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CYNTHIA POLANSKY

may not be reprinted without permission

FAR ABOVE RUBIES

A Novel by

Cynthia Polansky

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

I first heard Sofie's story at the touring photographic exhibit, "Anne Frank In the World." The exhibit culminated in a brief lecture by a Holocaust survivor or second-generation survivor. One particular day, a second-generation survivor spellbound us with vignettes of the Holocaust as told by her aunt Sofie, who had survived Auschwitz. She called her "Tante Soof."

Tante Soof made a deep impression on me. I felt that her story needed to be told to an audience of greater scope than exhibit-goers. What began as a short story evolved into a complex journey delving into the heart and mind of this woman named Sofie. While the basic events that transpire in this novel are factual, I have exercised some literary license with the narrative. Save for historical figures, most names are fictitious, as are some characters. With very few exceptions, however, descriptions of Nazi atrocities are neither exaggerated nor illusory. Though not all may have been inflicted on the real Tante Soof or her family, they did indeed happen to some Holocaust victims somewhere.

Every survivor's story is one of victory, a unique tale that bears telling. Tante Soof is one such victory.

"A woman of valor Who can find?

for her price is far above rubies." - Proverbs

PROLOGUE

Yiskadal, v'yiskadash shimei rabbah . . . "

The rabbi intoned the eternal words of the mourner's Kaddish as the plain pine coffin with the single Star of David carved into the wood was lowered into the ground. I had always felt that reciting Kaddishthe Jewish prayer affirming lifewas a healthy, positive way to honor the deceased, but never had it seemed more appropriate than now, at Tante Soof's funeral. What better way to say goodbye to a woman who had lived the way I believe God intended. Tante Soof believed that no matter how dark the misfortune, how bleak the prospects, there is always hope. No one can take that away from you. And where there is hope, there is life.

Tante Soof had taught me a great deal. Not only the value of optimism and tenacity in life, but truth. She had told me the truth about what happened during World War II: to her, to my parents, to the innumerable Jews in Europe. I remember Tante Soof telling it all . . .

I was born on January 6, 1945 in Maarssen, a little town about eighteen kilometers south of Amsterdam, on the River Vecht. Mammie had insisted that I be born at home instead of in the small hospital where Pappie was a staff physician. She said she wanted her baby born where the ravages of war could not touch what was really important. We lived in a grand old house that had been built in the seventeenth century. Mammie and Pappie had christened it "Vredehoop""Hope for Peace."

The winter of 1945 became known as the great Hunger Winter of World War II. Two hundred twenty thousand people in Holland alone died of starvation. The Germans had taken everything to feed themselves, leaving a chronic food shortage in the bigger cities toward the end of 1944. By the winter of '45, the shortage had increased to unbearable proportions that stretched their limits to the whole of Holland. The particularly harsh weather that winter served to exacerbate the circumstances, sapping the Dutch of what little strength they had remaining. Tante Soof used to say that it wasn't enough that we were starving; we had to freeze, too. It was as if we were characters in a Norse myth, she fancied, and the trickster god Loki was having his fun with us. Her ability to find humor in such a wretched state of affairs amazed me.

Desperation drove the people of Maarssen out on "hunger expeditions," seeking out farmers who they prayed had not yet been overrun by the starving townsfolk in a desperate attempt to secure what meager food might still be available. Mammie dug up tulip bulbs and boiled them for the family's supper. The starving often dropped dead in the streets, their wasted bodies unable to survive the cold and wet. For the first five months of my life my only sustenance was sugar-water and what little milk my brothers Wim and Herman could scavenge. Nobody expected me to live, but somehow I survived. Perhaps it was that same stubborn determination that would see me through the trials I was to endure later in life. Perhaps it was merely having been born under the veil of hope.

Naturally, I have no memory of those hard times. As I grew up, Mammie and Pappie were reluctant to relive the hungry days and never discussed them, despite my many questions over the years. The only indication of my parents' ordeal came when I complained of being hungry, as a child often will do.

"Hungry?" my mother chided, "You don't know what hungry is!"

Her response confused me, resulting in an inexplicable feeling of guilt for articulating an innocent and natural sensation. It was only when I reached adulthood that I understood the origins of her criticism.

Still, had it not been for my aunt Sofie's visits to my childhood home, I might never have known the kind of personal struggle for survival my parents and fellow Jews endured during the war.

Mammie's younger sister Sofiewhom my brothers and I called "Tante Soof"was a warm and affectionate woman, full of laughter and love. She filled a room with her presence, as much from her rotund shape as from her zest for living. We always looked forward to Tante Soof's visits.

Wiping her hands on her apron, Mammie looked out the window to see Tante Soof's car pulling into the driveway.

"Children! Tante Soof is here!" she called upstairs.

Never did we have to be coaxed into making an appearance, as many of my school chums did when their relatives visited. I always felt a bit sorry for my shy friend Janni, whose tiresome aunt and uncle always insisted that Janni sing for them during their visits.

Herman, Wim and I raced one another down the stairs, each eager to be the first to be welcomed into Tante Soof's ample embrace. Her dark brown hair, always neatly arranged in soft waves, framed a round, smooth face with smiling red lips and laugh crinkles at the corners of her hazel eyes. Tante Soof had beautiful eyes, but her heavy dark brows dominated her face and diverted one's attention from the grey-green orbs that changed color like a chameleon. Her fair complexion had the look of porcelain, the result of nightly oatmeal facials.

Where her coat parted open, I caught a glimpse of the sunny, cheerful pattern of her dress. Her wardrobe contained an assortment of brightly colored dresses with prints of big, splashy flowers. Tante Soof always said that she had seen too much drabness in this life to ever wear anything but the boldest colors. Little matter that the loud prints did nothing but emphasize her girth. The rather shapeless flowery dresses always put me in mind of an entire garden that had uprooted itself and was marching into our house. I never failed to giggle at the thought.

"Nu?" she said, beaming at my brothers and me, "How have you been, my children?" From the enormous pockets of her red cloth coat she pulled out little bags of chocolate caramels, one for each of us.

"Come," Mammie urged, as we eagerly peeled the paper wrapping from the caramels, "Tea is ready."

We all sat down at the kitchen table while Mammie poured cups of strong, steaming tea. Pappie brought out the lemon sponge cake and we children happily munched our candy, listening to the conversation around the table.

One memorable visit, I sat next to Tante Soof at the table. She and Mammie caught up on neighborhood news while Pappie listened and occasionally nodded his head. As Tante Soof stirred her tea, I noticed a small, reddish scar about two inches long on the white inner flesh of her forearm. Momentarily distracted from my cake, I reached out and ran my finger over the scar. It felt a little bumpy.

"Tante Soof, where did you get this scar?" I asked.

Tante Soof halted in mid-sentence. She looked down at me, then at Mammie and Pappie. Mammie's brows were tightly knitted together. She looked worried. The two sisters seemed to be carrying on a conversation with their eyes.

"I think she should know," Tante Soof said to Mammie, "You can't hide the truth forever."

Mammie said nothing. She looked down at her tea, stirring thoughtfully. Tante Soof began to speak.

The memory of those visits never fails to bring back the feeling of warmth and security I was fortunate to know as a child. Along with my affection for Tante Soof grew a great respect. At my parents' kitchen table at Vredehoop, Tante Soof told her story. It would stay with me the rest of my life.

CHAPTER ONE

"The heart of her husband trusteth in her,

and he shall have no lack of gain."

Amsterdam, 1937

The sound of popping glass muffled by a cloth napkin was subdued compared to the joyous shouts of "Mazel Tov!" that immediately followed. Forty-two year old Jan Rijnfeld lifted the veil to find Sofie's smiling lips awaiting his kiss. He gave her a perfunctory peck, slightly embarrassed under the watchful eyes of the guests, then placed her hand in the crook of his arm and whisked her away from beneath the chuppah. As the newlyweds made their way up the aisle of the synagogue, Mevrouw DeVries shook her head and leaned toward Mevrouw Cohen, seated in the pew in front of her.

"She doesn't know what she's getting herself into," whispered Mevrouw DeVries, "Filling the shoes of a dead wife is no picnic."

"And raising someone else's children . . . six, no less! Well, Sofie's a nice girl, but a beauty she isn't. And at her age, she can't afford to be too particular."

They clucked their tongues ruefully in agreement.

Sofie knew that people thought she was foolish to start life as a bride with six teenage stepdaughters. Even her own mother had doubts. But in Sofie, Jan's daughters found a caring, giving woman who filled the maternal void they'd felt since their mother's death five years before.

Jopie, twenty-one and the eldest, found a friend in her new stepmother. She discovered that Sofie was easy to talk to and Jopie confided in her often, especially about her boyfriend David. He was a university student in Amsterdam and they planned to marry next year when he graduated. David intended to join his father's fur business, and Sofie and Jan were delighted that Jopie's future seemed secure.

Carla, age nineteen, was a pretty girl with light brown curls and a sweet smile. She worked as a stenographer in a Maarssen law office. Shy and reserved, she wasn't a girl who received a lot of attention from boys. She was glad that her father had remarried, for she knew how lonely he'd been in the years since cancer had claimed her mother.

Eighteen year old Lena was the beauty of the six sisters, and the most egregious. She had wheat-blonde hair that she was forever styling after her latest favorite film star. This month it was parted on the side with finger waves framing her heart-shaped face in an imitation of American actress Carole Lombard. Her hazel eyes were fringed with thick brown lashes and her smile was punctuated with a dimple on either side. She had graduated from high school a month before her father's marriage to Sofie, and now she was planning to take a secretarial course. At sixteen, Elli was a devout bookworm. She loved school and spent most of her free time reading. Lena teased her mercilessly about her lack of social life, but quiet Elli was unperturbed. She was content to let her older sister be the social butterfly, while she lay sprawled on the sofa with her latest library find, twirling a lock of dark brown hair around her finger.

Often her peaceful solitude was broken when fourteen year old Anneke came in and switched on the radio. With the perverse timing of little sisters, Anneke always seemed to have a burning desire to listen to the radio and practice the latest dance steps whenever Elli was deep in her book. Inevitably, Elli realized that Anneke wasn't going to heed the warning looks she gave her, and she flounced out of the room to seek sanctuary in her bedroom. Anneke blithely continued her Lindy, anxious to master it before Pappie came home and made her turn off the radio in favor of homework.

Eleven year old Mirjam was the only one of Jan's daughters who was unsure about her father's new marriage. Mirjam had been only six when her mother died, and she had few memories of her. Jopie and Carla had taken on the roles of mother surrogates, and Jan spent as much time at home as he could. Mirjam felt loved and secure, and couldn't understand why things in the family had to change. She resented Sofie and was jealous of her place in Jan's affections. Morosely, she watched her father and his new bride dancing.

"Mirjam, darling, come dance with us!" Sofie urged her youngest stepdaughter to join in the hora, the lively folk dance traditionally included in Jewish weddings.

Mirjam sighed and reluctantly clasped hands with Sofie on one side and Elli on the other, forming a large circle with the other dancers. Her woebegone look was not lost on Sofie, who understood the little girl's feelings. She smiled to herself as she thought that, eight months earlier, who would have guessed that today she would be dancing at her own wedding and the mother of six daughters?

It had been in March on a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam. Sofie got off the tram a few blocks ahead of her stop near DeBijekorf, the department store where she was a sales clerk in the glove department. She walked along the canal, enjoying the warm sunshine and the newly sprouting tulips.

Just then, a man walked up beside her and caught her hand. At Sofie's startled gasp, he quickly smiled and said, "Please, play along with me for a moment. I'll explain as we walk."

Too surprised even to withdraw her hand, Sofie looked at him. He had a nice face, with dark eyes and a reddish-brown moustache the color of an autumn leaf. He looked to be approaching middle age. She couldn't see his hair underneath his hat, but she imagined it was the same color as his moustache.

Still loosely holding her hand, the man introduced himself as Jan Rijnfeld. "I apologize for such chutzpah," he said, "but I was in something of a fix. I've been a widower for almost five years, and lately my mother has been playing matchmaker. She's determined to find me a new wife."

"And you don't want to remarry." Sofie concluded rather than inquired.

"Oh, I have nothing against the idea. In fact, I would like to give my girls -- I have six -- a mother figure. I just want to be the one to choose the right time and the right woman."

Jan gestured toward a young woman wearing glasses and a decidedly unattractive hat, sitting primly on a bench by the canal.

"See that very proper lady in the red hat on the bench? I've been avoiding her for weeks. My mother seems to think we'd make a great couple. When I noticed her sitting there, I suddenly got the idea that if she saw me . . . well, with someone else, she'd give up conspiring with Mother."

"So you pretended I'm your ladyfriend," Sofie said.

"I'm sorry. I know it was a forward thing to do. I hope I haven't made you angry."

Sofie hesitated. "I don't know. . . I dont relish being grabbed by strangers, and I dont particularly enjoy dissembling."

There was contrition in Jan's voice. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. Please forgive me.

"May I escort you wherever you're headed? Please. I'd like to prove I'm not a complete louse."

Sofie was about to refuse, but something in his voice told her that he was not a masher. Besides, it was such a lovely day . . .

"Well . . . just as far as DeBijekorf," Sofie consented, "That's where I work."

"Thank you, Juffrouw . . . ?"

"Mecklenberg. Sofie Mecklenberg. And we'd better get going or I'll be late."

"Don't worry about that, Juffrouw Mecklenberg. I promise you won't be reprimanded for tardiness."

Sofie looked skeptical. "Now, how can you make such a promise? Do you know the store manager or something?

"I am the store manager," he smiled, tucking Sofie's hand in the crook of his arm.

On the day Jan brought Sofie to meet his daughters, she stood fussing before the mirror. Her hair was askew from trying on dress after dress. Nothing seemed right for the occasion. The tailored blue suit looked well on her, but it was too stiff and formal. She wanted to look easy-going and approachable when she met Jan's family. The grey pleated skirt and linen blouse were casual enough, but overemphasized her plump figure.

"Stop it, Sofie!" she chided herself in the mirror, "Look at you! Thirty-six years old and as nervous as a schoolgirl going to her first dance."

Selecting the skirt and blouse, she decided that she was what she was. If Jan accepted her that way, then his girls would, too. Stepping into the stylish black T-strap pumps she had brought home yesterday from DeBijekorf, she surveyed herself in the mirror. She turned around and swiveled her head to check her stocking seams in the mirror. Taking the comb from her dresser, she smoothed her flyaway hair into place. Once again, she mentally chided herself for being so nervous.

Though she was always neatly dressed and groomed, Sofie was not one to fuss over her appearance. She knew she was no glamour girl, and for years the Maarssen yentas had continually shaken their heads over her single status. But Sofie paid their wagging tongues no mind. She had been taught by her parents over the years that inner beauty is far more important than outward appearances. Consequently, Sofie grew up with a healthy self-esteem and an air of confidence that made her well-liked. Unfortunately, it seemed that most of the young men in Maarssen appreciated a shapely figure and a pretty face more than a kind heart and ready wit.

Then she met Jan. From the start, Jan made Sofie feel beautiful, outside and in. They spent every weekend together, taking long walks by the river and throwing bread to the ducks that gathered on its banks. They went to the cinema and shared a bag of candy while watching the latest American film. Jan laughingly told her that he had to keep up with Hollywood film stars or he would never know which one his daughter Lena was trying to copy.

When Jan came to dinner at Sofie's house, her parents sensed that a serious romance was blossoming.

"Be careful, Sofie," her mother cautioned, "Jan is a lovely man, but he has six children. Do you really want to take on a burden like that?"

Sofie turned a deaf ear to her mother's words. She was in love with Jan and didn't want to dwell on anything that might mar her happiness . . .

She listened for the crunching sound of Jan's bicycle tires as he braked to a stop in the gravel driveway. Though she would not admit it, Sofie was a little frightened at the possibility of becoming a stepmother. She had no experience with children, having only an older sister.

Before she had time to think further, she heard the raucous call of the bulbous rubber horn attached to the handlebars of Jan's bicycle. They often rode the bicycle instead of Jan's car, particularly on balmy days like this one. After one last quick inspection in the mirror, she went down to meet him. Her new shoes squeaked on the stairs, but her heart was hammering so loudly that she didn't notice.

Jan smiled when he saw her. Sofie smiled back and took a deep breath. "I'm ready," she said.

They said goodbye to Sofie's parents and Jan helped her climb onto the small seat on the back of his bicycle. Sitting side-saddle, she put her arms around Jan's waist to keep her place on the small seat as Jan pedaled down the bumpy road. Sofie thought it very romantic, and was glad for an excuse to hold Jan close.

"Nervous?" he asked before they started down the road.

"A little. How can you tell?"

"You keep smoothing your skirt and running your hand over your hair. That's not like you, Soof."

Sofie smiled at the nickname Jan had bestowed on her. She liked the sense of intimacy it implied, as if they shared a secret. "I just want to make a good impression. What will the girls think of me?"

"They'll love you as much as I do."

Jan steered the bicycle to the side of the road and braked to a halt. Bracing one foot on the ground, he turned in his seat to look at Sofie. Taking her chilly hands in his warm ones, he said, "I do love you, Soof. I want us to be married."

Sofie's eyes became moist. She had wanted to hear Jan say those words for some time, ever since she knew she had fallen in love with him. Now, for the first time, she could tell him her true feelings.

Sofie circled her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Jan Rijnfeld, you're a fine man. And you know what? I love you, too."

Wiping tears from her eyes, she said, "Let's go meet the girls. We have a lot to tell them!" Sofie's laughter was light-hearted as Jan pedaled toward his home.

Sofie was warmly received by Jan's daughters, who had heard a good deal about this woman with whom their father had been spending so much time. Only Mirjam, the youngest, hung back when Sofie was introduced. Jan was a trifle embarrassed by this unusual display of shyness, but Sofie later explained to him that the little girl was bound to feel hesitant toward a new woman in her father's life.

After all, she said as they bicycled back to Sofie's house at evenings end, Mirjam had already lost her mother. She didn't want to lose her father, too.

Jan marveled at Sofie's understanding of Mirjam's feelings and her unconditional acceptance. Another woman might have been put off by the girls cold reception. One of the things Jan loved best about Sofie was her generous heart.

Jan slowed to a stop on the driveway and put down the kickstand. Helping Sofie down, he said, "I'd like to come in and speak to your parents."

Sofie smiled. "They've probably already gone to bed, but for this I know they won't mind if we wake them."

She leaned toward him and their lips met. It was many minutes before they finally went inside.

* * *

Sofie and Jan had decided on a brief weekend honeymoon in Brussels. As they left the still-lively wedding reception to change into their traveling clothes, Carla Rijnfeld noticed Mirjam's chin beginning to tremble.

"What's wrong, Mirjam?"

"I don't want Pappie to go," Mirjam said, trying to keep her voice steady.

"But it's only for the weekend. And when he comes back, we'll have Soof as our new mother."

Carla and her sisters had adopted the nickname their father had given Sofie, and now the whole family called her "Soof."

"I don't want another mother. Just Pappie," Mirjam said.

Carla was concerned. She understood her littlest sister's jealousy of Soof, but she was very fond of her new stepmother and wanted her adjustment to a large, ready-made family to be as smooth as possible.

"She just wants to be your friend, Mirjam. She isn't going to try to take Mammie's place."

Mirjam sniffed and Carla realized that this was not a good time to talk sense to a confused eleven year old. Over the weekend, she and Jopie would have a heart-to-heart with Mirjam, but for now, Carla put a comforting arm around the little girl's shoulders.

Jan and Soof emerged in their "going away" clothes, all smiles. A carnation corsage perched on the lapel of Soof's new wool suit with the peplumed jacket. Jan looked dapper in a classic navy suit, white shirt, and dark tie. There were more shouts of "Mazel tov!" and slaps on the back for Jan as they made their way to the car waiting to take them to the train station.

Sofie's mother dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. Her father took Sofie's hands in his own and said, "Sei gesund." He kissed his daughter on both cheeks and shook Jan's hand.

"Be happy!" Soof's mother called as the car pulled away from the curb, her handkerchief fluttering her goodbye.

Mirjam sat at the kitchen table doing her homework. Though she had a desk in the bedroom she shared with Anneke, she preferred to study in the warmth of the kitchen. She felt lonely upstairs in her room, isolated from the rest of the family.

She chewed the tip of her fountain pen as she struggled with her assignment. Mevrouw Van Der Wal had instructed the class to write a composition on "The Person I Most Admire." Mirjam was having a hard time thinking of a subject for her theme. She admired Pappie a great deal, but it was boring to write about your own father. Queen Wilhelmina would make a good subject, but her best friend Bloeme was planning to write about the Queen. Mirjam's feathery brown eyebrows came together in consternation.

"What's that you're working on, Mirjam?"

Mirjam raised her head and eyed her stepmother. In the weeks since her parents had returned from their honeymoon, Mirjam still hadn't warmed up very much toward Soof. Despite Carla's and Jopie's efforts to reassure their sister that she wasn't losing a father but gaining a friend, Mirjam couldn't bring herself to soften towards her new stepmother.

Sofie told herself to give the girl time; losing a mother at so young an age must be very traumatic. She made a conscious effort not to overwhelm Mirjam with too much demonstrative affection in these first weeks, lest it be misconstrued as contrived and false. She wanted Mirjam to decide for herself that Soof was now part of the family

She attempted to draw the little girl out by offering to help with her homework. "May I see what you're writing, darling?"

Mirjam covered the writing tablet with her arms.

"I haven't written anything yet," she said sullenly. "The teacher told us to write a composition about the person we most admire, but I can't think of anybody."

"Well now, that shouldn't be too hard. Maybe if we put our heads together, we can come up with an idea." Soof reached out for the pen in Mirjam's hand.

Mirjam snatched her hand away from Soof's reach, knocking to the ground as she did so the pitcher of milk still on the table from dinner.

At the sound of shattering glass, Jan came in from the other room, cigarette in hand. "What's going on?" he asked, "I heard a terrific racket."

Mirjam's horrified eyes went from the shards of glass and puddles of milk on the kitchen floor to her father to Soof. Her heart began to thump in grim anticipation of her father's reaction, not so much to the broken pitcher but to the truth of her behavior toward Soof, as Mirjam was sure she'd tell him.

Quickly, Soof gave a tinkling laugh and went to stand behind Mirjam's chair.

"Oh, Jan, such a klutz you married! I knocked the pitcher off the table. What a mess! Mirjam was sweet enough to offer to help me clean up." She rested her hands on Mirjam's shoulders.

Jan's eyes crinkled in a smile. One of the qualities he loved best about Soof was her cheerful attitude. Nothing seemed to dampen her good spirits.

He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on the living room table and gingerly crossed the kitchen floor.

"Come, we'll all clean up together."

Jan started picking up the larger pieces of broken glass while Sofie began mopping up the spilled milk.

For a long moment, Mirjam just stood there, staring at her stepmother. Sofie was so engrossed in her task that she didn't notice Mirjam kneel beside her on the floor until the girl touched her arm. With tears brimming in her brown eyes, she handed Soof the dry rags she had silently fetched from the pantry. Soof smiled at her and enfolded Mirjam in a fierce hug. Without a word, Soof and Mirjam came to a new understanding. Only much later would Mirjam realize how she had almost alienated the one person on whom she would come to depend for her very survival.

 

 

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