The Underground Library
Chapter 1Sofie BaumannThe Baumann’s Residence, BerlinMay 1939
“Hurry, Sofie!” Her sister’s voice floated through the open door, echoing past the bookcases lining the walls.
It reached her as Sofie sat in a world of her own, lounging in the window seat in her father’s library, her favorite spot in the house. A book lay open in her hands, but her eyes were gazing out to the pale pink softness of the cherry blossom petals fluttering down from the tree on the street below.
“There you are!” Rachel hurried into the library, and Sofie could hear the tenderness in her elder sister’s voice as she crossed the room. “I knew I’d find you in here.” She smiled gently and rested a hand on Sofie’s arm, and Sofie tried to imprint it into her memory, the essence of their nineteen years together—her entire childhood, and the only place she had ever known.
“I’ve decided not to go.” Sofie trained her eyes on the page, trying to blot out reality. “You can tell Papa.”
But Rachel’s hand remained on her arm, her voice calm. “You know you have to go, Sofie. Think of Papa. He worries about you, and we’ll follow you there very soon.” She fixed Sofie with her firm smile, as if it were all agreed and there was nothing more to say. “We’ll be together again before you know it.”
Three years older, Rachel had always been the leader, serious and strong. Sofie, ever the youngest, had been the dreamy one with her head in a book. “Why can’t you go in my place? You’re far better suited for this than I am.”
“I’m sorry, Sofie.” She sat down beside her. “This job, the visa, they’re in your name. I can’t take your place, and even if I could, I wouldn’t. I want you to be safe, and right now, Britain is one of the safest places in Europe.” Rachel put an arm around her, and Sofie slumped into her with resignation, knowing that she was right, as usual. Ever since their mother’s death ten years ago, Rachel had taken on much of the responsibility of their family. Sofie had been partially raised by her, not that she would admit it. As a result, Rachel was the person she always turned to when she didn’t know what to do.
Pulling away, Sofie crushed her fists into her eyes with frustration. “But if they hadn’t canceled your job, we’d have been leaving for London together. At least we would have each other.”
“I know that it’s daunting to go alone, Sofie, but a job will come up for me soon. I’ve been going to the British Embassy every day to check the advertisements and apply for posts. Yesterday there were two, one for a housekeeper and another for a cook—although I would have to learn some of that bland British cooking for the job.” Rachel laughed, trying to make light of it, but they both knew how dire things were. Britain was the only place in Europe still offering visas to Jews; every other country was too scared of having a deluge of refugees, too scared of what that could mean in the coming war.
But the British visa came with a catch: you could only apply for one if you had already secured a job contract for domestic work. There was a shortage of servants in Britain, so the British humanitarian groups pressing to help Jews had finally struck a deal with the government: They would let Jews into the country if they were to fill a vacant servant’s position.
“But it’s not so easy anymore,” Sofie said in despair. “Scores of people are swarming to the British Embassy every day to apply for only one or two new positions. Everyone I know is trying to get a visa. What will we do if you’re not picked?”
“I will find a way to join you, visa or no visa. Frederick says that if things get any harder for us over here, we can cross the border into France.”
“How much harder can it get?” Sofie countered. “We can’t get jobs. We can’t go to school or to college. They’ve forced us to sew these stars onto our clothes, and we’re banned from shops and restaurants. Ever since Kristallnacht, we’re being attacked on the streets and no one blinks an eye at it. Threats are painted on our doors and our property is vandalized for no reason. And what about those of us who simply vanish? No one’s heard a word from Professor Reinhardt since he was called into the police station for questioning, and it’s been more than a month now!”
“Don’t work yourself up, Sofie. Things are never as bad as they seem. Both Frederick and I have exit visas, and we can go to Belgium or France. We’re trying to get one for Papa to come with us, even though he’s insisting on staying here, close to Mama’s grave.” She made a long sigh, then leaving the thought unsaid, she continued. “But we’re still going to try to get the British visa, since it would also mean that we would have an income and a place to live when we arrive.” She pulled away from Sofie, looking imploringly at her, eyes wide and insistent.
“But Frederick will never be able to get a work visa,” Sofie said. Although their neighbor Frederick was like a cousin to them, Sofie couldn’t see how a bookish medical student would be useful in helping them escape from Nazi Germany. “There are hardly any advertisements for male servants, only the occasional gardener or footman. The vacancies are always for women, maids and housekeepers. If you wait for him to get one, you’ll never leave.”
There was a moment of silence before Rachel said, “You’re right, he might not. But if we have to travel through Germany to get to the border, he can help us. He looks more Aryan, and if I dye my hair blond, we can pretend to be regular Germans. I’ve heard people talk about it, how they just cut the stars off their coats and walk down the street with their heads held high, as if they have nothing to be scared about. We can do that if we need to, Frederick and me, and Papa, too. We can hide in plain sight and escape.” Rachel glanced out of the window at the cherry tree petals cascading down, then she got up and walked to the piano in the corner—arguably her favorite spot in the house.
Frustratedly, Sofie followed her. “Then why can’t I wait here with you?”
“Because it isn’t safe, Sofie, and the more of us that travel together, the greater the risk we’ll be caught. You have to take this visa, for all of our sakes.” Rachel let her fingers fall thoughtlessly onto the piano keys, playing the first few triplets of her usual piece, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Rachel was the musical one, the pianist, the notes an omnipresent echo through their home.
As she listened, Sofie tried to memorize it for the future—where would she ever hear piano music again? And where was she going to find a library like Papa’s? What was she going to do without her books to escape to in these terrible times? A fear came over her for all that she was losing, and she clutched the slim volume of poetry in her hand, determined to slip it into her suitcase.
In the middle of the slower section, Rachel’s fingers slowed and stopped, the last notes lingering like unfinished thoughts. “Sofie, you know that Papa will not let you stay, not when it means putting you in danger. If anything were to happen to you he wouldn’t be able to bear it, not if you’d had the chance to leave. And our lives have already become so small here.” Slowly, she got up and pulled Sofie toward the door, her voice a little more firm. “Now come on, it’s time to go.”
Sofie clenched her fists in frustration, but she knew she was no match for her older sister. No matter how much she argued, Rachel would put her onto the train regardless.
Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be led through the hallway to where her father waited, her small suitcase beside him. Quickly, she bent down and opened it, sliding in her volume of poems. Its company on this long, daunting trip would be both comforting and protective.
Her father came forward to hug her. “You know, Sofie, you have always been my special starry-eyed girl. Promise me to keep that light inside you alive. It’s a pity we don’t have any friends or connections in Britain, but I’m sure the Wainwright family will treat you well. Work hard, keep your faith alive, and think of us, how we will be together again soon.”
Tears came to her eyes as Rachel gently guided her out of the front door. “We have to leave if you’re going to make the train.”
But as she went out onto the front steps, Sofie turned back to the old house, her home for all her life, her eyes glancing one last time at the window in the library.
“I will come back,” she murmured. “As soon as I can, I will come home.”
And as she stood, the pink petals from the cherry tree blew from the tree in front of the house, some resting on her shoulders, and she suddenly felt the shiver of how transitory life was, how nothing ever stayed the same, every life fluttering in the wind.