Book tells woman’s daring rescue of children from Nazis
FAIRFIELD, Conn. (AP) — The letter was unsigned, impassioned and eloquent. Anne Nelson has no definitive proof, but the author believes that the message that ran in “J’accuse” in late November 1942 may have been written by Suzanne Spaak, the courageous and enigmatic subject of her new book, “Suzanne’s Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris.”
“Two thousand Jewish children, aged 2 to 12 years, have just been sent to the East, to an unknown destination,” the author wrote. “Endless trains with sealed cars have delivered them to torture and to death ... These children are just like yours, and their parents were ready to defend them. But they were ripped away from them mercilessly with an animal savagery.”
Suzanne Spaak, the aristocratic daughter of a prominent Belgian Catholic family and the subject of Nelson’s riveting book, was among the few native speakers in the underground National Movement Against Racism (MNCR), a network of people who saved nearly 100 Jewish children from deportation in Occupied France at the height of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Before the 2017 publication of Nelson’s book, scant reference had been made of Spaak’s efforts in the daring rescue mission that cost her her life. “Not a book, not even an article,” said Nelson, who spoke about her book Wednesday at Fairfield University. The talk was a companion talk to the haunting “Ghosts: French Holocaust Children,” an installation of sculptural and photographic work by Robert Hirsch currently at Fairfield’s Walsh Gallery. Hirsch’s exhibition conjures up images of French Jewish children who died, while Nelson’s talk will focus on those French children, who, through the efforts of Spaak and others, survived.
Suzanne Spaak was one of those stray strands of names that kept emerging during the research of her 2009 book, “Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler.”
“I’m interested in the bystander,” said Nelson, an award-winning author and playwright who has written extensively about human rights and the defiance of totalitarian regimes. So after the publication of “Red Orchestra,” Nelson began to plunge into the identity of Spaak, which led her to an 80-year-old knitting instructor in Rockville, Maryland — Suzanne’s daughter, Pilette. “Oh, some people said she was a Soviet spy,” Pilette told Nelson. “But it was a little more complicated than that.”
In 1937, Suzanne Spaak, wealthy, cultured and newly married, moved to Paris with her frustrated writer-husband, Claude. The pair were attractive and affluent but their marriage had soured. Hoping to sate her husband’s adulterous affairs, Suzanne invited her friend Ruth to live with them. If her husband was going to have a mistress, Suzanne reasoned, it might as well be someone she liked.
Unfulfilled in her marriage, Suzanne took an early interest in the many Jewish immigrants who had fled Eastern Europe for France in the 1930s. She began patronizing the painter Rene Magritte, whom she commissioned to paint her portrait and those of her husband and children. By the time the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Suzanne was immediately engaged; Nelson writes that she was among the 1 percent of French who listened to Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s first BBC broadcast from London.
Close friends of hers, Harry and Mira Sokol, were eventually rounded up and executed by the Nazis. Some French rejoiced at the increased round-ups of Jewish immigrants. “Five thousand Jews are gone,” wrote one pro-Vichy newspaper. “That makes five thousand fewer of the parasites that had infected greater Paris with a fatal disease.”
Suzanne Lorge was the oldest daughter of a wealthy Belgian financier. At 14, she fell in love with 15-year-old Claude Apaak, and secretly became engaged.
In 1942, Spaak offered her services to the underground National Movement Against Racism. “Tell me what I can do, I’m ready to take on any task as long as I can serve in the fight against Nazism,” she said.
Although initially inclined to dismiss the elegant aristocrat, the group began feeding Spaak leaflets to distribute. Ultimately, she would risk far more. From her home at the Palais Royal, where her upstairs neighbor was the celebrated French writer Colette, Spaak assembled a network of like-minded resistance fighters who began to sense the grisly reality of the swelling number of Jewish deportations. After the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, at which 15 German officials settled on the “Final Solution,” German authorities prepared for the deportation of Jews from France and other western European countries. The first transport brought 1,000 Jews from the Compiègne and Drancy detention camps to Auschwitz on March 27, 1942. By that spring, German authorities decreed that Jews in occupied France wear a yellow star. From 1942 to 1944, a stream of Jews were rounded up by Vichy authorities. By the end of the war some 76,000 had been deported to Nazi concentration camps.
″(The Nazis) considered it as an industrial operation,” Nelson said. “It was like a factory. Berlin would say, ’We need X thousand per such-and-such European capital. It was like any other corporation. If the middle manager doesn’t make his quota, he’ll hear about it. It wasn’t like we need all of them at once. It was, indeed, a factory operation. They needed to keep their quotas. They needed to see what the gas chambers could handle.”
An October 1940 census had registered 25,646 immigrant Jewish families in Paris. Two years later, two-third had vanished and the number of Jewish households dropped to just below 8,000, Nelson writes
By the end of 1942, even the most pro-Vichy French could see that the tide had turned. Now the Nazis were deporting children. “They were so desperate to fill their quotas of arrests that they went beyond their usual ages,” Nelson said. “That was the first French.” The pro-Vichy UGIF (Union Generale des Israelites de France, UGIF), charged with consolidating all the Jewish organizations of France into one single unit had been warehousing Jewish children. “Then, at the end of-’42, the Nazis started sending children on the trains,” she said. “Up until that point, the explanation had been that Germany was forcing workers to come to work in the Reich. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not fatal. When you start arresting and deporting children, you say, ‘That makes no sense.’ That’s when the MNCR goes into overdrive.”
In early 1943, Spaak learned of plans to deport all the Jewish children in UGIF. From Feb. 9-11, 1943, French police arrested 460 children from Jewish centers, shipping them to Auschwitz, where nearly all were gassed upon arrival.
By the following week, Spaak sprung into action mobilizing “the most audacious rescue of the Occupation.” Working with co-conspirators Pastor Paul Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot, she developed a network of women who would visit the UGIF centers as relatives ready to take two or three children for their daily walk.
Instead, they marched to Vergara’s Paris soup kitchen, LaClairiere. From there, Spaak and other volunteers parceled the children out to houses, convents and apartments - including the Countess de la Bourdonnaye’s vast apartment on the Rue de Varenne as a way station. Nelson estimates that 40 women took part in the operation, which saved between 90 and 100 children.
Spaak continued networking among her aristocratic and Resistance cohorts, who helped her with money and lists of safe houses for the children. Among them were the French novelist Colette. By 1943, however, the Nazis exacted a wicked crackdown on the Resistance.
In October, the Gestapo arrested Suzanne Spaak and took her to the prison in Fresnes. Before she was incarcerated, however, she gave the lists of Jewish children and their addresses to an underground comrade, thus saving the children.
On Aug. 12, 1944, less than a week before the liberation of Paris, the Germans executed her.
“There’s so many people who sit back and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’” Nelson said. “And here’s Suzanne, where women don’t have a right to vote, she can’t open her own bank account in her own name and yet she does this monumental super- human task.”
After years spent as a war correspondent in El Salvador, writing about individuals who made a difference “became a life’s mission,” Nelson said.
“I’ve written about dark subjects but I find a spirit that inspires me and I try to hold that up to inspire others. I really loved writing this book, partly because it is such a women’s book. I’ve never been able to write that story before. I wanted to write about the courage of her Jewish colleagues who could have been cowering in the corners and instead took this remarkable action.”
Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com