Two English Ladies and the Holocaust

The true story of Ida and her sister Louise Cook, two English ladies of very limited means who had a life-long passion for opera.(Photo: Harlequin)
The true story of Ida and her sister Louise Cook, two English ladies of very limited means who had a life-long passion for opera.(Photo: Harlequin)

Safe Passage, just published in paperback from Harlequin books, is a reworking of a memoir called We Followed Our Stars, originally published in 1950, by Ida Cook.

The Cooks’ Pre-War History

Ida Cook (1904-1987), and her sister Louise (1901-1991) were two English ladies of very limited means who had a life-long passion for opera. They worked in low-paying civil service jobs in and near London from 1920 on.

After hearing soprano Amelita Galli-Curci’s recordings on their first ever Victrola (“Gramophone”), the sisters decided they had to go to America to hear her.

It took two years of saving, literally, every spare shilling. They sewed their own clothes, skipped meals, worked extra hours, traveled steerage and bought standing room, but they did hear Galli-Curci and were befriended by her.

So the years went on. Work, saving, scrimping, opera travels, indulging their hobby and making friends along the way with some of the world’s great artists: Arturo Toscanini, Rosa Ponselle, Ezio Pinza, and, in Germany in the early 1930s, conductor Clemens Krauss and his wife, soprano Viorica Ursuleac.

From this couple the Cook sisters learned of the growing danger facing Germany’s Jews. And so the ladies went to work. They devised ways to smuggle out, on behalf of Jewish refugees, furs and jewelry and cash and whatever would be needed to live on outside of Germany and Austria.

These were two nondescript English ladies, sisters, and the authorities never thought to question them or interfere with them in any way.

During the 1930s, until the war began, Ida and Louise would travel regularly from their grimy neighborhood in London to Salzburg, Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, and return to England with goods and materiel for use by refugees.

Later things got dicey when they worked at forging documents and passports. They always played the “two old dears” card and they were always believed. Eventually, again with meager savings, the ladies bought a flat in London, on Dolphin Place, in order to give refugees a bona fide address in the capital, thus easing quotas and immigration restrictions.

Eventually the war put an end to paid international travel. The sisters stayed home. Ida became a very successful writer of romance fiction-the slicks-under the name Mary Burchell.

Post-War Fame

After the war, now a little better off thanks to Ida/Mary’s literary success,  they resumed their travels and opera going. Their friendships extended to a new generation of stars.

Maria Callas asked, “Ee-da, what did you think of my Medea?” to which Ida Cook replied, “You made a good stab at it, dear.” This lady wasn’t afraid of Nazis or divas.

The Cook sisters were named Among the Righteous by the State of Israel in 1965 and are commemorated at Yad Vashem. 

Safe Passage is a terrific read. The book mixes opera and international travel in an era of great artists with intrigue, guts, intestinal fortitude and unselfishness. Miss Marple meets Valhalla.

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