Wednesday 17 May: The story of the Cook sisters and how they used opera to save lives - Anne Sebba

Between 1934 and 1939, two "nervous British spinsters" were regular visitors to the opera houses of Germany and Austria. But the trips also served a greater and more dangerous purpose - saving Jewish lives.

Ida and Louise Cook risked their own lives dozens of times by smuggling out valuable goods for those attempting to flee the Nazi regime, as well as passing on messages and meeting contacts, some of whom were active in the underground movement.

Every time they left Germany, a border guard could have called into question the ownership of the furs and jewellery they were draped in, putting the sisters in peril of arrest and imprisonment - and worse.

They met one contact almost under the nose of several high-ranking Nazi officials, when he got in touch with them at their hotel - one of Hitler's lunchtime haunts - asking them to rush outside and jump into his taxi.

The sisters helped many people to escape, but as Ida said many years later: "The funny thing is we weren't the James Bond type - we were just respectable Civil Service typists."

The Cook sisters were born in the early 1900s, and - in common with a lot of their generation in the wake of the deaths of so many young men during World War One - never married, living quietly at home with their parents in south London.

Their passion in life was opera, and they became ardent fans - in the words of their nephew John Cook, "opera groupies" - attending performances and waiting at stage doors in the hope of getting autographs.

They also wrote to their favourite opera stars and in 1934 visited the Salzburg Festival, where they were befriended by the conductor and impresario Clemens Krauss.

It was his wife who suggested they "look after" a friend who was visiting London and she opened their eyes to the situation Jewish people living in Germany and Austria faced at the time. Speaking in a BBC radio interview in 1967, Ida Cook said: "I can't emphasise sufficiently how we stumbled into this thing. "This friend opened our eyes into the appalling situation Jewish people in Germany found themselves in. They were without any rights as human beings at all."

There were restrictions on all aspects of life and although Jews were at this stage able to leave the country, they were unable to take money or possessions with them. Those wanting to come to Great Britain had to prove they had a job to go to or sufficient funds to live on - the latter presenting huge difficulties due to the money prohibition. Ida and Louise were able to help them get around this Catch-22 situation by smuggling their valuable goods across the border.

[Text from BBC NEWS website 28 January 2017 ]

You may also be interested to read the article Underground Opera written by Anne Sebba in the November 2010 edition of the Opera Magazine

about our lecturer:

Anne Sebba is a biographer, lecturer, journalist and former Reuters foreign correspondent. She read History at King’s College London and her first job was at the BBC World Services in the Arabic Department.
Her latest book is about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s published in 2016, ‘a standout social history,’ according to the US trade journal, Booklist. Film rights have been sold, with a multi episode TV drama planned.
She has written nine critically acclaimed books of non-fiction, mostly about iconic women who enjoyed using power and influence in different ways such as Enid Bagnold, Mother Teresa, Laura Ashley and Jennie Churchill.
Her latest biography, THAT WOMAN, the Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, quickly became a bestseller on publication in Britain in August 2011. Anne’s discovery of a new archive of letters and diaries shedding dramatic new light on this important story was the subject of a Channel 4 TV documentary, The Secret Letters, based on her work.
Anne makes regular television appearances, lectures for NADFAS and regularly gives talks on cruises, to corporations, clubs and institutions including The English Speaking Union, The British Library, The Royal Oak Foundation, National Trust and Women’s Institutes.
She is married with three children and four grandchildren, is a former Chair of Britain’s 9,000 strong Society of Authors, now on the SOA Council, and former President of ArtsRichmond.

Read more at her personal website