I went to a talk recently, organised by the Battersea Society, about an unlikely pair of spinster sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who helped at least 29 Jewish people escape Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The invited speaker was Louise Carpenter. She’d researched the sisters for a potential biography but eventually realised there wasn’t enough verifiable material to justify a full length book. She did though write a long article for Granta about the sisters. Carpenter described the sisters as both ordinary and extraordinary, which helps explain why they and their story are so fascinating. What they did to help refugees flee persecution is also profoundly relevant today.
Born in Sunderland in the 1900s, the sisters lived most of their life in Battersea in the family home. According to Carpenter it was an almost Calvanistic household and their upbringing, while Christian, was ‛emotionally austere’. There was no music at home. The sisters had an incredibly close bond, and when Ida much later wrote a memoir it was almost entirely written in the first person plural – we. They followed their father into the civil service, working in clerical and typist roles.
Their first extraordinary moment seems to have been when, in their early 20s, they attended a lecture and heard an aria from Madam Butterfly. The world of music, and opera in particular, opened up to them. They saved up and bought a gramophone, bringing music into the family home as they collected opera records. They started attending live opera, queueing for hours for cheap seats, which was all they could afford on their small civil service salaries. Carpenter spoke of the sisters developing ‘celebrity crushes’ on certain opera stars. In 1924, they hatched a plan to travel to New York to hear a singer whose voice they loved perform. After two years’ scrimping and saving they had sufficient funds to book third class berths on a boat to New York, taking with them gowns and capes for the opera that they had sewn themselves. This adventure must have emboldened them, proving what they were capable of achieving if they put their minds to it. If they could travel to New York to attend the opera, why not the continent?
Jump forward to the 1930s and the Cook sisters were frequent visitors to European opera houses and welcomed into opera circles. Ida had started writing short pieces for a fashion magazine and subsequently found her literary calling as one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors. Through opera friends, the sisters gradually realised the increasing danger faced by Jewish people under the Nazi regime. At this point Jews were allowed to leave Germany but without taking any money or possessions with them. They also faced obstacles trying to find a country that would accept them. Britain, like many countries, required sponsors and financial guarantees. Having helped the daughter of opera friends settle in Britain, the Cook sisters could not turn their backs on other cases that came to their attention. Their continental opera jaunts became a cover for smuggling out jewellery and other valuables that would provide financial security.
Carpenter recounted how the sisters would travel down to Croydon airport on a Friday evening (Louise taking leave for the Saturday; Ida had left the civil service as she was now earning much more from her romantic novels), fly to Cologne and then catch an overnight train to Frankfurt. They would spend the weekend meeting potential cases through an agent and collecting the valuables they were to smuggle out; as well as, of course, attending the opera in the evening. They arrived in dowdy clothing wearing no jewellery, and brought with them labels from British fashion houses to sew into the designer clothes and fur coats they returned to England in – travelling back by train and overnight ferry so as to leave by a different port and minimise the risk of arousing suspicion. Much of their spare time was taken up with organising sponsors and gathering small donations and subscriptions that together would cover one refugee’s financial guarantee. They ploughed most of Ida’s Mills & Boon earnings into their efforts to help individuals escape.
In her memoir We Followed Our Stars (now republished as Safe Passage) Ida reflected:
Until you refuse to recognise defeat, you never learn how much an individual can do.
People sometimes said to us, “But what an extraordinary idea! What do you think private people can do? This is a matter for governments and international committees.”
We always replied, “We will go on until something completely stops us. Why not?”
That something was the outbreak of the Second World War. By then, they had helped at least 29 Jewish people flee Nazi Germany. They never felt fear, Carpenter said, going on to explain that she meant they felt no fear towards the people they were helping. Just as today people (even Presidents of so-called freedom loving countries) are fearful of those seeking refuge from the most desperate circumstances, in the 1930s Jewish refugees were often viewed with suspicion, resentment and outright hostility.
Yesterday, I was amazed to see a story about the Cook sisters featured on the BBC news website, originating from the Tyne and Wear region. On Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, Sunderland Council unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Ida and Louise Cook at the entrance to their childhood home. Plans for a similar plaque outside their Battersea home have apparently fallen through. I’m happy though for Sunderland to share the story of two ordinary sisters who did some pretty extraordinary work. It’s a story that can’t be shared enough.