How Two British Opera Buffs Spent the War Years Rescuing Jews from the Nazis

August 3, 2022 | Phyllis Chesler
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The sisters Ida and Louise Cook worked for most of their lives as typists for the English government, although Ida also became a successful author of romance novels. Unmarried, the Cooks shared an apartment as well as tremendous enthusiasm for opera. It was that passion that would lead to their remarkable wartime exploits, which are the subject of a recent book by Isabel Vincent. Phyllis Chesler writes in her review:

I would retitle Vincent’s excellent book: Overture 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.

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 Clemens 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, [Viorica] 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.

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.

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 [and] repeatedly risked great danger with aplomb.

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