We sat at a round table as she talked, her Dutch accent seasoning her story.
I scribbled her words down in my notebook.
Tales of war. Of espionage. Of persecution. Things we don’t live through here and now.
She spoke German, so we traded a few words over our tea cups, just as practice for us both.
“I wrote down my story,” she said, her eyes brightening. She left and went into the back room. The sounds of rifling followed. Then she produced the thick pad of paper full of words and sentences, double spaced.
“It’s my manuscript of the time.”
I nodded and thumbed through the pages.
She was remarkable. At age 89, her mind was still sharp. Her boyfriend, who would have been her husband except that the logistics of a ceremony were too great at their age, sat nearby in a wheelchair listening.
She gave detailed stories of her escape from the Germans during World War II. She told of watching loved ones be dragged away. She told of traveling alone through snowy fields by herself. She described how a she used a passing flirtation to become a spy for the underground. It was a little lipstick that helped her find out that it was safe for an Allied weapon drop.
I listened rapt, wondering if I would have been capable of her bravery.
Her courage had left its scars, in the form of a fear that resurfaced at odd times, such as when I asked for a photo for the story I was writing. There might be some who still seek to harm the Jews, she explained, as she declined.
After I had filled the lines and rows of my notebook with her words, she turned to more personal matters. She handed me a dusty German novel.
“Will you read it?” she asked. I nodded, but wondered if I could, my German having rusted without consistent use.
She turned back to the manuscript. She needed an editor, she told me. Would I be willing? I hedged, but said maybe. She asked me to visit. It’s lonely in this small town.
With the lines of journalistic ethics tumbling in my mind, I held her at arm’s length. I smiled and said goodbye in German. I took what I had and wrote the story.
Months later, she called. Her husband had just died, she said. “I am alone now.” I told her I was sorry, feeling the pity wash over me. She again brought up the manuscript, urging me to stop by.
“I will try,” I said, my conscience tapping on my shoulder. I thought I would. I intended to. But the town where she lived was out of the way. I seldom had reason to go there. Maybe I could stop by one Saturday afternoon, I thought.
I never did.
One day I stopped to snatch a fax off the machine. Obituary information. Nothing out of the ordinary. I let the paper flutter onto the news clerk’s desk, but caught the name before it came to a rest.
It was her.
Suddenly all my good intentions deflated like a beach ball pricked with a pin. She died alone, her manuscript collecting dust in the back room. I wondered where that bundle of papers was now. I wondered if anyone would ever read it, or if it the details of her life would end up on a shelf somewhere, unedited.
I’m sorry, Sophie.