Sophie L. — A Life in Five Moves

Leslie Berlin
19 min readMar 7, 2016

She rescues her husband from Buchenwald and twice flees for her life as a refugee — but her final move is the hardest.

Strasbourg, 1938

It is November, and Sophie Leffmann’s father is murmuring a prayer of thanks. The Nazis seized his small shop in the rural German town of Ittlingen, but he has French citizenship. He has been able to bring Sophie and her mother to live in Strasbourg, France.

Sophie, meanwhile, is not feeling grateful. She feels marooned. Walter, her husband of only a few weeks, is far away, in Frankfurt. He is German, born in Cologne. Sophie had met him a few months earlier, at the shivah reception following the funeral for a family friend. Walter was 33 — eight years older. He caught her eye because even though he was already balding, he was tall, so very tall, over six feet, a giant for a Jew. He had sidled up to her on some pretense and kept her cornered for the rest of the afternoon. Before he left, he leaned down and whispered, “You will be hearing from me.”

Flirting at a shivah! Sophie was scandalized.

But pleasantly so. She told him how to find her.

Men had been noticing her for years. Even when she was still in high school and wearing the long skirts and modest jackets her mother insisted upon, she felt eyes on her. Sophie had been blessed with beauty: eyes so dark they were almost black; thick hair, a deep auburn, that she wore in tight curls against her head; and a figure she felt she had to watch but that men found round in all the right places.

In Ittlingen, with its scarce numbers of Jews, Sophie had had no suitors. No Jewish boys her age and no possibility of dating a non-Jew meant Sophie received a great many favorable looks but nothing more. She had wanted to leave Ittlingen almost as soon as she learned there were other places to go. She did not enjoy working in the family shop, selling industrial oils and other equipment to farmers in outlying areas. She found rigor unpleasant — school had not been easy for her — and when she finally left Ittlingen to continue her studies at a “school of domestic arts” in Frankfurt, she did so expecting to find not a career but a man.

And she did find one — a soft-spoken fellow who wanted her to emigrate with him to Milwaukee, where he planned to start a new life. He told her that Milwaukee had many Germans. “So does Frankfurt,” she said. He left without her.

Soon afterward, Sophie met Walter. Her parents’ disapproval had been formidable. Her father, head of the small Ittlingen synagogue, found it unfathomable that Sophie could have feelings for a man who did not keep kosher. Her mother deplored Walter’s work as a traveling salesman, peddling ties, sleeping in a different bed every night, cavorting with Godknowswhatkindofpeople! (Sophie’s explanation that Walter had been in the textile business until the Nazis revoked his work permit meant nothing to her mother.) Walter was a nobody, with no money, no family name. How did Sophie, who had grown up with a hired girl to do the housework and cook; Sophie, whose school of domestic arts taught her how to sew nice patterns, work with children, and understand housework only enough to oversee her own hired girl — how did Sophie imagine her life with Walter-the-salesman, who had stridden into their home on feet large enough to crush a kitten?

If her parents had stopped berating him, Sophie might have discovered that she liked the idea of Walter more than Walter himself. Instead, she came to think she should marry him. (Never, she says, did she think she loved him.) And so they were married in Strasbourg, Walter allowed to stay in the French city only temporarily. It had been a civil wedding, which only made her parents hate him more. Afterward, Walter returned to work in Frankfurt.

At home in Strasbourg, Sophie is reading a letter from Walter, dated November 9, 1938. If you do not hear from me, he writes, the Nazis have arrested me. The day after Walter posts the letter, soldiers pound on the door of the house in which he rents a room. His elderly landlord admits the thugs, who begin destroying furniture, ripping photos, breaking dishes, dumping food, incinerating papers. When all is in ruins, they arrest Walter and his landlord, caught in the wave of anti-Jewish violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht.

Early the next morning, Walter is deposited at the Buchenwald concentration camp. For the next six and a half weeks, he lives in a barracks with 350 other men, all of them wearing the clothes they arrived in and subsisting on a ration of water and two pieces of bread a day. Every night, the Nazis select one man from the barracks and beat him to death. They leave a string of dead men hanging outside the door, cooling like meat in the frigid night air. This goes on for eight nights and then, without explanation, it ends.

On the other side of the border, Sophie receives a letter from Walter’s mother saying that he has been arrested. Sophie asks her parents to help her save him. They will help, they tell her, on one condition: that she agree to a second, religious wedding. Walter is a Nazi captive, and her parents worry about a chupah, a prayer, a broken wineglass! But what can she do? She consents.

Her parents send her to a lawyer they know, who tells her of a relief group in Paris called HICEM. It helps Jews leave Europe, he says, but she will need money.

Sophie races to the HICEM headquarters in Paris. There she learns that the sole hope for her husband is either to get him a visa for Bolivia, one of the only countries admitting Jewish refugees, or to try Shanghai, where no visa is necessary. The man at the office recommends Bolivia. The weather is better, he says, and the Bolivian consulate in Paris, where she can get the visas, is not too far. She rushes to the consulate and acquires two precious visas — she, of course, will join him — with her parents’ money.

Walter’s visa arrives at Buchenwald — prisoners can receive mail and even money — and with this proof that he will leave Germany, Walter is released. The Nazis give him four weeks. If he is not gone, he will be arrested again.

Sophie meets him at the border crossing station, manned by only a few soldiers. The soldiers give Walter trouble. Why should they let him cross? Who is he, after all? Sophie steps forward. She wonders aloud: Does she know one of these soldiers from somewhere? He looks so familiar … She bends a bit in his direction, smiles. He waves Walter through.

Walter crosses to the other side, into France.

La Paz, 1939

In early February, Sophie and Walter are married in a religious ceremony in Paris. Four hours later, they board a train for Marseille, where their ship, the Orazio, is docked for its voyage to South America.

They will spend the next four weeks below decks in steerage class. The Orazio is meant to hold no more than about 300 passengers in steerage, but at least twice that number are crammed inside, where they sleep in bunks, 50 or 80 to a room. The press and smell of so many bodies are overwhelming; most people are willing to brave even the frigid February air to escape the rooms. Every place and every moment is filled with people. People playing cards. People singing or fighting or laughing or telling stories in German, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, French, or Yiddish, a language Sophie’s parents had called the sign of a low-class Jew. Walter cannot sleep: the crush of bodies, the rows of bunk beds, the desperation — it reminds him of Buchenwald. And soon, Sophie falls ill, first with strep throat, then scarlet fever. She shivers and sweats, and everyone can see her suffering. She nearly dies.

In March, clutching Walter’s arm, Sophie shuffles off the boat in Arica, Chile, a port city surrounded by sand dunes and desert. The forbidding isolation is deliberate: the Chilean authorities do not want the Jews to leave Arica for other parts of Chile. There is only one way into Arica — by ship — and one way out: by train to La Paz, Bolivia. The train runs twice each week but happens to be leaving shortly after the Orazio docks. Sophie and Walter catch it.

The train climbs 13,000 feet, from sea level into the sky. Up, up, up, up, up through the Andes, higher than Sophie has ever been, and then still higher. The passengers look at each other in panic as the air thins and their breathing becomes labored, but still they climb — past villages and adobe huts, past brown-skinned women in layered, colored skirts and tall black hats, past shaggy animals Sophie later learns are llamas. At one point, the grade is so steep that the train requires a chain drive to pull itself upward. At other times, the journey pauses while the train takes on water. Sophie and Walter arrive in La Paz 24 hours later, after dark, and cannot see the city. Representatives from HICEM take them to a temporary dormitory to sleep. Sophie awakes to the braying of mules outside her window.

They join a small community of German and Austrian Jews. In certain respects, La Paz resembles a small European capital. Its streets are wide, paved, and lined with hotels, restaurants, and shops. The presidential palace stands cool and impressive across from a pristine public square, near a large church. But the city is also almost unimaginably foreign, with its market stalls, where Indios with babies swaddled across their backs sell exotic fruits like avocados and bananas; its clusters of small, slight men, teeth brown from chewing coca leaf, who lead mules, faded cloth bags over their haunches, down the steep streets. The air is so thin that it makes European ears bleed and clenches Sophie and Walter’s chests as if they are holding their breath.

Every week more Jewish refugees arrive. Some 20,000 will come to Bolivia by the end of 1940, and those who stay in La Paz quickly try to reproduce the world that Hitler is destroying. While Europe drowns in blood and barbed wire, the Jews of La Paz establish German-language schools and theaters. They publish a newspaper. They promenade along the square. They launch a sports club. They open European-style restaurants and cafés and share Kaffee und Kuchen while opera plays quietly from small phonographs perched on narrow-legged tables. Many women start businesses out of their houses, making cookies or sewing baby clothes to sell to other refugees.

Walter opens a small tie factory using imported silk and patterns that Sophie cuts herself. Fellow refugees sew and sell the colorful ties throughout Bolivia, bringing them to places where, Walter brags, once only black ties were acceptable. He helps to form a B’nai B’rith chapter and a small synagogue. Here — stripped of his German citizenship, with no word from his family or Sophie’s, living untethered, save for the days-old newspapers from Argentina that the refugees spread out on tables in the cafés to follow the war — here he suddenly chooses to be Jewish.

Sophie, too, transforms herself. No longer is she the only daughter of middle-class rural shopkeepers, no longer the girl who can scarcely pass a classroom test. Now she is the wife of a successful industrialist in a flourishing society. She and Walter buy a flat on the top floor of a nice building, with views of the city. They have two sons, Rene and Juan; a nanny called Frau Falk; and two local women to serve as cook and maid. Sophie has Walter’s factory order extra silk for dresses she designs for herself. When she hears that the Orazio, the ship that saved her, has sunk after an engine fire, drowning more than 100 people, she and Walter join the rest of the community in collecting money for the survivors.

When she learns about the atrocities being suffered by the people trapped in Europe, when anti-Semites fill the La Paz newspapers with letters and articles against the Jewish “Maccabi,” when the war ends and she discovers that Walter’s mother has perished in a camp, that Sophie’s own parents survived hidden on a farm near the Spanish border, that one brother escaped to Switzerland but her beloved younger brother Max is dead — when all this happens, she allows herself to cry and then refastens her smile. Nothing to be gained by wallowing in the past, in a world lost, she tells herself.

She is not alone in this belief. A poem written in 1940 to welcome the Orazio survivors to La Paz exhorts: “Forget, if you are able, the yesterdays / And think about the morrow, the time to come. / You fathers — mothers — brothers — sisters / Rise. Rise, and for a new battle be freshly prepared.”

Baltimore, 1954

Revolution comes to La Paz in 1952. Rebellion had been brewing for years — in 1946, the president was shot and his body hung from a lamppost outside the presidential palace — but now militia and rebels battle openly in the street. Explosions and shouts ring continually outside Sophie’s window. Convinced that the apartment with the beautiful views is no longer safe, she drags her children downstairs, where they live with another family through the worst of the fighting. Sophie is too frightened to allow anyone outside, and since fruit, milk, meat, and bread must be purchased fresh every day, food quickly runs low. Electricity is cut. When Sophie’s 13-year-old son dares to peer through a closed curtain, a soldier on the other side points a gun at the boy’s head.

Sophie decides they must leave La Paz. Her flat, her friends, Frau Falk, the factory, the plays and parties: in an instant, they no longer matter. She will not miss them.

Among the things she is willing to leave behind: the grave of her second son, Juan, who had died of meningitis shortly before his first birthday. The community’s physician, an elegant, fine-boned man from Vienna, had shown her how to cool Juan’s fever and plaster his chest with compresses. He had even helped her take the baby down to Cochabamba on yet another terrifying train ride, in hopes there was something to the locals’ beliefs in the curative powers of lower altitude. Sophie had done all she could for her son, but when he was buried, she closed the door on his memory. She saved the few photos she had and refused to talk about him again — with anyone, including her husband and remaining son. He was gone, and it was over. Three and a half years after Juan’s death, Sophie and Walter have a daughter, Vera.

Although Sophie is determined to leave La Paz, Walter wants to stay. He is “someone” here, he says. Herr Leffmann, factory magnate. Herr Leffmann, pillar of the synagogue. This is too much to give up. Sophie decides Walter is a fool. Already a few bodies lie in the street each day — how can he think it will get no worse? Her husband’s naïveté infuriates her, but she is not surprised. Walter had done nothing in Germany when the Nazis encouraged schoolboys to mock him. Nothing when the Nazis took his work permit. Nothing when they restricted his movements around town. He had always thought, It cannot get worse than this. The best thing that ever happened to Walter, Sophie now knows, was his being thrown into Buchenwald so early, when it was still possible to get out. She knows that, but for his arrest, he would have stayed in Germany, a frog in a vat coming slowly to a boil.

But Sophie will not sit and wait for the worst to happen to her. A cousin in the United States agrees to sponsor their immigration. Walter rages around the La Paz flat, shouting and ranting, but she is adamant. She has not listened to him since the day their daughter was born, the day he looked at the baby only long enough to announce, “This one will die, too, you know.”

The family sells nearly everything except for gold and heavy jewelry, easily carried. They board an Italian ship bound for Panama and then another to New York. The sponsoring cousin brings them to Baltimore, where the family finds a small apartment in a poor, largely Jewish neighborhood. Sophie and Walter rely on the children — their son is now 14, their daughter seven — who quickly gain fluency in this third language, enough to translate in the offices of doctors, loan officers, and school officials.

In Baltimore, just as he had feared, Walter is no longer “someone.” He works in the shipping department of a tie manufacturer and later as a salesman for a wholesaler of ladies’ accessories. He wears a three-piece suit every day, but he is no longer Herr Leffmann; he is Walter.

“Life would have been better in La Paz!” he shouts at Sophie after hauling his sample case up the stairs to their apartment. “We should have stayed!” When the car stalls, when the children ask for money, when Walter Cronkite reports another spike in crime, when someone vandalizes the apartment mailboxes — he never lets her forget what they once had.

She screams back at him. They fight in German, always, even as their Spanish recedes and their English improves. In America, she yells, she can hang a mezuzah on her front doorpost without fear, and then she can walk through the door and out onto the street without fear. No one is shooting at her. No mules are waking her at first light. The only thing she misses about La Paz is the household help she had there.

Sophie cries the first few times she has to mop her own floor, but she adapts. She comes to love mornings at her Formica kitchen table with its chairs in bright yellow vinyl, where she eats a small bowl of Special K and skim milk (to keep her figure, she says) and stares out the window while her children prepare for school. Her husband sits alone at the far end of the dining room table, his cigarette smoldering in an ashtray as he snaps his way through the Baltimore Sun or Der Aufbau. He looks up only to scrape the black off the toast or to spread chunky orange marmalade on the fried egg he eats with his fork held upside-down in his left hand.

One summer, Sophie and Walter take a cruise, just the two of them, and for these couple of weeks, they do not fight. They revel in having chosen to take a boat trip for pleasure, rather than scrambling to survive. Sophie loves the elegance of cruising: the music, the food, the attentive young waiters. Walter signs the ship’s register as Mr. Leffmann and spends long hours smoking on the deck. A photo of them disembarking catches them both in midstride, Sophie trim and moving fast in a pair of white Jackie-O sunglasses and a flower-print dress that shows off her bare arms and fine calves above a pair of pink pumps. She is looking directly at the photographer. Walter is a few steps behind, portly now, but smiling, his eyes on his beautiful wife, the case for his glasses clipped to a belt tight and high across his ample waist. His left arm is swinging forward; her right is swinging back. If you don’t look too closely, you might think they are holding hands.

West Palm Beach, 1981

Sophie and Walter retire to a condo complex in West Palm Beach, Florida. Many residents are fellow Holocaust survivors and refugees. German and Yiddish are as common as English.

After only two years, Walter dies of undiagnosed cancer. Sophie begins seeing a man she had secretly loved in Bolivia a lifetime ago — the same physician who, high in the mountains of La Paz, had tried to save her son Juan. Sophie has often imagined meeting the doctor again, and here he has appeared, as if by magic, in West Palm Beach, in her condo complex. He is widowed and well-to-do. He knows wine and cooks her dinner: tender cuts of buttery fish, mushrooms browned in butter and olive oil and finished in Chianti. He takes her to the ballet. He buys her jewelry. They travel to visit each other’s children. He proposes.

Less than a year after their wedding, he dies.

She moves on.

She marries a third time. Another Walter. He dies, too.

When, a few months later, a retired naval officer asks Sophie if he can court her, she demurs. “Just what I need,” she tells her daughter. “Another man to die on me.”

West Palm Beach, 1997

Alone for the first time, Sophie decides she will never again cook dinner. She moves to a retirement community, where the monthly fee includes a large evening meal.

In the dining room one evening, she is thrilled to discover that a doll-sized woman named Henny is the same Henny she had known in Germany, the same Henny whose 20-something husband had been in Buchenwald with Walter and who had died there — of a heart attack, according to the Nazi guard who had accompanied the casket to Henny’s home and refused to let her open it. Henny lived in England through the war, she tells Sophie, working as a maid in the home of a wealthy Jewish family. Sophie tells her about La Paz. Within weeks, the two ladies — 169 years between them — are inseparable. They go together to the Kroger’s and other stores in town. Soon they venture farther afield, to window-shop on Worth Avenue. Then they begin traveling together, first to see the leaves in New England, then to California to visit grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and from there, wickedly, to Las Vegas, which they both find a bit of a letdown.

When home, they preside over a table in the center of the dining room. Even after Henny suffers a heart attack that ends their travel and adventure, theirs is the table with people who laugh a bit louder and enjoy their meal a bit more than anyone else.

Tulsa, 2008

Sophie falls and hurts herself while loading the washing machine in her condo. Her eyesight has been failing for years — lately she has gotten to the dining room by feeling her way along the walls — but she insists that she needs no assistance beyond a part-time housekeeper. After the fall, her daughter hires more helpers for her, but they are hard to monitor from a distance, and sooner or later, all of them prove inadequate.

Her daughter says that Sophie must move closer to the daughter’s home in the Midwest. Sophie is furious. She wants to stay with Henny and her other friends. Here, finally, she has a place to cling to. Her daughter prevails, but Sophie does not make it easy. She demands that every item she owns make the move with her: each miniature Torah scroll and silver yad; each ceramic bird, glass paperweight, and needlepoint pillow; every photograph and refrigerator magnet; every etching, rug, and piece of furniture bought in Baltimore, or on a cruise, or in West Palm Beach to replace those lost on the Orazio or in Bolivia or Germany. These artifacts are now her only remaining history.

Sophie’s daughter indulges her, figuring this is her mother’s last move. Sophie is already 94.

The Jewish retirement center where Sophie resides consists of two parts: the apartments and the nursing home. She lives in an apartment on the third floor, accompanied every minute by one of four caregivers. The caregivers, all privately hired, come from Kenya. They call Sophie Mama, an honorific reserved for older women. Every day, once she is impeccable — after they fix her hair and do her nails, after she somehow applies her lipstick with a perfect touch, despite tremors so severe that she cannot sign her name — she asks, “So, where are we going today?” And they are off.

It takes five minutes for Sophie to maneuver herself from her wheelchair into the passenger seat of a car (a fraught process overseen by a caregiver strategically positioned behind her), but she insists. How else could she visit her hairdresser, the shopping center, or the Starbucks up the street, where she sips a small nonfat mocha from a straw shoved through the cup’s plastic lid as protection against spills? She and her daughter go to lectures, concerts, the opera, and the synagogue.

But Sophie wants to be home for dinner by five P.M. Just as in Florida, her social life revolves around the retirement center dining room, a lovely space, with warm colors on the walls and fresh centerpieces on the tables. In the mornings Sophie meets the man she calls “my admirer” here; they occasionally touch hands over the breakfast table.

At dinner, she sits near the dining room entrance with five other women. They gossip about other residents, and they share stories. None of them is a Henny, who calls every week, but still, it’s something.

Tulsa, 2013

At 100, Sophie has begun to slow down. Trips to the shopping center have been replaced by slow wheelchair tours around the retirement center grounds. More and more, her mochas are being delivered. Sophie’s sight is almost completely gone now. She has begun to wheeze; old lungs are just not as flexible as young ones, her doctor says. She has been losing words in English, grappling for them in German and then, occasionally, Spanish.

She does not admit she is slipping. She pretends to examine photographs that she cannot see. She says she can walk any time she feels like it. She says she does not want to know how old she is. “I am old enough,” she says. But beneath the bravado, she is scared. She fears she will be forced to move again. Her greatest worry — one so overwhelming she mentions it only in whispers — is that she will be sent to the place she and her friends call The Other Side.

The Other Side is the on-site nursing center, a fine facility that nonetheless terrifies Sophie — less for what it is than for what it lacks. Showers are limited to two per week, given by staff members who take the residents from their rooms to a dedicated area. The bedrooms are too small for personal treasures, with only enough space to wedge a chair or two next to the standard-issue hospital bed and built-in dresser. The dining room, with its sturdy laminate tables and spill-resistant linoleum floors, is almost entirely silent.

Of all the moves Sophie has endured — across oceans and continents, on steamers and airplanes, running for her life — the one she fears most is the few steps across the building, through a set of locked double doors, to The Other Side. No one, she says, moves from there.

At night, Sophie has begun to dream of terrible things: of being chased; of losing her family; of skiing down a steep mountain, a gasping child strapped to her back; of being trapped on a boat that she cannot leave, frantic because her mother has no idea where she is. The caregiver in the next bed has to soothe Sophie many nights, touching her hand and promising that she is safe.

If she is asked about Bolivia or about Germany during the war, Sophie will lift a hand and say, “That life is behind me.” Often she claims to remember nothing of that time. “I forget so much,” Sophie says. “Right now is enough.”

Tulsa, 2014

On an ordinary day toward the end of March, Sophie closes her eyes and refuses to open them. Soon she stops speaking. Then she will not eat; she presses her lips into a thin line against every spoon and entreaty.

On April 17, in her home, surrounded by her treasures and people who love her, she slips away.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of American Scholar and in 2017 was named a Notable Essay by Best American Essays (editor Robert Atwan). Leslie Berlin, a historian of Silicon Valley, is the author of two books and most recently editor of Make Something Wonderful, Steve Jobs in his own words. She is also Sophie’s granddaughter.