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Spinster Sisters Versus Nazis

The story of Ida and Louise Cook, two opera buffs who lived with their parents while running a scheme to rescue Jews from Hitler

Phyllis Chesler
August 01, 2022
Daily Mail/Shutterstock
Ida, at left, and Louise Cook at the Israeli Embassy in London, after receiving an award in recognition for their efforts, undatedDaily Mail/Shutterstock
Daily Mail/Shutterstock
Ida, at left, and Louise Cook at the Israeli Embassy in London, after receiving an award in recognition for their efforts, undatedDaily Mail/Shutterstock

Isabel Vincent, the author of a recent book, revisits a rather operatic story about how two British “spinster sisters,” Ida and Louise Cook, rescued 29 Jews from Hitler’s ovens.

The book is titled Overture of Hope: Two Sisters’ Daring Plan that Saved Opera’s Jewish Stars From the Third Reich, and it is based on prodigious research into the lives of the two “ordinary/extraordinary” sisters. She draws from Ida Cook’s own writing (Ida became a successful writer of romance novels, which helped fund their rescue work), specifically her 1950 memoir. The book was titled We Followed Our Stars, though it was republished in 2008 under the title Safe Passage, which in my view is not quite as romantic.

On that note, I would retitle Vincent’s excellent bookOverture of Hope: Two Sisters’ Daring Plan that Saved Opera’s Jewish Stars From the Third Reich. While the Cook sisters, frugal, modest, civil servants, neither worldly nor political, did save Jewish stars from Hitler—the great majority of these refugees were not great opera stars, but simply civilians.

According to Ida:

Just as the pursuit of opera had originally brought us to the refugee work, so the pursuit of refugee work was made possible only by the support—or if you like, the bribe—of great operatic performances, which lured us back again and again.

So how did two dowdy, “girlish” virgins ever win over such reigning, worldly figures? The Cooks were both passionate and savvy opera fans. They stood in long lines for hours, never missed a concert or a performance, and became known as “the girls” who asked to “snap” the stars’ photos, requested their autographs, and sent long, gushing letters and bunches of roses to their homes and dressing rooms.

They managed to befriend some of the world’s leading opera stars: sopranos Rosa PonselleAmelita Galli-CurciViorica UrsuleacElisabeth Rethberg; conductor and librettist Clemens Krauss, baritone Tito Gobbi, and bass Ezio Pinza. Even after their work in prewar Europe was over, they befriended Maria Callas, whom they impressed by giving her some honest, and therefore useful, advice about her interpretation of Medea.

Here’s how determined and capable of self-sacrifice these sisters were. After hearing Galli-Curci in a concert in London, they went without lunch and walked to work for two years in order to afford the trip to New York City to attend the Metropolitan Opera; it was the only place where Galli-Curci would appear in a full opera.

The great Galli-Curci waved to them in the audience and then invited them to her Fifth Avenue apartment. They were over the moon. In a letter to their parents, they wrote: “Oh Rapture! Rapture! Rapture! Galli-Curci is more than we expected.”

The man who started the Cooks on their rescue work was someone who, at war’s end, was branded a Nazi traitor—their good friend, the Austrian conductor Krauss. He was condemned as a Nazi and punished accordingly. But Vincent compellingly demonstrates how Krauss actually used his position and his influence within Hitler’s inner circle to help save Jews. Krauss and his wife, Ursuleac, helped the Cooks save Jewish music teachers, Jewish music students, their families, as well as an important Jewish conductor and operatic coach (Georg Maliniak) with whom Krauss had worked.

It was actually Ursuleac who introduced the sisters to Frau Mitia Mayer-Lismann, a Jewish teacher of music, especially opera, and asked them to look after her when she was on a short trip to London. The Cooks did not know that she was Jewish—and as yet, had no idea what the Nazis were doing. They were just fans who won the hearts of the opera stars. The Cooks were eccentric, old-fashioned, disciplined—yet also ethereal women who seemed to pose no threat to anyone—and these traits would serve them very well in their future rescue work.

According to Louise Carpenter in Granta:

Would Ida and Louise have begun their refugee work had they not loved opera and its performers? I doubt it. Opera mattered to them above everything, and in the beginning they were responding directly to requests for help from people they so dearly admired, in particular Krauss, Ursuleac and Mitia Mayer-Lismann. Their willingness to help bound them closely to the Krausses and their world in a way that was more profound and rewarding, and equal, than as fans hobnobbing with them backstage.

Krauss would inform the Cooks when he was conducting an opera. They left England for the weekend via plane and train in order to attend Krauss’ performances. Cook writes: “Krauss never let us down once, and we always got our opera performances, but we also dealt with our case or cases under cover of our hobby.”

These trips were also a perfect opportunity for them to conduct secret interviews with terrified, endangered, starving Jews. Ida writes:

In retrospect, I know that neither the war nor the raids (the Blitz) compared with the horror of those feverish visits and the frantic attempts to save people who must die if our persistence and ingenuity were not equal to solving their particular problem.

The Cooks repeatedly risked great danger with aplomb. They booked the most expensive hotels—the Adlon, or the Vier Jahreszeiten, where all the Nazi leaders stayed. Ida writes:

Then, if you stood and gazed at them admiringly as they went through the lobby, no one thought you were anything but another couple of admiring fools. That was why we knew them all by sight, Luise and I. Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Ribbentrop. We even knew Hitler from the back.

The Cook sisters hid in plain sight. They forged documents, lied (just a little), cornered diplomats, and painstakingly “organized” small financial contributions from many Brits in order to “guarantee” room and board for their escapees. They also came up with some ingenious schemes.

Jews were not allowed to take their possessions out of Nazi Europe. The sisters found a way. After a night at the opera in Frankfurt, Berlin, or Vienna, they would wear Jewish furs and jewels—watches and bracelets on each hand, rings on every finger, necklaces and brooches on their bosoms—and carry the excess diamonds, pearls, and rubies, in their handbags as well. This was their creative way of smuggling Jewish wealth out of the bloc to deposit it.

Their disguises and cover stories were well suited for a comic opera. If questioned, they were prepared to say: “We are two nervous British ladies and we will not leave our jewels behind. We take them with us wherever we go.”

Ida Cook also made speeches all over London on behalf of her refugees—in Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, in restaurants, in churches—wherever she could find an audience. Both Ida and Louise sheltered their refugees for as long as necessary in their one-bedroom flat in Dolphin Square. Sometimes, as many as 15 people lived there at once. The stalwart sisters continued to live with their parents, using all their money to fund their rescue work for years.

Vincent’s book and the story it tells resonated with me on so many levels. Like the Cooks, I also love opera. I once studied it a bit, and twice worked on librettos for potential operas: one about Maria Callas, the other about Sol Hachuel, the Jewish Moroccan martyr who refused to convert to Islam. I also appeared regularly on Lou Santacroce’s program on NPR: At the Opera. I very much miss talking to him. 

Although I am a radical feminist, I still love opera even though most divas suffer awful endings. They go mad (Lucia, Marguerite, Lady Macbeth), die of consumption (Violetta, Mimi), were buried alive (Aida), suffocated (Desdemona), burned ( Norma, Azucena), or simply expire inexplicably (Isolde, Abigail). Others are stabbed (Carmen), knife themselves to death (La Gioconda, Butterfly), take poison (Leonora, Juliet), or leap to their death (Tosca, suspended forever in our imagination).

‘Tis true: Their male counterparts often suffer similarly tragic fates. Opera is much like life in that way.

Where else, except on the operatic stage, can we see the dusky, the colonized, the outlawed, the pagan priestess, (Aida, Carmen, Violetta, Norma), “sing their resistance”? Where else but at the opera can we see powerful, emotional, sexual, and spiritual women commanding such respect, or members of the ruling classes, in full evening dress, weeping for a sexually independent gypsy (Carmen), or for a wife who kills her bridegroom to protest an arranged marriage (Lucia)? Perhaps the tragic endings are precisely what allow the divas to play untamed female heroes.

The Cook sisters also loved beautiful voices with the the power to transport them into a fantasy world, one far away from Battersea where they had lived with their parents all their lives. They never had a radio or a television. Once Louise heard an operatic aria for the first time, she immediately bought a gramophone and 20 records, and it became their lives.

Once the Cooks understood what the Nazis were doing, not only legally and economically but also in terms of what William Shirer describes as an “orgy of sadism,” they were all in. Perhaps opera gave the sisters the necessary perspective on the tragedy of life, but also granted them the courage to carry on.

Perhaps it was even all destined. Ida writes that on her first day at school:

The story of Adam and Eve really impinged on my consciousness for the first time. I wept loudly and embarrassingly for the offenders. (Years later someone suggested) there was something symbolic in my howling over the first refugees the world had ever known.

Despite their bravery and charity, the Cook sisters were very modest. In a 1967 BBC radio interview, Ida said: “I can’t emphasize sufficiently how we stumbled into this thing. The funny thing is we weren’t the James Bond type—we were just respectable Civil Service typists …” According to their nephew John Cook, Ida used to say, “‘You are what you do.’ They did it because it was the right thing to do, nothing more, nothing less.

Vincent describes a conversation in New York City. Someone asked the Cooks how many Jews the sisters had saved.

“Twenty-nine, directly,” said Louise.

“Oh, how many! ”replied the woman, clearly impressed.

“How very few,” said Ida.

In 1965, the Cooks were honored by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, “for their warmth of heart, devotion, rare perseverance (and willingness to sacrifice their personal safety, time and energy.”

Vincent’s book raises many difficult questions. On the one hand, our view of Britain during the Shoah is hardly a positive one, given the fact that Britain restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine; sided with the Arabs who were attacking Jews; and whose navy heartlessly, brutally, fired upon the famished Jewish refugees on board the so-called “illegal ships” trying to bring Europe’s Jewish survivors to Palestine.

But on the other hand, she highlights a large number of ordinary/extraordinary, quietly decent Brits, not at all wealthy or powerful, who came forward and offered to shelter or foster Austrian and German Jewish children and Jewish adults and agreed to offer financial guarantees as well.

Imagine if there had been thousands more like them, not only in England but in every country in North and South America, and in Australia and New Zealand.

The lessons we may learn based on the Cook rescues are many. We must never underestimate the role played by sheer luck or the good that ordinary people can do if they so wish. But while the rescue of even one Jew saves a world—civilian, volunteer efforts can never rescue a large number of souls. Only people with money or political power can do so—and that they did.

Vincent discusses many such heroes—for example, the British consul in Frankfurt, Robert Townsend Smallbones, who, together with his wife, daughter, and his deputy, Dowden, were able to “issue 48,000 visas … turning the (consulate into) one shining oasis in a desert of horror and despair.”

Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker, organized the rescue of 669 Jewish children. As of 2015, 6,000 people “owed their lives to him.” He never told a soul about his work, not even his wife.

According to author Norman Lebrecht, in Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947, a new Chinese consul-general in Vienna, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, was told by his government “not to waste his time on Jews.” But he had an idea. He knew that the city of Shanghai was in near anarchy. But he started issuing visas to Viennese Jews, at first hundreds, then thousands. The visas were worthless in lawless Shanghai, but a visa constitutes proof to the Nazis that an emigrant has someplace to go. Shanghai took in 18,000 Jews, 4,000 of them with Dr. Ho visas.

Lebrecht also writes: “Imagine if there had been more like him.”

Of course, it is worth considering what happens to those who are rescued and forever exiled from their language, their country, their wealth, their (former) friends and family—and above all, their professions. Yes, they get to live, but are often also faced with poverty, illness, and despair. Germany had not yet begun to pay reparations and many of these refugees endured considerable poverty. As in opera, life does not always provide us with happy endings.

In general, many adult Jewish refugees, especially men who had been particularly accomplished, were unable to make new lives for themselves. Men who were once world-famous writers, such as Stefan Zweig, or conductors, such as Georg Maliniak, (rescued by the Cooks), committed suicide—but for different reasons. In my view, Zweig no longer wanted to live in a world that had allowed the Shoah to take place, a world in which he could not speak German with like-minded Germans. Maliniak tried desperately to conduct operas in England but was defeated. He could not go on living without his profession. According to Vincent:

He waited until both his wife and daughter had left the apartment, before preparing his formal conductor’s outfit … Fate has made a beggar of me. The line belongs to the rebellious Ernesto in Don Pasquale … Sometime in the late afternoon of that summer Thursday, Maliniak cranked up the Ascot gas cooker and took a seat in a deck chair. Having escaped the gas chambers of the Third Reich and having lost his mother to them, Maliniak killed himself in his kitchen.

Vincent also describes the fate of Walter Kerr, “a brilliant and leading German intellectual … who had interviewed Emile Zola, spoken at Ibsen’s funeral, had written a libretto for a song cycle with Richard Strauss, and became close friends with Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.” As his money began to run out, “he became a virtual ghost in London. In 1948, a year after becoming a naturalized British citizen, Kerr committed suicide.”

In my view, these suicides were murders committed by Hitler.

Many Jewish women refugees managed to find work as housekeepers, cooks, milliners, and seamstresses; perhaps they were young or had never reached a pinnacle of accomplishment and thus, had not lost one. Mitia Mayer-Lismann did get to teach music again—but not on a grand scale. Her daughter Else would become an opera coach.

But not all young female refugees did make a life for themselves. Louise Carpenter found a 94-year-old Lisa Basch still alive in New York City. The Cooks had saved her—but her “salvation had not guaranteed happiness thereafter. Life had happened instead, in Miss Basch’s case a complicated tangle of love affairs, alcohol, and regrets. Basch told Carpenter that at the border she had been examined for “diamonds and pearls in my vagina. I can’t prove anything but I’d never heard of another woman being examined like that.”

Carpenter describes the Cook sisters in this way: “They had such small interest in what might be called ‘real,’ these two sisters best characterized by their sisterly devotion, their belief in the spirit world, and their long escape into the confectionary of the operatic stage and the romantic ‘woman’s novel.’”

And yet—these dreamers, moving as if in a dream, became stars in a real-life drama, just as if it was an opera.

I had to hunt hard for the names and professions of those whom the Cooks rescued, but I could not find 29 names. I found:

Mitia Mayer-Lismann and her daughter Else; Lisa Basch and her mother; Alice Schreiber; Friedl Bamberger; Irma and Ilsa Bauer; Ferdinand Stiefel; Gerda and Georg Maliniak; Paul Mayer; Walter Stiefel (an underground anti-Hitler activist). Cook herself supplies some more “cases” in her memoir but does not name them.

Part of the problem may be traced back to the actions of quiet, occasionally inept Louise. Ida wrote that “I have kept all the letters from those terrible years. They are not neatly filed … they are packed away now in a box, tragic though they are, I cannot bring myself to destroy those pages out of history.” But her sister did it for her:

Ida came home one day and found a grate full of charred war-time letters … Ida was furious and could not understand it and was fuming when she told Else. There was never any reason given, and it seemed a rather uncharacteristically rash act for someone as quiet and retiring as Louise.

Maybe Louise also found it too difficult to look at the letters and the photographs “and see face after face of the people for whom we could do nothing.” For among that correspondence that Ida could never get around to organizing were letters from “two little boys, eight and ten, who insisted on writing out their own (letters) in round, painstaking handwriting. Their letters arrived too late for the sisters to save them.”

Ida wrote a screenplay that Hollywood rejected. I understand that a film of Vincent’s book is underway. I hope it turns out to be one that Ida would have liked.

For now, the conductor lowers his baton. The curtain falls. Deafening applause. The Cooks, Krauss, Ursuleac, Smallbones, Sir Nicholas Winton, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, the divas, the rescued Jews—and all those whom they could not save— take their bows.

Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.

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