Plaque shows city’s pride in sisters who saved refugees fleeing Nazis

Unveiling a blue plaque in memory of Ida and Louise Cook, at Croft Avenue, Chester Road, Sunderland.
Unveiling a blue plaque in memory of Ida and Louise Cook, at Croft Avenue, Chester Road, Sunderland.

Sunderland sisters who saved the lives of dozens of refugees fleeing the Nazis before the outbreak of the Second World War have been honoured with a lasting memorial to their life-saving efforts.

A Blue Plaque commemorating Ida and Louise Cook now has pride of place on the entrance gate wall to Croft Avenue, which was their childhood home.

Ida and Louise Cook, who grew up in Sunderland.

Ida and Louise Cook, who grew up in Sunderland.

Posing as eccentric opera lovers, the sisters repeatedly travelled to Germany during the late 1930s, where they smuggled the personal possessions of those facing persecution back with them to Britain to sell and raise funds for the emigration papers and travel documents the refugees needed to escape to safety.

Their daring exploits as double agents all stemmed from a friendship with Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and his fiancé, opera singer Viorica Ursuleac.

She asked the sisters to help a Jewish friend, Mitia Mayer-Lismann, get out of the country and they soon volunteered for further missions in Germany between 1934 – 1939 attending opera performances and meeting Jews trying to escape.

The money raised from the sale of the refugees’ property would be used to provide immigration guarantees.

If you asked them, they would tell you about it, but to them it was something they did before the war and it was the right and proper thing to do.

John Cook

Helped by Krauss, who often arranged to perform in the cities that the Cooks needed to visit, the sisters rescued 29 refugees.

The sisters were honoured by the state of Israel in 1965 alongside others like Oskar Shindler with the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award, and also by the British Government in the 2010 as national ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’.

Now, at a special unveiling ceremony, the late sisters’ remaining family members gathered as Sunderland showed its thanks for their heroic work at an event to coincide with international Holocaust Memorial Day.

The relatives were traced after an appeal in the Echo was spotted by the literary agent of Mills and Boon author Ida and sent to the ladies’ nephew John, 69.

Unveiling a blue plaque in memory of Ida and Louise Cook, at Croft Avenue, Chester Road, Sunderland, nephew's John, Peter and Rolf Cook, with the Mayor of Sunderland Coun Alan Emerson.

Unveiling a blue plaque in memory of Ida and Louise Cook, at Croft Avenue, Chester Road, Sunderland, nephew's John, Peter and Rolf Cook, with the Mayor of Sunderland Coun Alan Emerson.

He and brothers Rolf, 53, and Peter 57, were among family members who travelled to Sunderland for the ceremony, which was led by mayor Alan Emerson.

It was followed by speeches and a performance based on the work to evacuate those at risk of persecution by St Joseph’s School, put together with the help of education theatre group the Time Bandits.

The sisters’ own travel costs were funded with money made from Ida’s work, which was written under the pen-name Mary Burchell and included more than 125 books.

In 1950, she wrote her autobiography We Followed Our Stars, which was re-edited as Safe Passage and is still available today.

The Cook sisters, who have been honoured with a blue plaque next to their Sunderland home.

The Cook sisters, who have been honoured with a blue plaque next to their Sunderland home.

When interviewed about their exploits, Ida said previously: “We were careful on detail. We never took earrings for pierced ears, because neither of us had pierced ears.

“That was the kind of thing they caught you on.”

John, who lives in Cambridgeshire and is dad to Tim, 30, who lives in Australia, said: “I knew what they had done, but it was not something they talked about very much.

“If you asked them, they would tell you about it, but to them it was something they did before the war and it was the right and proper thing to do.

“It was exciting and a great honour to be here and it’s been very humbling to see the people of Sunderland recognise them.”

Councillor Emerson added: “It’s very important we remember the heroes and heroines of our city.

John Cook addresses a ceremony held in The Chesters pub.

John Cook addresses a ceremony held in The Chesters pub.

“Ida and Louise willingly faced terrible danger and possible execution if they were caught, in order to save the lives of those facing terrible persecution from one of the most evil regimes in world history.

“Their bravery is an example for us all, and I am honoured to represent the people of Sunderland at the unveiling of this blue plaque at the entrance of Croft Avenue which was their childhood home as a permanent reminder of their heroism.”

“It’s absolutely amazing how many people have come together to make this happen, the Croft Terrace Residents’ Association and the East Area Committee, which funded the plaque.”

Chairman of the Newcastle Reform Synagogue, Tony Wortman who lives in Fulwell said: “The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘How can life go on’ for those who survived the horrors of genocide?

“Ida and Louise Cook saved many Jews who may have settled in this country. In many cases they married and had children, who then married and had children of their own.

“Many of these survivors who are still living, are now surrounded by their children and grand-children and for them life has gone on. This would have not been so had it not been for the bravery of the Cook sisters, and I am pleased to be invited to honour them on behalf of all those they saved.”