Sophie can still recite, in its entirety, a poem critical of the first world war by Bruno Jasienski written in an unusual pattern with just two syllables—“like soldiers marching,” she says—on a line. She learned it one afternoon in the Warsaw ghetto. She was with her mother, and they were running from the Germans, who were blocking each street at both ends and then going through all the houses one by one. The two of them ran to the top floor of a building, where one of the apartments had a broken door. Sophie’s mother thought the Germans might see the broken door and think the apartment had already been searched, so they went inside. The apartment still had its furniture. There was a book of poems open on the bed. “My mother thought I was crazy,” Sophie said, “but I started reading. Never in my life have I wanted so much to just go into another country. I wanted to walk into that book. I memorized the poem. The Germans were in the building—they threw a baby out a window, I saw a woman jump. I remember thinking ‘A’ is a shelter you can go into, ‘M’ is a bridge you can walk across.”
The Warsaw ghetto was the last place she saw her parents and her younger brother, Stefan. From there, Sophie went into the camps, at fifteen, alone. She was in fourteen camps; she was in Majdanek and in Auschwitz and in Bergen-Belsen. At Bergen-Belsen they did no work, they were just kept—“they almost didn’t feed us”—and lights-out was very early. “That was the time for poetry,” Sophie says. In the evenings, lying on the boards they slept on all together, she recited poems, out loud, ones she remembered from school and from her mother. She has a high voice, unusually sweet, that has a little quaver in it. In English she always pronounces every letter in a word, which has the effect of seeming to recognize each word and to value it.
Once, some thirty years after the liberation of the camps, Sophie was working in the office of the United Nations Association in Washington DC, where she was the executive director for many years, and a woman came by who had a Polish accent. They began to speak, and it transpired that they had both been in the camps, and in some of the same camps. “I thought so,” said the woman, “you used to recite poetry at night, I recognized your voice.”
“Poetry,” Sophie says sometimes, “is how I kept my language. For years I had no one to speak Polish with, and I would sit and remember poems. The way I feel it is like pulling threads out of my mind, you pull a line and then you pull another line. That’s how I still have my Polish. I was in touch with that lady for many years, but now I have no one who I can talk with about those poems of long ago.”