Chapter One – Opening the Door
September 1973, Sheffield, England - Sally
Sally unlatched the small wooden gate and walked the short garden path. Fallen red and yellow leaves of autumn scattered the tiny lawn 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 become 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 had been 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 list of questions was in her satchel. She hoped to hear more than one-word answers. She hoped Cassie 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 reminding her of the lead. Sally’s mum worked on the reception at the A&E department and often talked about her old friend. Sally remembered the quiet woman her mother had taken under her wing before she was born. She had known her as Aunt Cassie when she was a child but hadn’t seen much of her in recent years.
Most people knew her as Nurse Jagoda. She 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 very well. They’d been good friends for a while until Sally’s family moved away. Now her mother was frustrated because her old friend seemed to shy away from becoming close again. Susan often complained that Cassie always found excuses to avoid invitations from her. Sally could understand the Polish woman’s reticence. Her mother was quite the flirt, especially after a few gin and limes. Susan could be embarrassingly gregarious at times.
Her mother admitted she didn’t know much about Cassie’s past, though. She only knew that she had once escaped from a Polish ghetto, but Susan didn’t elaborate on how a young girl of seventeen managed to get to England from occupied Europe 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 rarely brings it up in my company.”
Sally had been tasked to write a heart-warming story for a special Remembrance Day edition of The Morning 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 too 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 take notice of her journalism skills.
She raised her hand and knocked on the neat wooden door.
Cassie was expecting Susan’s daughter, but she was surprised how young she seemed when she opened the door. The girl wore a dark suit with a short skirt and low heeled matching court shoes. Her white blouse had a frill of lace at the throat to soften the severity of the dark coloured suit. She looked every ounce as elegant as her mother. She would know Susan’s daughter anywhere. Sally was the living image of her old friend. The girl’s long blonde hair was wavy and silky, just as Susan’s had been almost thirty years ago. Cassie patted her dark curls and tucked a stray strand behind her ear. They exchanged introductions, and Cassie closed the front door.
“My, how you look like your mother!” Cassie showed her into the 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 thirteen-years-old when his troops invaded Poland, and by the time she was seventeen, her world had been 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 then 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 notebooks 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 like insensitive people, and timewasters got on her nerves. She only agreed to this interview to make Susan happy. “Your mother boasted that you were a promising journalist and wanted to do a piece about me for your newspaper.”
“That’s right. I’m hoping this article will be published in the Remembrance Day edition.”
“So I understand.” She replaced the tray on the cleared 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 neat, low heeled court shoes 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 more about your family. It’s always good, to begin with some local interest for the readers. Mum said Gary is a doctor now. 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 had once been a close friend, but distance pulled them apart when Susan moved away. Cassie didn’t make friends easily. She kept most people at a distance, but Susan had always treated her with kindness, and she had grown closer to her since she moved back to Sheffield some ten years ago and divorced her husband. She sighed. 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.” The explanation was greatly simplified, 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 Roma race, or you might know these people as Gypsies.” 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 using a less confrontational tone. She wanted to help her friend’s daughter. She remembered her as a small child playing with her son many years ago. They had been as close to a family as Cassie had back then. “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 understand what you lived through; what you experienced and how you felt about what was happening to you.”
Cassie shook her head sadly. The world was a different place now. There was tolerance to a degree, but a girl like Sally would never understand the world from which Cassie had escaped. 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 one of the first people she met after arriving in England.
Cassie thought back to that epic journey to reach safety. How could she possibly explain what had been in her heart at that time?
March 1943, the Swiss border with France
Cassie watched the Swiss countryside rolling by through a tiny crack in the panelling of the truck. The ride was bumpy, and her heart was in her mouth as they navigated the slippery and steep mountainous roads.
Eagle had warned the passengers to stay silent, but she couldn’t stop the loud beating of her heart. She clutched her younger sister to her side. Victoria didn’t seem to share her concerns. The thirteen-year-old was curious and excited about their destination. Her sister had some comprehension of the perilous position they were in but didn’t let her apprehensions overcome her enthusiasm for the journey. Their mother, Maria, was sitting next to the girls and seemed frozen with fear. She hadn’t spoken since the truck left the high valley in Switzerland.
Cassie felt a change of gear and the floor of the truck tilted steeply. They were driving downhill slowly. She tried to peer out of the tiny fissure in the wooden planks but couldn’t focus on the erratically jumping scenery.
“What can you see, Cassie?” Victoria asked in an eager whisper. “Can you tell where we are?”
“Hush, Vicky.” Cassie put a finger to her mouth. “I can’t see anything but snow and rocks.”
“We must be near the border by now,” one of the other passengers said quietly. “We’ve been on the road for hours.”
Patek shuffled closer to Cassie’s mother. The Polish man tried to peer through another crack between the wooden panels. “She’s right. Nothing to see out there.” He settled back on his haunches. “But we are descending, so I think we will be getting closer to France. We should keep quiet.”
The truck bounced, and the Polish man reached for the side wall to steady himself.
“Do you think we will have any trouble crossing into France?” Cassie’s mother spoke to Patek in a trembling whisper.
“We crossed many borders already, Maria. Jacob knows what he is doing. These secluded mountain passes are not usually manned or patrolled.”
Cassie felt her heart quicken. She knew the border crossing to France would be their first major hurdle in a series of dangerous obstacles on their journey. Her mother knew this too. Cassie was petrified they might be discovered by the German border guards.
She had a particular fear of German soldiers after one of them raped her some months ago. If it hadn’t been for her younger sister stabbing the man in his neck, he might have killed them both when he’d finished his assault. She owed Victoria her life.
Now, after months to consider her act of murder, her younger sister didn’t seem too concerned about killing the man, although Victoria had been terrified at the time. Since they had been taken in by this group of partisans, the two girls were learning that death, and particularly the murder of the enemy, was often necessary.
Cassie shuddered. She didn’t know whether she would have been capable of killing the attacker if the roles had been reversed. Any killing was wrong, but in war, the usual laws that people lived by no longer held true. She had seen too much slaughter already in her life. Death had become an everyday occurrence in the ghetto in Lodz. Starvation and disease took many lives, but the Germans took more. They shot people in the street for sport and deported far more to the death camps. Being a Jew, in Poland, was enough to guarantee an early demise.