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RD Archives: My Search for Sophie

BY Edie Clark

1st Aug 2023 Life

RD Archives: My Search for Sophie

Seventy years since Dottie lost her best friend, her daughter Edie went on a search for Sophie in order to find out what became of the young Polish woman who was ripped from the family she loved to marry a man she didn't know, and who managed to survive a war 

Would the address on the back of a worn envelope still lead me to my mother's special friend of seventy years ago?

Travelling to Tarnów

Tarnow street view 1923-26Tarnów 1923-1926. Credit: Wikimedia commons 

We sped along the road to Tarnów, through clouds of car and factory exhaust, passing green fields where stout women and old men bent to the harvest. Andy, my driver, darted around horse-drawn carts, happily practising his English on me.

"What is it you want to do in Tarnów?" he asked.

"I'm looking for a woman who once looked after my mother. Sophie Kordzinska."

I pulled a worn air-mail envelope out of my bag. On the back flap, in even European-style lettering, was an address.

"She's very old. I'm not even certain she's still alive."

I had not come to Poland for Sophie. I had come for solace. My husband had died two years before, and his sister Carol had suggested a trip to Eastern Europe. When I told my mother, her eyes lit up.

"Oh, Edie, do you think you could find Sophie?" she asked.

Poland is a big country, I told her. Carol and I were taking a guided tour, which would leave little spare time. I felt it would be impossible, but I said I'd try. Sophie holds magic for my mother, in a way I can only ever try to understand.

Sophie and my mother 

In 1916 Sophie came from Krakow to look after my mother when she was a baby in New Jersey. Sophie was 21 years old, a slight, narrow-waisted girl with light brown hair tied in a bun.

She was hard-working, a devout Catholic who, my mother remembers, prayed on her knees in her room and attended church on her Sundays off. But what everyone remembered most about Sophie was her radiant smile.

"What everyone remembered most about Sophie was her radiant smile"

My mother was often ill as a little girl, and Sophie fussed over her, sitting by the bed and cooling her fevers. When her young charge was well, Sophie took her for walks, and in the summer they rode the Ferris wheel at the seaside.

Every afternoon Sophie tucked up my mother for a nap. But my mother would slip out of bed and tiptoe upstairs to Sophie's room. There she sat on the floor and listened to Sophie tell stories about Poland while working magic with needle and thread, stitching together petticoats, and silk scarves. These became Sophie's Christmas presents to the family.

"On Christmas Eve", my mother would say, "she had to make at least two trips to the living-room, she had made so many gifts for us."

These are nice memories but they would probably have faded were it not for what happened later.

Sophie's sudden departure 

One day when my mother was seven, Sophie came into the living-room holding a letter. She was sobbing.

"My father is very ill," she was finally able to say. "He needs me to come home."

Within days, Sophie was booked on a steamer to return to Poland.

"I sat on Sophie's lap in the back seat," Mother says. "We cried all the way to New York. Sophie boarded the boat. The whistle blew. She waved from the deck. The ship got smaller and smaller as it moved away. And she was gone."

My mother still cannot tell this story without tears welling up. "We thought she was coming back!"

For months they heard nothing. At last came a broken-hearted air-letter from Sophie. Her father had met her at the station, looking well. With him was a young man whom he intro-duced as Wladyslaw Kordzinski, the man she was to marry. He had seen Sophie's photograph and been so smitten that he told her father, "If you bring her home, I will marry her, and you will never want for anything." But this was not to be.

War came. Sophie's husband died of starvation. She was left with three children. A letter reached my family after the war. There was little to eat. Her life was one of uninterrupted misery.

My mother tried to help. Packing clothes for Sophie became a family ritual. Often the parcels didn't get through, but when they did, Sophie would write to us, overjoyed. Her letters were brief, and had sections crossed out by communist censors.

Once, we received an Easter card. "The only happy years of my life", she wrote in her upright script, "were my years in America with your family. Here is very bad."

Finding Sophie 

Now, a month had passed since I'd written to Sophie to say I was coming to Poland. I told her when I would be in Krakow and where I was staying. But I had no reply. Had she died?

Andy had never been to Tarnów. He stopped at a taxi rank, and several drivers crowded round, repeating the street name we sought. "Bron-iewskiego?" Maps were produced and a long conversation in Polish ensued.

Finally, we started winding our way through narrow streets. We passed an open-air market where vendors sold enormous bunches of flowers. I asked Andy to stop, and selected a big bouquet of yellow and red dahlias for Sophie.

Woman with Red Dahlias Credit: Maryviolet

Andy kept asking pedestrians, "Zofla Kordzinska?" No one knew of her. It was already after noon. In less than seven hours, my tour group was scheduled to board a night train to Budapest. It seemed hopeless. At last we stopped to ask an old man if he knew the street. He pointed and we realised Sophie's home was within sight. 

The small house was made from was simple brick, with a low fence and a garden and walls covered in ivy and roses leading towards the gate. 

Andy parked the car, asking if he should come in. "Without you I won't understand anything!" I told him. Apprehensively, I approached the small house and knocked on the door. 

Behind the door, in front of a mirror, were some shelves, bearing a few books and two crystal vases, each holding a rose.

As I approached the door, a a short, plump, white haired woman came out. I thought she might be Sophie, but she seemed too young. "I'm looking for Sophie" I told her, "to ask her about her tragic life—about the war and how her husband died—Sophie Kordzinska. She cared for my mother". 

The woman's face flooded with excitement. "Ees thees Eedie?" she asked, stepping out further onto the brick path, hugging me tight and dancing me in a small circle. 

"Yes," I said, feeling intense relief. 

I introduced Andy and through him we began to speak. Sophie's daughter was in Switzerland, soon to be married, and she spoke of the son who had died three years ago from the effects of the meltdown at Chernobyl. 

She told me of herself, how after her husband had died she and her children had nearly been sent to Siberia. Yet her faith had allowed them to endure and she had survived unharmed. 

"Her faith had allowed them to endure and she had survived unharmed"

Sophie put her hands to her face and her tears streamed. "Seventy years!" She grasped me and cried into my shoulder. 

She led us through the garden planted with vegetables, fruit, trees or flowers, to a place where we could sit together. I talked about my family and showed Sophie the photographs my mother had sent. At the mention of my grandparents' surname, Rahmann, Sophie began to cry again.

"Mrs Rahmann," she said haltingly, "was best woman in the world!"

Older and younger woman smiling at each other in nature Credit: Ocskaymark

Her voice grew soft as if she were disappearing into a dream. Her tears never stopped all afternoon. We sat talking as best we could, Sophie's wide, reddened eyes fixed on me in unending disbelief. We were strangers and yet old friends. I was an ambassador, a stand-in for my grandmother and mother.

For my dear Sophie 

The love that came to me that day was unearned, but I tried to convey the place Sophie held in my mother's heart. Leaving was hard. I gave her the flowers and the small gifts I had brought from my mother. She had also sent some money in an envelope—"for my dear Sophie".

When at last I got up, Sophie hid her eyes with her hands and then, standing, closed her arms round me. I was already out of the door when she called, "Wait!" and beckoned me back. Slowly she took down one of the crystal vases—hour-glass shaped, intricately cut, edges soft from wear.

"For Dottie," she said.

"No," I replied.

She was giving me one of the few precious things she owned.

"Yes," Sophie said, "for Dottie.

When I returned home, I went to visit my mother. I showed her the pictures I had taken of Sophie and her family, and gave her the crystal vase. She took it with shaking hands and wept. My mother is now almost as frail as Sophie. She is 78, Sophie 98.

Seventy years had passed since they last saw each other. In that time, sea change after sea change has engulfed the world. Each has grown to womanhood, made homes, borne children, and passed through their lifetimes in broadly different ways. Yet their distant bond transcended all. I don't believe we have a word for this kind of love.

"I don't believe we have a word for this kind of love"

Soon after I arrived home, my mother received a letter from Sophie, her handwriting now almost illegible. One part of the message was clear, in English words emerging like dim lanterns from her past. It seemed like poetry to me.

"Edie's visit was as the sunrise on our dark days," she wrote.

I hope she knew that the sun rose here, as well. 

This piece was taken from the RD Archives, June 1994 

Banner credit: Ekaterina79

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