Sisters who saved Jews from Nazi death camps

TODAY we take a closer look at a Sunderland-born writer who saved dozens of Jews from almost certain death in World War Two.

SWADDLED in furs and dripping with jewels, two spinster sisters marched through the border patrol of pre-war Germany, their poker faces giving nothing away.

To the outside world, Ida and Louise Cook looked liked well-to-do women, concerned only with pursuing their favourite opera stars around the cities of Europe.

Behind the faade, however, lay a very different story. The sisters were risking their lives in a dangerous mission to save dozens of Jewish refugees from Hitler's concentration camps.

"I financed the work from the romantic novels I wrote, and very strange it was, switching from romantic fiction to tragic fact," Ida later recalled in her autobiography, We Followed Our Stars.

"When I think of how we lived in a state of high drama part of the time, and continued our normal lives the rest of the time, I marvel now."

Ida, the second daughter in a middle-class family of two girls and two boys, was born on August 24, 1904, at 37 Croft Avenue, Sunderland.

After completing her education at The Duchess School in Alnwick, she followed her sister Mary, known as Louise, into a job with the civil service in London.

"It is always fascinating to look back on any life, pick out a seemingly unimportant incident and be able to say 'That was when it all started,'" wrote Ida in 1950.

"For Louise and me that point came on an afternoon in 1923, when Sir Walford Davies came to the Board of Education to give a lecture on music.

"Although probably not intended for office workers, Louise wandered in. She arrived home slightly dazed and announced to her astonished family, 'I simply must have a gramophone.'"

The girls quickly developed a passion for opera music, spending what little they could afford from their meagre salaries on tickets to see the stars at Covent Garden.

It was to be a passion that changed their lives.

Friendships with some of the singers soon blossomed, with the girls counting Amelita Galli-Curci, Rosa Ponselle and Tito Gobbi among their companions.

But of the many performers they came to know, two were of key importance – the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and his fiance, the soprano Viorica Ursuleac.

As pressure on the Jews in Germany mounted in 1934, Ursuleac asked the sisters to help a Jewish friend, Mitia Mayer-Lismann, make her way out of Germany.

The Cooks immediately agreed to the idea and Ida was later to recall: "Though we did not know it then, our first refugee had been commended to our care."

Once the Mayer-Lismann family was safely in England, the sisters were quick to volunteer for further action. The next five years were spent working under cover.

Using their reputation as eccentric opera fanatics, the Cooks made repeated trips to Germany, where they would interview Jews desperate to emigrate and attend a performance.

They would then return home draped in jewellery and furs, the property of would-be refugees, to be sold to provide immigration guarantees for the British government.

"We were careful on detail," said Ida. "We never took earrings for pierced ears, because neither of us had pierced ears. That was the kind of thing they caught you on.

"In the case of fur coats, we had a rather good technique. We used to take dress labels with us from England, begged from friends who patronised really good shops.

"When we arrived at the town where the fur coat was, we would go straight to the owner. Then we stitched in our English label and arrived at the hotel already wearing an expensive coat, thus avoiding suspicion."

Helped by Krauss, who often arranged to perform in the cities the Cooks needed to visit, the sisters managed to rescue 29 refugees from the clutches of Hitler.

Dozens more benefited from the money and guidance they poured into the evacuation missions and they were hailed as Britain's answer to Oscar Schindler.

Financing the visits with the profits of her success as a Mills and Boon author, Ida revealed in her autobiography: "We tried to concentrate on whole families.

"As part of a happy family, we knew that it would be poor comfort to be rescued if a beloved mother or father, brother or sister, still lingered in the shadow of death."

The sisters also worked tirelessly for the cause at home, raising money to sponsor refugees and speaking out about the horrors endured by the Jews in Hitler's Germany.

Many of those fleeing Germany were housed at their flat in London's Dolphin Square too, including opera stars Calls and Gobbi. Ida was later to write Gobbi's biography.

The Cooks' work continued after the war, with the sisters holding fundraising events for refugees across Europe, including former Polish slaves and the needy of Russia.

And their bravery was finally recognised in 1965, when they were awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Vad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority for their "courageous acts of humanity".

During the course of her life, Ida wrote more than 110 romance novels, served as president of the Romantic Novelists' Association and became a popular lecturer. She died at the age of 82 of cancer.

Louise, meanwhile, stayed in the civil service until her retirement and died of septicaemia in March 1991. She was almost 90.

Ryhope woman Mary Fairclough, a former pupil at Ida's old school in Alnwick, has fond memories of meeting her.

"I think it must have been about 1950, just after she had written her autobiography, that she visited my school," recalls Mary.

"She told us a lot about how she followed her favourite opera stars, but not much about the work she did in the war. She was very modest about that, she didn't make herself out to be any kind of hero."

Ida chatted to the pupils about life as a writer too, even apologising to her former English teacher for turning to romantic writing for a living.

"I was very impressed by her," said Mary. "She came over as such a nice person. She encouraged all to write and, as she had done, to 'follow our stars' by aiming high."

* Details taken from Ida's autobiography We Followed Our Stars and the on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Horrors of Hitler's 'Final Solution'

SIX million Jews – nearly seven out of every 10 living in Europe – were brutally murdered during the Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s.

Millions of others deemed inferior by Hitler, including gipsies, gay and disabled people, were also killed during the terror campaign.

The murders began in 1933, when Hitler started rounding up anyone who spoke out against him or was believed to be a threat to Germany.

Politicians, trade unionists, journalists and teachers were among the victims. Many were slaughtered, others died in concentration camps.

In 1934, as Germany's head of state, Hitler introduced anti-Semitic laws, limiting Jewish access to transport, education and housing.

He saw the Jews as a threat to his "superior" Ayran race and devised what he called his "Final Solution" – the mass killing of Jews.

Forced to live such a grim and increasingly dangerous existence, many Jews tried to flee their German homes – but that cost money.

The unlucky ones left behind faced being sent to Nazi concentration camps, described as factories for mass-producing death.

Victims were rounded up in towns and cities across Europe, then packed into cattle trucks before being sent to almost certain death.

Camps were scattered throughout Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. All bleak, dangerous and usually deadly.

About 2.7million Jews were murdered in 1942 alone. Many were shot, hanged or executed in the specially-built poison gas chambers.

Many others died from malnutrition, typhus or exhaustion and, with such a high death rate, corpse disposal became a major problem. Indeed, when British troops entered the Belsen camp after liberation, they found 60,000 starving survivors and 27,000 unburied bodies.

Those helped to escape Germany by the Cook sisters were among the few lucky ones.


Are speed cameras clicking?

CALLS by a group of MPs for more speed cameras to be installed on our roads have prompted a flashpoint. ROSS ROBERTSON explores the issues.

MORE speed cameras must be put on our roads in a bid to save lives, urges a group of MPs.

But the calls are unlikely to be welcomed by motorists, while officials in County Durham are determined their area will remain free of fixed speed cameras.

MPs on the Commons Transport Committee want more cameras and have accused the Government of acting irresponsibly for restricting speed trap sites to locations where people have been killed or seriously injured.

They have attacked police and authorities in County Durham for being one of the two areas in England resisting fixed cameras.

In demanding more money for the installation of speed cameras, the transport select committee said 42 per cent fewer people were killed or seriously hurt at sites with fixed speed cameras.

Durham holds out as a fixed camera-free zone, unlike neighbouring Northumbria, which has set up a Safe Speed for Life partnership involving police and local authorities, including Sunderland.

Jeremy Forsberg, a spokesman for the partnership, said figures show speed cameras get results.

He said: "Our research shows we've had a large reduction in casualties over the last three years with 67 per cent less seriously injured at camera sites.

"Cameras allow us to monitor locations and put systems in place to guard against loss of life and injury and curb speed at sites where there are problems."

A criticism many have of fixed speed cameras is that drivers slow down because they know there is a speed camera and then speed up again when past it.

Mr Forsberg said this is not the case, and measures were in place to prevent drivers from doing that.

"We find the majority of people slow down for cameras and keep their speed down – they're not trying to beat the system.

"Speed cameras are a visual reminder of enforcement. They are a visible reminder that people have to respect the law and respect other road users," he said.

"We do have mobile cameras and they can be set up in an area where there is a problem with motorists speeding once they've passed a fixed camera."

He said the Safe Speed partnerships were an excellent way for police and local authorities to work together and focus on education as well as enforcement.

However, George Oliver, a spokesman for Durham Constabulary, said there were still no plans to introduce fixed cameras in Durham, but the area was covered by a mobile camera.

He said: "We have a mobile camera which operates on 17 designated routes, though not exclusively. The van is very visible to motorists. An example would be the A690 at West Rainton.

"The routes are selected because they're either accident hot spots or there are problems with speeders."

He said none of the 17 designated routes where the camera operates met Government criteria for fixed cameras.

Mr Oliver added that police and the county council did not view fixed cameras as an appropriate means of reducing accidents.

He said in the majority of accidents caused through excessive speed motorists were driving within the speed limit but not taking road conditions into consideration.

"Only four to six per cent of road accidents involved vehicles exceeding the legal speed limit.

"The speed limit on country roads is 60mph, but it is extreme folly to drive at that speed. Similarly on housing estates it would be extreme folly to drive at 30mph.

"The speed management strategy in Durham, which is comprised of police, the county and Darlington Borough Council incorporates the four Es – Education, Enforcement, Engineering and Encouragement."

Camera locations

THERE are nine fixed camera locations in Sunderland, with five of them at traffic lights, and mobile cameras are also in operation across the city.

Fixed Cameras

Whitburn Road (A183), The Bents – 30mph;

Durham Road (A690), Sunderland – 30mph;

Chester Road (A183) Shiney Row – 30mph;

Southmoor (A1018) – 30mph.

Fixed Cameras: Red light

Ryhope Road (A1018) – 30mph;

North Bridge Street (A1018) – 30mph;

Newcastle Road (A1018)/Charlton Road (B1291) – 40mph;

Kayll Road (B1405)/Hylton Road – 30mph;

Durham Road (A690)/Springwell Road – 30mph.

Feelings made clear

YOBS made their opinion of speed cameras perfectly clear when arsonists set one of the city's cameras ablaze.

Arsonists put a tyre over the speed trap in Durham Road, next to Bede College, and set it on fire, causing heat and smoke damage and cracking the lens.

The incident, on August 30, was the second attack on the camera, which was targeted by arsonists in April last year, when rubbish was piled up next to it and set alight.

The camera was put up on Durham Road in 1994 and Jeremy Fosberg, of Safe Speed for Life, said that in the five years before, 14 people were seriously injured on the road and in the past five years there have been no serious injuries.

He said: "It's vital to public safety that we continue to ensure there is enforcement there."

Mixed views on new call

CALLS for more speed cameras met with a mixed reception among drivers on Wearside.

"There's more than enough of them already. Everywhere you go, you've got speeds cameras," said 50-year-old Bruce Robson, of Pennywell.

Scooter rider Bruce admits he is not at much risk from the cameras himself. "It's not so bad for me, I can only do 60" – but believes they do little to keep the highways safe.

"They say they are on dangerous roads. There is no such thing as a dangerous road, it's bad driving that causes accidents," he said.

Patsie Horner is also less than convinced by the case for more cameras.

"I think there are enough of them at the moment, to be honest," said 51-year-old Patsie, of East Boldon.

"If they were just used to slow people down, it would be a good idea, but not just using them to raise a lot of money, which is what I think the idea is at the moment.

"And people who are going to speed will do so anyway."

Pennywell motorist Brian Welsh believes the cameras cause more problems than they solve.

"I think they cause accidents myself," he said.

"People speed up to the cameras and then slam their brakes on to avoid the fines – that's how most accidents are now.

"There are too many speed cameras now. It is just an excuse to make back the money they can't get away with putting on petrol."

But experienced driver Maurice Robinson was all in favour of more cameras on the roads.

Sixty-one-year-old Maurice, of Pennywell, has been driving for more than 40 years:

"More speeds cameras? Yes, as long as they are in the right places," he said.

"The majority of accidents are caused by speed. If people reduced their speed, there would be fewer accidents.

"You see idiots speeding every day."