Ida Cook and her sister Louise had a secret mission – to help save Jews. Francine Wolfisz talks to Anne Sebba about a new book on their exploits
To the outside world, Mary Burchell was a prolific Mills & Boon author who entranced her fans with tales of intrigue, passion and danger. But in private, Burchell – known to her family as Ida Cook – had lived an equally-daring life, undertaking risky missions alongside her sister Louise to help to rescue Jewish families trapped in pre-war Austria and Germany.
All the more remarkable is that just a few years before, the Sunderland-born sisters had never even met a Jew, let alone contemplated risking their lives to save at least 29 families.
Their incredible story is retold in Cook’s memoirs, Safe Passage, just republished with a new foreword by historian and journalist Anne Sebba. “
They didn’t do it because they were Jewish or knew Jewish people. For them it was just a clear-cut, black-and-white certainty that it was the right thing to save lives,” says Sebba, 64, who is known for her biographies of Jennie Churchill, Laura Ashley and Wallis Simpson and has a forthcoming book on women’s lives in Paris during the 1940s.
The thirty-something spinsters, who lived with their parents in Wandsworth, were ardent fans of opera music. Whenever they could afford to, they would travel to Europe to attend performances and soon found themselves moving within operatic circles.
By 1934, Austrian conductor Clemens Klauss alerted the sisters to the plight of Jewish opera singers, who faced losing their livelihoods after the Nazis came to power. He asked the sisters if they could help.
The pair agreed to help to smuggle valuables out to England and to provide refugees with the financial guarantees needed to help to secure their exit visas – even though such an act put their own safety at immense risk.
Sebba explains: “Here are these two spinster women who are never going to get married after the First World War, but they didn’t whine and whinge.
They just got on with earning a living, made the best of things and lived vicariously through music.
“They chose to undertake this extraordinary Scarlet Pimpernel, female-James-Bond type of adventure, and it was really brave.
“To bring this to a new generation is absolutely terrific, because the younger generation really don’t know how extraordinarily difficult and dangerous it was to rescue Jews.”
The risks taken by the sisters are not overstated. Every week, they would fly from Croydon airport to Germany at a time when flying was still considered hazardous. In her account of events, Cook also recalls adorning her plain jumper with a huge oblong of diamonds – “someone’s entire capital” – which she had to pass off as “fake paste from Woolworth’s” until she was safely back in England.
The pair even spent so much of their own finances on these rescue missions that Cook admits to falling into £8,000 of debt – equivalent to more than £300,000 in today’s money.
And the sisters even ramped up the danger by staying at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, a favourite haunt of senior Nazi officers.
Cook writes they were mistaken for “admiring fools”. She adds: “That was why we knew them all by sight, Louise and I…Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Ribbentrop. We even knew Hitler from the back.”
Sebba says: “They really went into the lion’s den by going into the Adlon Hotel and mingling with all the Nazis – and they just smiled, because they knew they appeared to be such unlikely heroines. They didn’t look like they were doing anything dangerous or wrong.”
In London, the pair even bought a flat in Dolphin Square, Pimlico, which they offered to the Jewish immigrants who came over, rather than living in it themselves.
Had they been caught, Sebba believes the sisters might have endured “some very unpleasant treatment in a German prison” and that they were well aware how risky their actions were – but for the intrepid pair these were risks worth taking.
“They really did not seek fame or glory or to be recognised in any way. That wasn’t what they did it for,” explains Sebba.
She adds that aside from seeing their deeds as “the right thing to do”, the courageous sisters were also swept along by their love for music, as well as the excitement and romance of their actions – much like the fictional protagonists Cook wrote about.
“Being close to the action gave them meaning. It’s not derogatory to say that – and it was only a small step to live the life she loved writing about in her books.”
For the courage they showed in helping to rescue 29 families – although Sebba believes the true number may be triple this and include non-Jewish refugees – the sisters were named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem in 1965.
They were also posthumously honoured as Heroes of the Holocaust by the British government in 2010.
• Safe Passage by Ida Cook is published by Harlequin, priced £8.99 and is available now. Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s, by Anne Sebba, will be published in July by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Above, Ida and Louise Cook helped to rescue at least 29 Jewish families; left, journalist Anne Sebba