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Gala opera evenings. Sudden wealth and fame. Dangerous undercover missions into the heart of Nazi Germany. Standing up to the perils of the Blitz. No one would have predicted such glamorous and daring lives for Ida and Louise Cook—two decidedly ordinary Englishwomen who came of age between the wars and seemed destined never to stray from their quiet London suburb and comfortable civil service jobs. But in 1923 a chance hearing of an aria from Madame Butterfly sparked a passion in the sisters that became a vehicle for both their greatest happiness and the rescue of dozens of Jews facing persecution and death.
Safe Passage is one of the most unusual and inspiring accounts to come out of the cataclysm of World War II. First published in 1950, Ida's memoir of the adventures she and Louise shared remains as fresh, vital and entertaining as the woman who wrote it. The Cook sisters' zest for life and genuine "goodness" shines through every page and explains why the leading opera singers of their day befriended and loved them. Even when Ida began to earn thousands as a successful romance novelist, the sisters never departed from their homespun virtues of thrift, hard work, self-sacrifice and unwavering moral conviction. They sewed their own clothes, traveled third class, bought the cheapest tickets during opera season and directed every spare resource, as well as their own considerable courage and ingenuity, toward saving as many people as they could from Hitler's death camps.
Uplifting and utterly charming, Safe Passage is moving testimony to all that can be achieved when conscience and compassion are applied to a collapsing world.
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Ida Cook (1904-1986), writing as Mary Burchell, authored more than 120 books over the course of five decades. A lifelong devotee of opera, she counted Amelita Galli-Curci, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas among her close friends. In 1965, together with her sister Louise, she was awarded the honor or Righteous Among Nations from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority in Jerusalem.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
To every writer who has ever published a book, there comes eventually that amusing though irritating moment when someone says pensively, "I have always thought that I could write a book—if only I had time."
I have never been able to decide whether the subtle implication is that only those with an unfair amount of time at their disposal ever reach the point of seeing themselves in print, or whether it is a delicate way of saying that in order to write a book one must have neglected more pressing duties.
In my own experience, I can only say that I have never sat down to write a book with the feeling that I had any time in hand. And, apart from the fact that I write, happily and unashamedly, for the wicked old profit motive, any urge I may have has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether I have time or not.
But for some while now, I have had a sneaking sympathy for the "if I had time" school of thought, for this is the book that I have thought Ishould like to write—if only I had time.
I really have not time now. But something, I am not quite sure what, has pushed me a little further than the "if" stage, and so I have begun the book, which will at least amuse me and some of my friends. And perhaps in the process, I may shed some light on the theory that writing is all a question of time.
To write your recollections or memoirs is to make a claim that, in your estimation at any rate, you have lived some interesting years. It is difficult not to associate a degree of egotism with this claim. But I am hoping a thin line draws a decent distinction between thinking myself an interesting person and being interested in what has happened to me. I am tremendously interested in what has happened to me— and incidentally my sister Louise, whose story this is, as much as my own. That is my sole excuse for supposing that a book about us should fascinate anyone but ourselves.
An autobiography should, I suppose, begin at the beginning of one's life. So—I was born in Sunderland, Durham, the second daughter in a middle-class family of two girls and two boys. My father was an officer and later a surveyor of Customs and Excise. As this work entailed a good deal of moving, we four children were all born in different parts of England. In spite of this, there was always a tremendous sense of stability in our family life.
Although he was born in the country, my father always preferred town life. And my mother, though born within sound of Bow Bells—the now rare distinction that marks the true Cockney—always retained many of the characteristics of her farming ancestors. Without being in the least sentimental, I can state that both were enormously successful as parents. I should know: my father lived to be ninety-three and my mother eighty-nine, so I knew them a long while.
One of the most revealing conversations I ever had with my mother occurred just a few weeks before she died. I said to her reflectively, "Mother, I've never seen you cry."
She replied, "What do you mean? I never had anything to cry about. I had it all. I didn't ask very much, but I had everything that mattered. I had a good husband"—I'm glad to say she added—"and good children. A good home and good health. No one must ask for anything else. Anything else is a bonus."
And she meant it. No wonder she—and we—were happy.
Even as children, Louise and I always felt sorry for those children whose mothers had easily hurt feelings or whose fathers either could not assert their authority in their own homes or—the other awful extreme—became domestic tyrants.
Mother was never "hurt." She could be cross with us, of course, which is quite a different thing. But half an hour later, she would be frying potatoes for us in the kitchen. Although we never thought of our father as anything but the head of the household, he would no more have played the domestic tyrant than been found drunk and disorderly in the street.
Both parents set a standard of personal integrity that gave us children a never-questioned scale of values and made life so much easier later on. Once, when we were very young, Dad did present his daughters with a painful problem: He thought it wrong to accept a reward if one found something valuable and could return it to the owner. This, he maintained, was one's duty anyway, and no one should expect to be rewarded, merely for doing what was right.
Louise and I had a tremendous discussion on what to do if ever we found a diamond necklace. Finally, we asked Mother, who was kind and practical enough to suggest that anyone careless enough to lose a diamond necklace really ought to pay something for its recovery. This solution satisfied us completely, and we were able to go on looking for lost diamond necklaces with untroubled minds.
Mother had a great deal of common sense and was a most reassuring person. There is a pleasant story about Louise who, when she was about two, woke up crying in the night. When asked what was the matter, she said there was a dream in her pillow. Mother didn't argue or seek deep reasons for her child's extraordinary assertion. She simply said, "Then we'll change the pillow"—which she did, and Louise slept peacefully after that.
Louise was the eldest child in our family, a blonde, beautiful and angelic baby. My poor parents thought all babies were like that until I arrived to disillusion them.
I am assured on excellent authority that I was the ugliest baby it is possible to imagine. Mother always declared that on his first seeing me, Dad could not help exclaiming, "Good lord! Isn't she ugly!" But later, he was annoyed if anyone told that story, so perhaps it was just a family legend, hardened into fact by repetition.
However, Louise was enchanted with me. So much so that when the nurse took me out for my first airing, Louise was discovered in floods of tears at the bottom of the stairs, as she assumed I was only on loan and was not being brought back.
When I was two, we moved to Barnes, on the outskirts of London, and it is here that I recall the almost fabulous security and radiance of the last of the Edwardian era. I am glad that my memory does at least encompass a general impression of those days, because life before the First World War is impossible to imagine if one never experienced it.
Not that we were the kind of family who took any part in the social life of that—or indeed, any other—period. But I have a composite recollection of security, sunshine— though this could not have been as constant as it seems to me in retrospect—and the magnificence of Ranelagh, as gauged by the motorcars lined up in our road, waiting for the large-hatted and feather-boa-ed owners.
I remember a tremendous balloon race that took place in a thunderstorm, and I remember when a passing airplane was something so amazing that we rushed into the garden, gazed upwards and said confidently, "That's probably Grahame-White." Those days held the joys of choosing oddments for one's Christmas shopping at the penny bazaars and the horrors of a newspaper announcement saying, "Titanic Sinks."
To me, the limit of world wandering was the Albert Memorial. How I loved it. I still love it, come to that. Possibly, if I must be quite truthful about an old friend, I would prefer one fewer gaggle of angels at the summit. Otherwise, it is a dear landmark in more senses than one, and I have wandered around it many times while my father identified and explained those famous figures on it.
I remember my first day at school, when the story of Adam and Eve really impinged on my consciousness for the first time. I wept loudly and embarrassingly for the offenders. There was a very realistic illustration of a smug angel booting an ill clad Adam and Eve out of Paradise, and I think it was the fact that they had little but a goatskin apiece round their middles that especially harrowed me. Years afterwards, someone who knew me well declared there was something symbolic in my howling over the first refugees the world had ever known.
When I was six, and while we were still in Barnes, our brother Bill was born. I don't think I was quite so nice about being the displaced baby as Louise had been. I distinctly remember wondering gloomily if my special saucepan-scraping privileges were threatened. There weren't many child psychologists to put ideas into our heads in those days. I imagine my parents coped with this as sensibly as with all other family problems. Anyway, Bill was such a model baby that even his elder sisters had to be pleased with him.
In the summer of 1912, we moved to Alnwick, the county town of Northumberland, where we stayed through the First World War and until I was fifteen. Jim was born there, a month after war broke out. He disliked the idea that there had ever been a time when the family had not had him, and he frequently prefaced entirely imaginary recollections with the words, "When I were in Barnes."
For Louise and me, these years in Alnwick were extremely happy ones. We genuinely enjoyed our school days at the Duchess' School, originally endowed and initiated with the then Duchess of Northumberland more than a hundred years earlier. The building was across the road from Alnwick Castle and had once been the Dower House. From the windows of our classrooms, we could look out on the castle battlements with their stone figures of fighting men, once used to deceive the invading Scots into thinking the place was better defended than it was.
We lived and played and studied on ground where the history of England and Scotland had been written, and if this fact had not left its mark upon us, we should have been insensitive indeed. We made our own amusements in those lucky, happy days, of course.
Above all, we read—everything, from Beaumont and Fletcher to Captain Desmond, VC. Sometimes Dad would apostrophize what we were reading as "rubbish"—which, no doubt, it was—and I'm sure he would have stopped us at filth for filth's sake. Nor did anyone feel a burning necessity to dot emotional I's or cross sexual T's for us as we ambled happily through four hundred years of varied literature. It amuses me now to realize how much must have gone over my unworried head, but I doubt that I was stunted either emotionally or intellectually as a consequence.
When the family returned to London in the immediate post-war years, it was time for Louise to start earning her living. She entered the civil service, characteristically scoring top marks in Latin in the entrance examination. I followed her a year or two later in the humbler capacity of copying typist. My salary was a modest £2.60 a week—now £2.30— and very pleased with it I was.
It is always fascinating to look back on any life—particularly one's own—pick out a seemingly unimportant incident, and be able to say, "That was when it all started."
For Louise and me, that point came on an afternoon in 1923, when the late Sir Walford Davies, accompanied by a gramophone, came to the Board of Education to give a lecture on music. Although it was probably not intended for office workers at all, but the school inspectors or some such, Louise somehow wandered into the lecture.
She arrived home slightly dazed and announced to an astonished family, "I must have a gramophone."
That same month, she received one of those unexplained bonuses that used to crop up with the cost-of-living alterations. Her share was sufficient to pay a fairly large deposit on an H.M.V. gramophone, and Mother and I went with her to buy it. This machine cost the fabulously extravagant price of £23.
As well, Louise bought ten records. These single-sided discs were 7/6d in those days—about 38p). She had planned to purchase instrumental music only, notably the "Air on the G String." But the assistant was extremely sympathetic and anxious that ten records should really give us pleasure and suggested a vocal record or two, pointing out that there was a very fine Amelita Galli-Curci record out that month.
We had never heard of Galli-Curci, but after listening to her record of "Un bel dì vedremo," we immediately bought it. To this we cautiously added Alma Gluck's record of "O, Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?" and felt we had done our duty by vocal records.
It was, I immediately confess, many years before we ever bought another instrumental record. Between them, Galli-Curci and Alma Gluck opened the world of vocal music to us, and we became what can only be described as "voice lovers."
Oh, happy days, when first one becomes a record collector, however modest! Could any collector, amateur or professional, cast his mind back to the days when he painfully accumulated his first two or three records, and say that was not one of the happiest times of his life?
The ravishing moment when, for the first time, the rich beauty of De Luca's incomparable tone melted upon the ear; the very first time Caruso's radiant tenor uttered the opening phrases of the Rigoletto Quartet in matchless style and tones of liquid gold; the very first time Farrar, Gluck, Alda, Mar-tinelli, Destinn, Eames, Chaliapin—oh, all that immortal company—broke upon one's intoxicating sense of awareness. These were never to be forgotten glories.
I recall even now the terrific excitement when double-sided records came in. It was a milestone on the path to the operatic Milky Way. There were Louise and I slowly sampling the early joys of record collecting. And "slowly" was the word. The buying of one new record meant much consultation, much planning and, frequently, going without a few lunches—which is, I still think, the way one should come to one's pleasures. That sense of glorious achievement is with me still, fifty years later.
Then, early in 1924, came the announcement that Galli-Curci was to make her English debut in the autumn and give a series of concerts, beginning on October 12, at the Albert Hall. By now, she was very much our favourite gramophone star, and her appearance—in London, in the flesh—was of monumental importance to us. I make no secret of the fact, and no apology for it, that our early years were filled with a considerable amount of naïve hero worship. Even now, I have every sympathy with the sincere, often raw, enthusiasm that lifts some youngster right out of the ordinary world, up to the golden heights of loving admiration for something that is, or appears in youthful estimation to be, perfection.
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