic journey to reach safety. How could she possibly explain what had been in her heart at that time?
I’m hoping to have this final novel in the series ready for publication early in the New Year
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