Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Reader, she saved them

Today, in Britain it is Holocaust Memorial Day. There will be an event in Liverpool this evening. Jason Isaacs will be present.

The Observer has a remarkable little story of two British women who throughout the war wrote Mills and Boon romantic slush fiction, better known in Canada as Harlequin Romances in order to raise money to rescue Jews from the camps.

The mild-mannered spinsters became expert smugglers, regaling border guards with tales of the previous night's performance, switching labels in fur coats, and wearing real diamonds with outfits so dowdy that customs officers would presume the jewels were paste.

Desperate both to fund their trips and to assist refugees, Ida left the Civil Service and began as a romance writer, becoming one of Mills & Boon's most popular authors. For many decades after the war, Cook's writing supported her two passions: refugees and young opera singers. Her flat in Dolphin Square at various times housed homeless European families, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi.

The sisters helped 29 people escape certain death, funded mainly by Ida's writing. In 1965, they were honoured as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel.

If you have a strong stomach, you can listen to the authentic voice of survivors recorded only a few days after the liberation of Belsen. It is the most eerie and disturbing recording I have ever heard.


lagatta à Montréal said...

I was wondering how your blog, which deals with "depths and surfaces" would deal with such a solemn day. (It is also "il Giorno della memoria della Shoah" in Italy - not al countries choose the same date for remembrance). I'd been thinking of Milena, Kafka's friend, who also wrote of fashion and "l'air du temps", as well as working as a translator, of course, before devoting herself to anti-Nazi resistance and perishing at the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.

That is a great story - I imagine that the smuggled property was used afterwards to attempt to secure safe passage for the persecuted German Jews the sisters were helping.

Anonymous said...

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Phyllis said...

Listening to this gave me the chills, and then I cried. If I udnerstood Hebrew I would have totally lost it.

Toby Wollin said...

Linda - I have a picture that is on my computer, and the way the screensaver works, it includes any images that are saved on the hard drive, so I see that photograph every single day. It is an image of my grandfather's family in Horodenka, taken in 1938, when my great uncle went back as part of a delegation of the fur workers union. In this photo, he is surrounded by his sister and his other brother, their children, his parents and his aunt. Not one of those people survived the war. Very few people from that entire village survived to tell the tale. When I was young, I got my father to tell me all he knew of them. I have told my children all I know of them. I have become involved in doing genealogy research so that there is some record of them other than their faces in a picture. My father always said that as long as their stories are told and their wisdom and courage is remembered, they live on in us.

DLB said...

Linda, I listened to it and wept, like so many others, I imagine. The coup de grace was when they started to sing in harmony for god's sake with thousands of rotting corpses around them. What strength in those voices - the strength of human beings' ability to survive against all the odds.