Sophie Stach Virgilio

From Occupied Poland to Asbury Park, NJ – An Author is Born at 80

I begin my book, Goat in the Attic, with a note about my Mamusia, Aunt Katherine. . .

As a child, I always thought Aunt Katherine was my Mother.  I called her Mamusia, in Polish an affectionate term for mother.  It was many months after I came to America that I accepted that she was not my Mother, but my Aunt Katherine.

My 81 years of life have been greatly affected by my first eleven years.

My mother left Poland for the United States in 1920, when she was 18 years old. She met my father, who was working in restaurant in New York City, and they married. While my mother went on to become a U.S. citizen, my father’s work papers expired and he was forced to go back to Poland, promising to return.  But he had made enough money, in New York City, to become a wealthy landlord in Poland and he lost the desire to return to the life of a busboy in the U.S. In 1936, my mother returned to Poland and I was born two years later. The war broke out the following year. Mother pleaded with my father to return to the U.S. with her, but he refused. She went without him. Since she didn’t have the papers for me to travel with her, I was also left behind, with her sister-in-law, Katarzyna (Katherine). I was two years old.

For the next nine years, I lived with my Aunt Katherine and cousins Zosia and Gienek, on their farm in southeast Poland.  It was a life of pastoral joy and I loved living on the farm.  But along with the joy, was the fear.  Luckily, we did not experience the bombing that was happening in the cities of Krakow and Warsaw, but we heard it constantly.  For many years after, I continued to hear the dreadful sound in my head. We lived with the constant fear of the Gestapo, the Nazi police who would come anytime, without warning. We never knew what they would do, and they could do anything.

One of my most vivid memories is of when I was six years old, at Christmas time. One evening the door flew open and a Nazi, holding a grenade, demanded that we tell him where the Jews were hidden. While my Aunt pleaded with him not to hurt us, he continued to shout then threw the grenade into the room. I can remember how it rolled toward us.  Even at that young age, I knew it was something awful. We sat there frozen, but the grenade never went off.

Deciding that the best place to hide the goat was in the attic, panic turned to black comedy as three people struggled to get a scared goat up the stairs into the attic.

Everything was rationed, we had to give most of our livestock to the Nazi officers. They took away our cows, goats, horses and hogs. We were able to keep some chickens, a cow, and a few rabbits. We also had to give an assigned amount of produce from the farm. What we kept was just enough to sustain ourselves. With severe rationing, Hitler had set out to starve all of Europe. They were always inspecting to make sure we were not hiding food, but of course, we were. Aunt Katherine was keeping an illegal goat, that we desperately needed for milk. One day, we saw a Nazi officer riding a motorcycle toward our house. Panicked, we tried to hide the goat, because if it was found we would be punished. Deciding that the best place to hide the goat was in the attic, panic turned to black comedy as three people struggled to get a scared goat up the stairs into the attic. Gienek stayed in the attic with the frightened goat to keep her calm and quiet. It worked and we were lucky.

Book made in Poland
Souvenir book created by Sophie’s friends and teachers when she left Poland

When I was eleven years old, Aunt Katherine told me I was to go to the United States to be with my real mother, but I had no concept of what that meant.  To me, Aunt Katherine was my Mamusia, my mother. Gienek and Zosia my brother and sister. The separation was devastating for me.

I arrived in New York City on January 15, 1950. I was met by my mother, Helena Stach, who was elated to see me. She told me that leaving me was the hardest thing she’d ever done, and she never dreamed it would take nine years before we saw each other again.  I did not feel the same sense of elation she did, I was only sad and confused.

At the age of 16, I was unprepared to be on my own, but that is what happened.

My mother worked as a live-in cook and housekeeper for Dr. and Mrs. Phelan in New Jersey. They lived in a big, beautiful house and they welcomed me with open arms. Childless, the couple treated me with love and kindness. In high school, I was a top student and the guidance counselor encouraged me to think about college. Life was good but it changed yet again, in 1956, when Dr. Phelan passed away.

Ship from Poland
The MS Batory, the ship Sophie left Gdynia, Poland in January 1950.

Mother took on a new job as a live-in chef for Mrs. Walsh, an elderly woman who lived in a grand home in New Jersey. Mrs. Walsh made it clear there was no room for me.  At the age of 16, I was unprepared to be on my own, but that is what happened.  I rented a room, went to school and had a job as a clerk.  On the outside, I appeared strong and capable, but on the inside, I was naive and vulnerable.  I spent time with my friends, but I also spent a lot of time alone walking at night on the streets, with no concept of the danger.

Sophie Stach VirgilioI persevered and earned a teaching degree. I taught school for 10 years, then moved on to the corporate world at Exxon, finally retiring in 2000.  Along the way I met and married a man with whom I had my wonderful son, Richard. The marriage ended, but that’s a story for my next book!

In 2006, I moved to Wanamassa, New Jersey to be closer to my son. Wanamassa is very close to Asbury Park, a vibrant and artsy shore town. I took advantage of all that Asbury has to offer; art galleries, independent film house, libraries, and of course, the beach.

Sophie Stach Virgilio and Richard VirgilioVir
Sophie and her son, Richard Virgilio

I began to tell Richard stories about Nazis coming to the farm, hiding the goat upstairs, the grenade in the kitchen. He said, “Mom, these stories are interesting. I talked to my friends and no one has stories like you do”.  He encouraged me to begin writing.  I joined the Black Box Writers Group of Asbury Park.  The first story I wrote was Angel Wings and Hand Grenades because it was still so fresh in my mind.

Reading such a personal story aloud, to a group of strangers, was very difficult for me. I honestly believed I would be laughed at, but their reactions were quite surprising. Everyone loved my story and encouraged me to keep writing.  They wanted to hear more so I kept going!

The turning point was a reading I did in 2014. A member of the writer’s group, Alexis Kozak, thought my stories were fabulous and would make a good performance piece. I was hesitant, but he persisted and two years later I did a reading of nine of my stories. It was a standing room only audience and I received a standing ovation! It was such a surprise.

I continued to write; I was going to stop the stories with my move to the U.S., but the writing group wouldn’t let me.  I wrote additional stories and decided to publish them as a collection of short stories.   

The process of writing it all took away anger I didn’t know existed.

Not having a clue as to how to get a book published, I did what anyone would do first, I Googled it!  I soon found out that in order to publish, I would first need an agent. It was overwhelming and it was tough to know where to start.  But for two years, I wrote query letters to agents and the more they rejected me, the more I pushed forward.

Goat in the Attic

I was rejected by every agent I contacted, but I was still determined to publish my book . . . even if the only reader turned out to be my son!  I reached out directly to all the large NYC publishers, but none was interested. I was finally successful when I contacted a small company, Newman Springs Publishing. They accepted my manuscript!  My book, Goat in the Attic and Other Stories was released in January 2019.

Writing was healing for me.  I hadn’t realized how angry I was; about being left by my mother as a toddler, having to leave Aunt Katherine, being left again by my mother when I was sixteen. The process of writing it all took away anger I didn’t know existed. By writing this book, I was able to forgive my mother. I couldn’t do that for a very long time. It gave me power as a person, and I felt strong. Previously, I felt afraid and lived in fear of something unexpected happening.  Not anymore, it was wonderful.

Sophie Stach VirgilioI often think about where my life has taken me.  I vividly remember the lonely and scared sixteen year old me walking the streets at night, feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere. Little did I know then, that I would have a wonderful son and a blessed life.  If I could tell her anything it would be, to stay the course and not change anything she did.  If certain things hadn’t happened, then some of the good things would not have occurred either. My marriage didn’t work out, but it did produce a loving son. I didn’t want to leave Poland, but today I’m 81 years old, living on my own in a place I love and I’m a published author!

Now I spend my time doing readings and presentations at local libraries, church groups, and bookstores. I’ve been interviewed on local radio stations and, this Fall, I’ll be speaking in a history class at the local Community College.  It’s fulfilling to share my stories with young people.  Many of them know so little about WW II and the horrors that so many people endured.

Recently, I read from Goat in the Attic for a group of 8th graders at a local Middle School. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine that the police could come into their homes at any time and take whatever they want, including a loved one who may never return.  It truly touched them. Afterward, one girl came up to me and said she wanted to give me a hug. It was wonderful.


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One Response

  1. Thank you for highlighting Sophie Virgilio’s book.
    It is a powerful presentation without one extra word.
    I see it as a play with single actress.
    I hope someone makes this happen!

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