She was born amid Hitler’s horrors. But then, the Americans came
Sophie Stach Virgilio was a baby, only 8 months old, when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939.
In the next few years that followed, she lived with family members on a farm in southeast Poland during World War II.
Even though she was then only the age of a kindergartner at best, the now 80-year-old Monmouth County resident still remembers what the war planes sounded like overhead as her family huddled in a coal cellar.
Sophie still can see a hand grenade rolling on the floor of the farmhouse's kitchen, tossed there by a member of the Nazi secret police known as "Gestapo" one especially memorable Christmas.
The grenade turned out to be a dud, but Virgilio is overcome with emotion talking about those traumatic times.
"War was (my) whole life," for a 5-year-old Sophie, whose family was almost out of food because of Nazi control when they found out American soldiers had entered the war.
Virgilio said she still feels the joy that she had when her aunt came into a room and simply said, "the Americans came.”
And even though she was just 5, she said she somehow knew then "that the war would be over, because the Americans came."
Virgilio said to all those soldiers who saved them from certain starvation, at that point, “a million times, thank you.”
Following "D-Day" 75 years ago, the Allied troop invasion of Europe, the war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
A few years later, an 11-year-old Sophie boarded a cruise ship alone, and on Jan. 15, 1950, landed in New York City to start a new life in America.
Virgilio's mother already was living in New Jersey, and she said it was a different devastation to leave her aunt behind, as her aunt had helped raise her until that point.
But she was reunited with her mother, who was working for a family in Elizabeth, until 1956, when the head of the household passed away.
At the age of 17, Virgilio said, she was on her own — so she rented a room, went to school and worked her way through college.
She earned her degree in teaching and taught for 10 years before deciding it wasn’t for her. Virgilio then got a job with a research and engineering company, where she worked until she retired in 2000.
That's when she moved to the Jersey Shore, in Ocean Township, where she joined a writers' group.
Virgilio said the other members encouraged her to write about her war experiences, and then her book, which Sophie said, “brings us up to date.”
Virgilio said she found writing "very healing," and she wants to encourage other people "not to hold things back but speak about them."
She said she found writing her memoirs about living through World War II and her early life as a U.S. immigrant to be "empowering" and — that it gave her "new courage and took away anger" she didn’t even know she was carrying.
Most of all, Virgilio wants people to realize how much sacrifice was made by the U.S. and other Allied troops who helped restore liberty to so many, including a young 5-year-old war survivor turned Jersey Girl.
“Goat in the Attic and Other Stories: A Young Girl’s Memories of Hitler’s Occupation of Poland" is Virgilio's new memoir, available on digital platforms and at bookstores.
On Saturday, June 8, Virgilio will be doing a book reading at Ocean Township library at 2 p.m.
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