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“A heart-wrenching exploration of the decisions women must make when their loyalties are put to the test.” -Sarah Penner, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary
A woman must rescue her cousin’s family from a train bound for Auschwitz in this riveting tale of bravery and resistance, from the bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris
1942. Hannah Martel has narrowly escaped Nazi Germany after her fiancé was killed in a pogrom. When her ship bound for America is turned away at port, she has nowhere to go but to her cousin Lily, who lives with her family in Brussels. Fearful for her life, Hannah is desperate to get out of occupied Europe. But with no safe way to leave, she must return to the dangerous underground work she thought she had left behind.
Seeking help, Hannah joins the Sapphire Line, a secret resistance network led by a mysterious woman named Micheline and her enigmatic brother Matteo. But when a grave mistake causes Lily’s family to be arrested and slated for deportation to Auschwitz, Hannah finds herself torn between her loyalties. How much is Hannah willing to sacrifice to save the people she loves?
Inspired by incredible true stories of courage and sacrifice, Code Name Sapphire is a powerful novel about love, family and the unshakable resilience of women in even the hardest of times.
Look for these other riveting novels by New York Times bestselling author, Pam Jenoff:
- The Kommandant’s Girl
- The Ambassador’s Daughter
- The Diplomat’s Wife
- The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach
- The Orphan’s Tale
- The Lost Girls of Paris
- The Woman with the Blue Star
Micheline threw the still-smoldering Gauloises cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the high heel of her black leather boot. Then she marched across the darkened Paris street and grabbed the man she'd never seen before by the lapels, throwing him back against the stained brick wall of the station.
"Kiss me!" she ordered in English, whispering tersely.
The airman, his crew cut a dead giveaway despite his French civilian clothing and chapeau, stood motionless, too surprised to move as Micheline reached up and pulled him toward her, pressing her open mouth against his. His musty scent was mixed with a hint of tobacco. The streetlight cast a yellow pool on the pavement around them, illuminating their embrace. Micheline felt the man's body responding against her own. The navy beret which covered her red curls tilted off-center, threatening to fall to the ground.
A second later, Micheline broke away and brought her mouth close to his ear. "If you hope to live, follow me." Without another word, she started away down the Rue des Récollets. She sensed the one-two beat as he hesitated, followed by the rapid pattern of his footsteps against the icy pavement. She strained hard to make sure she did not hear anyone else following them but did not dare to look back.
Micheline slowed, allowing the airman to catch up. When he reached her, she moved closer, linking her arm in his and tilting her head toward his shoulder. Anyone watching would have thought them just a smitten couple.
Micheline had spotted the airman a few minutes earlier, standing on the pavement outside the Gare de l'Est, a half kilometer from the intended rendezvous spot, looking out of place. It was always that way with the Brits, scared and barely out of school. The passeur, a girl from Brittany called Renee, was supposed to escort the airman. Her instructions had been simple: deliver the soldier to the Hotel Oud-Antwerpen, where a local contact would take him and hide him for the night. But Renee had never shown. Something must have gone wrong and she'd panicked and fled, leaving the airman alone.
Another ten minutes outside the station and the police would have picked him up. There was already a gendarme at the corner, watching the solider too steadily. That might have been what spooked Renee. Micheline, who was in Paris on an unrelated errand but was aware of the planned pickup, had seen the stranded airman by the station and knew she had to intervene. But Micheline had no way to lead him away on the open street without attracting attention. So she had resorted to The Embrace.
It was not the first time she had feigned passion in the service of the network. The Sapphire Line, as it was now called, had formed almost immediately after the war started. They had a singular purpose: ferrying downed British airmen from the Dutch or German borders across Belgium and occupied France to freedom. This was the hardest part of the journey, getting the airmen across Paris from Gare de l'Est where they arrived to Gare d'Austerlitz where they would set out for points south. It was a few days across France to the Pyrenees, with only a brief stop or two for rest. When the line worked, it was brilliant. But when it failed, catastrophe. There were no second chances.
When they were several blocks from the station and out of sight of the policeman, Micheline pulled the airman into a doorway. He looked as though he expected her to kiss him again. Instead, she adjusted his chapeau in the classic French style so as not to give him away as a foreigner. The disguise, consisting of secondhand, outdated trousers and a too-large shirt, would not fool anyone. And if the clothes did not give him away, his tattered army boots certainly would. He would be forced to take those off farther south anyway. The evacuees tied their shoes around their necks and replaced them with alpargates, the strong laced sandals necessary for crossing the Bidasoa River into Spain.
"Where are you from?" Micheline demanded. She hated to speak aloud out here, but she had to verify that he was actually an airman and not a German spy before taking him to one of their safe houses. If the line was infiltrated even once, it would spread like a cancer, and the entire network would be gone.
The airman paused, his trained instinct not to answer. "Ely in Cambridgeshire."
"What is the most popular movie in Britain right now?"
He thought for a second. "49th Parallel."
"Good. What type of plane were you flying? How many men?"
"Halifax. Six. I don't know if the others made it." There was a choke in his voice.
"I'm sorry." There were a half-dozen other questions she wanted to ask to verify his identity, if only there was time. But they had to keep moving. "Come."
She started walking again more briskly now, savoring the familiar surge of adrenaline that rushed through her as she led the airman to safety. Though just twenty-three years old, Micheline had risen quickly to the top of the network, and she seldom got to undertake rescues herself anymore, instead overseeing operations from her headquarters in Brussels. But the job was fluid and changing. Sometimes, like now, when the mission called for it and there was no one else, she had to jump in. She had nearly forgotten how much she liked being in the field.
As the bell of the church of Saint-Chappelle tolled eleven, Micheline calculated mentally, judging the best way to protect the airman for the night. They had already missed the rendezvous with the contact at the hotel who would have hidden him. Paris was the most dangerous segment of the escape line, but it was often necessary because so many of the trains ran through the French capital. An airman could not simply be dropped at Gare de l'Est and be expected to make his way across the city to the southern stations where the trains left for Lyon or Marseilles. No, he had to be individually ferried through the back streets and alleys by someone who knew the city and how to avoid the security checkpoints, and who spoke impeccable French in case they were stopped and questioned.
When they reached the banks of the Seine, Micheline led the airman across the Pont au Change and into the shadowy alleyways of the Left Bank, clinging to the shadows. The cafés were already closed, barkeepers turning chairs onto tables, snuffing out the candles that burned low. She forced herself to walk at a normal pace and not to run. Her close-fitted trench swished smartly below her knees. She looked to the passersby like she belonged in the throngs of students who frequented the Latin Quarter.
Thirty minutes later they reached the safe-house apartment on Rue de Babylone. Micheline took the airman's hand and led him up the stairs to the apartment, a room which was bare except for a mattress and a weathered armoire and a sink in the corner. He would stay no longer than twelve hours in the city, just enough time to rest and carry on.
Inside, the airman looked weakened and confused. "We went down quickly after we were shot," he offered, saying too much, as they all did. "They hit the fuel tank."
"Are you wounded?"
"No. There were others, though. Someone will look for them, right?" She nodded, but it was a lie. The network could not spare the resources to go back and search for those who were wounded and presumed dead. He opened his mouth to ask something else, but she put her finger to her lips and shook her head. It was not safe to say too much anywhere, even here. The airman's eyes widened. She had seen more than once how very afraid the young soldiers were, the ones who panicked or cried out in their sleep. They were eighteen and nineteen, not more than boys, and thousands of kilometers from home. Micheline herself was just a few years older and sometimes wondered why she could be strong when they could not.
"Empty your pockets," she instructed firmly. There were too many times when a well-intentioned Brit carried something sentimental from home which would be a dead giveaway if he was stopped and questioned.
The airman glanced around the apartment. Then he turned back toward her hopefully, as if the kiss had been real and matters might continue here. "Did you want to...?"
Micheline stifled a laugh. She might have been offended at the overture, but he seemed so naive she almost pitied him. "Here." She rummaged in the armoire for new clothes. Then she threw the clothes at him and gestured toward a screen that offered a bit of privacy at the far end of the room. "Get dressed." He moved slowly, clumsily toward the divider. A tram clacked by on the street below, rattling the cloudy window panes.
A few minutes later, he reemerged in the simple shoes and buttoned shirt of a peasant farmer, an outfit that would help to get him through the south of France to the Pyrenees. She took his old clothes from him. "There's bread in the cupboard," she said. "Stay away from the windows, and don't make a sound. Someone will come for you before dawn. That person will have a key. Don't open the door for anyone."
"Merci," he ventured, and it seemed likely that it was all the French that he knew or understood.
"Bonne chance," she replied, wishing him luck.
Without waiting for a response, she walked briskly from the apartment. She wondered uneasily whether he would still be safely there when the new passeur arrived to claim him for the next leg of his long journey home or whether another calamity would befall the already-struggling network.
Hannah peered through the tiny window of her second-class cabin, the lights along the shoreline twinkling in the distance like a mirage.
It had been more than two days since the MS Brittany had pulled into Havana Harbor. When the ship had first docked, the passengers had gathered too eagerly at the gangplank. But as the hours passed in the Cuban air, muggy even in February, and they were not let off, their bodies grew sweaty under many layers of clothing and the stench that had been with them all along became insufferable. People dropped their heavy suitcases and sat on them. Confusion bubbled around Hannah in multiple languages, replaced eventually by quieting fatigue. "Paperwork delay," the steward claimed, though she suspected it was a lie. They were urged back to their rooms with promises of a nice meal. No one wanted to eat; they all just wanted to leave.
Hannah had spoken little to the other passengers during the long journey. But after they were not permitted to disembark, she found herself moving closer to groups of people, trying to overhear snippets of conversation that might have some bit of information. They were not to be let off in Cuba, she gleaned with alarm from the rumors. The landing documents they had purchased were, in fact, fraudulent. There was talk that they might disembark in Miami instead. "The United States will take us," an Austrian woman with several small children had proclaimed confidently. Hearing this, Hannah had been less than certain. Freedom and equality, she knew from experience, were a promise made only to some.
Hannah lay on her narrow berth now. Her memories reeled back, as they always did in the darkness, to that final night months earlier in Berlin as she lay on the cold floor of Isaac's long-shuttered kosher butcher shop, certain each breath would be her last. She could still feel the sharp pain of broken glass shards as they pressed against her belly. There had been Nazis, violent S.S., rampaging in the streets of Scheunenviertel, the city's ravaged Jewish quarter, with knives, terrorizing any remaining Jews they caught. What would stop them from doing the same to her and the child she carried? She had dived behind the meat counter in a panic.
As she hid in the darkness, Hannah's heart pounded. The truth was she and Isaac were not just any Jews. They were part of the resistance, Hannah drawing anti-Fascist political cartoons under a pseudonym and Isaac printing them in the underground newspaper he distributed across the city and beyond. If the Germans found the printing press hidden in the back of the butcher shop, it would mean death not just for her and Isaac but everyone who worked with them.
The men drew closer to the door of the shop, undeniably marked as Jewish with a swath of yellow paint. Their shadows loomed large and menacing across the floor. She slid awkwardly behind the counter, hindered by her rounded stomach. She held her breath, trying not to move. "Stop!" she heard Isaac's voice commanding, with only a trace of a waver in it. He sounded so firm that for a minute she thought they actually might listen. He had stepped out from hiding in the cutting room purposefully in order to direct them toward the opposite end of the shop, away from her and the materials hidden in the back room.
Of course, the men did not stop. They crashed through the door and knocked him to the ground. Isaac let out a wail as he fell to the floor. The men beat and kicked him with dull, sickening thuds. For a moment, her eyes locked with his beneath the counter. She wanted desperately to leap out to his defense the way he had to hers. He averted his gaze, willing her not to move, to stay hidden and save their child and herself. But his cries were unbearable. Blood flowed from his head, mixing with stains left by slaughtered animals on the floor.
Soon Isaac grew silent. The men stormed through the store, running past her without seeing. She covered her head with her hands and burrowed deeper beneath the counter, praying. She heard tables and shelves crash to the ground and a shout of glee as they discovered the printing press. Her papers were there, and now they would know that Maxim, the pseudonym she used for her comics, had originated here. As they smashed the press to bits, she held her breath, waiting for the men to discover her and kill her as well.
But the men left the shop, satisfied that they had finished the job. As they ran back onto the street in search of new prey, Hannah started crawling toward Isaac, then froze. A lone Nazi brute, who she had not noticed remained in the store, was looking through the counter for bits of meat. As she crouched lower, a floorboard creaked. The Nazi's head swung in her direction and she waited, holding her breath for certain detection. But he turned back to his attempted looting. The store had been closed for many months, though, and so he found nothing.
When at last the would-be thief had gone, Hannah scurried to Isaac, praying he might be alive. She knew he could not survive the beating, but she wished he might linger for a few minutes so that she could touch his face and whisper words of comfort. She leaned her head close as he whispered his very last instructions, the one thing he needed her to do. "Go. The newspaper is finished, and it isn't safe for you to remain here anymore. Save yourself and our child." He could not protect her any longer.
"I will. I swear it." She hoped desperately for a bit more time. But his eyes were already open to the sky. She kissed him again. "You saved us. We are saved." He needed to know that his sacrifice had meant something. Her words hung in the air above them, unanswered.
She looked around the shop, wondering what to do next. Something burned in her stomach. For a second, she thought it was a labor cramp. But it was too early: the baby could never survive. Though she had felt fluttering kicks, she was only five months along and nowhere near a life that could sustain itself separate from her. Then she felt something warm between her legs. She sat motionless, willing it to stop, but the ache became a burning pain and the trickle of blood a river. She was losing the baby, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Her promise to Isaac, which she had made just moments earlier, to protect their child, was already broken. It seemed then that Isaac's death had been in vain because the baby was gone, and without the child or Isaac himself, her own life was worth nothing.
Hannah had left Berlin the next day, setting out covertly for Hamburg hidden in the back of a car, transport arranged by one of her few remaining resistance contacts who had not been arrested. She needed to leave Germany, but it had at first proven impossible, and she had hidden in the port city for several months, certain she would be discovered and arrested. For weeks after losing the baby, she had fever and chills that made her worry about infection. Her body ached, as did her heart. She could not outrun the memory of the man she had loved. Even more painful was the loss of their child, crushing her in a way she could not have imagined. Once she had eschewed things such as marriage and children. But with Isaac it had almost seemed possible. Now with the dream shattered, she saw the promise as a kind of hubris: What had made her think that she deserved the same happiness as everyone else? By nature, she was solitary, and that was how she would now remain forever.
Finally, she had been able to use her reputation as an artist and a favor from an old friend to arrange scarce, precious papers and secure a place on the Brittany, a ship headed for Cuba, and one of the last to carry Jews, since Hitler had issued a prohibition against their emigration. She would arrange passage from there to America. But the trauma still loomed large.
A shuffling noise from across the room stirred her from her thoughts. Hannah had wanted a first-class cabin to herself and could afford to pay for it. But there was simply no such thing on the dilapidated ship, and so she had had to settle on the next best thing, a tiny stateroom shared with two spinster sisters from Sopot who were trying to get to their cousin in the Dominican Republic.
Hannah had bigger problems than her cabinmates, though. Official word had come that no one would disembark from the Brittany in Havana. The ship would depart for Europe in the morning. The passengers had reacted with disbelief, followed by anger. Their papers were entirely in order. Many had spent their life savings on the visas that promised to get them in. But it had all been a scam. There was simply no place for the ship full of refugees to land.
"Where are we to go?" an elderly man had demanded. They were Jews, hunted by the Reich. They could not possibly return to the countries from which they had fled, steps ahead of arrest or worse. Surely there would be even more horrible reprisals for them now because they had tried to escape.
Unable to sleep, Hannah walked up onto the deck. They had been at sea for so long that she scarcely smelled the salty air anymore. But its brackishness filled her lungs now, thick and stifling. She pressed herself close to the rail, as if leaning closer to shore might actually bring her there. Like Moses, she could see the Promised Land but was unable to enter it.
"Careful," a voice behind her warned. Hannah turned to find one of the ship's security officers, making rounds of the deck. The light of his cigarette glowed in the darkness. She expected him to scold her for being out and usher her back to her cabin. Instead, he simply held out a pack of cigarettes, offering her one. She waved it away. "Hell of a thing," he said. Hannah knew enough English to understand his words, and that he was talking about the passengers' situation.
"What do you think will happen next?" she ventured. He shrugged. "Will we go to America?"
He shook his head. "Nah. Roosevelt is too much of a politician." The price of saving a ship full of Jews was too much for even the president of the United States to bear. "Other countries will let some people in, though." She tilted her head. "Belgium and Holland have agreed to take a number of folks." Hannah's heart sank. They would be going back to occupied Europe after all. "Priority will be given to those with a relative to vouch for them." So their salvation would not come through some sort of collective rescue. It would be every person for themselves, using whatever connections and resources they had. "We set sail for Antwerp in the morning."
Lily, she thought suddenly, remembering her doe-eyed cousin, the closeness of their youth. Just months apart in age, they had been almost like sisters, reunited each summer at their family cottage by the Baltic Sea until Lily's family had moved to Belgium when she was ten. They had kept in touch more regularly by letter when they were younger but had not spoken often in recent years. Hannah somehow knew, though, that Lily would help. Belgium, occupied by the Nazis, was hardly safer than Germany was. Still, it was her only chance.
"I don't suppose I could send a telegram," she said to the steward.
He looked at her dubiously. "The wire is only for official crew business, ma'am."
"Then, perhaps you could send it." Hannah tried to think of a way to persuade him. Another woman might try to flirt, but it was an art that had always been lost on her. She reached into her pocket, feeling for the remaining cash she had with her. She had been hoarding it, and more than ever she hated to part with it now, not knowing if she might need it wherever she finally landed. But she had no choice.
The guard palmed the money and shoved it in his pocket, then produced a small notebook and stub of a pencil. "Write down what you want to say and the address, and I will make sure it is sent. Keep it short."
Hannah hesitated. She wanted to see the message sent personally to make sure he followed through. She was hardly in a position to negotiate, though. She took the notebook, the pencil hovering in her hand above it as she tried to figure out what to say to the cousin she had not seen in more than two decades, who was now her best and only hope.
Arriving in Belgium on the MS Brittany. Please come for me. Your cousin, Hannah Martel.
She included her surname, as though Lily might have forgotten over the years who Hannah was. She felt as though she should write something more, perhaps tell her cousin when and in which port she would arrive. But there was so much she did not know—including Lily's address, which she'd left buried in her things back in Berlin. Hannah recalled, though, that Lily's husband, Nik, was a professor at the Universitair Ziekenhuis in Brussels (or at least he had been before the war), so she wrote down the address in care of him at the hospital there and hoped that would be enough.
She handed the paper to the officer. "Please send it as soon as you can." He turned and walked away without agreeing to her request.
Hannah slumped against the rail of the ship, shaken by the turn of events. The last thing she wanted was to return to Europe. But right now she just needed somewhere safe to land so she could start over and try again.
The next morning, the ship pulled from the harbor before dawn, like a lover leaving without saying goodbye. Hannah remained in bed, skipping breakfast. She could not bear to look at the shoreline as it receded in the distance. She wondered if Lily had received her message, tried to imagine her reaction. Even if the telegraph had gotten through, she was unlikely to receive a response onboard.
As the ship churned out through rougher waters, Hannah's insides quaked. It was not merely seasickness. What if she arrived in Belgium and there was simply no one there to meet her? She would die before she would go back to Nazi Germany. She vowed to throw herself clear overboard into the Atlantic before letting that happen. Return was simply not an option.
But even in her despair, she felt a flicker of hope. She still saw Lily as a girl with her long black braids, elegant and refined in a way that Hannah had never managed. Hannah's childhood had not been an easy one: her father drank himself to death when she was sixteen. Her mother, who had never been able to protect Hannah from her father's drunken wrath, died a few months later. Lily and their summer visits had been a light in that dark world. Lily had been, quite literally, a lifeline, the only friend she had. At their last tearful farewell when Lily's family left for Belgium, they had sworn to always remain close and be there for one another. The first part of that pledge had failed; they had grown distant and all but lost touch. But the second part remained a prophecy unfulfilled, and she hoped that Lily remembered.
Now as the she lay bobbing with the ship, she squeezed her eyes shut. If she were a religious woman she might have prayed, but instead she just desperately hoped and wished their promise would be true so she could reach Belgium safely and begin to look for another way out.
Her very life depended upon it.
The MS Brittany was already docked as Lily reached the port of Antwerp. The dilapidated steamer was indistinguishable among a cordon of great hulking ships, save for the cluster of passengers waiting to disembark. A sharp wind cut across the harbor, causing Lily to draw her coat more tightly around her. Though the February air was not bitterly cold as it might have been, dark clouds signaling a late-afternoon storm gathered across the horizon.
Seeing her cousin's ship already at port, Lily rushed forward. Her toe caught on a loose board on the dock. She reached for the railing, and a splinter sliced through her fine kid glove, cutting her finger. She brought her hand to her mouth, stifling a yelp. Then she removed the glove to inspect the wound. Lily prided herself on calm and order, but everything seemed askew now, out of place.
Of course, she was not late. Though the ship had already arrived, it would take hours to process and disembark the hundreds of passengers. She had checked in at the port office, signed a voucher claiming her cousin, whom she had not yet seen. Each passenger had to be checked, the clerk had told her officiously, to make sure they had someone to vouch for them and provide a place to live in Belgium. There was nothing to do now but wait.
Clutching her scalloped purse and a small cardboard gift box against the waist of her fashionably trim skirt, Lily looked back over her shoulder at the Antwerp skyline. She reacquainted herself with the delicately sloping baroque and neoclassical architecture of the city, a sea of red rooftops broken by the Gothic tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, which rose over the city like a scepter. Antwerp was the city of her childhood, and Lily might have expected to feel more fondness and nostalgia for it. She had roamed its winding streets endlessly as a girl from the diamond district where her father's shop had been to grassy paths of Nachtegalen Park. The whole city seemed smaller now, provincial compared to Brussels, in a way she had not noticed as a child.
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- Feb 7, 2023
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