I keep trying to jump on the book club bandwagon. Alas, more oft than not, either I flounder with the book at hand; or the thought of being called upon in a room full of intellectuals unnerves me and I lose all hope.
Yet the dawn of twenty-seventeen found me opting to forgo such tomfoolery and read whatever I pleased.
One such book was Safe Passage by Ida Cook.
It was a complete mystery when I picked it up at the bookstore that day. With nary a review to be had, I had no inkling others were aghast it touted as “the incredible true story of two sisters, who rescued Jews from the Nazis.” It’s little more than an old story of two sisters who flounced from one opera to the next, they critique; they saved but twenty-nine Jews, they cry . . . and their escapades took place before the war, they’re quick to add.
I dare say that’s exactly what makes this story so spectacular.
Ida and Louise Cook were, indeed, two ordinary, young Englishwomen; they went about their civil service jobs, they lived quiet lives in a London suburb.
Then they fell in love with opera . . .
Starstruck, they saved and scrimped to follow their favorite performers (as far as New York City). Ida took up writing to fund their passion. They snapped photos. They hobnobbed. They received an urgent plea to help the Jews flee the Nazi regime; and they helped as only they could.
Their love of opera served the perfect cover for their many trips to Germany and Austria. Ida financed the trips with the earnings from her writing; Louise taught herself German to conduct interviews with those seeking help, as well as the authorities. Together they smuggled out furs and valuable jewels to sell in Britain, to help the refugees settle in a bit.
Ida’s writing style is conversational; she tells their story as if sitting down with a friend, for tea. As such, we’re afforded a glimpse at opera life in the nineteen-twenties (which I found fascinating, and I’m not the biggest opera fan) . . . the thrill of saving a life . . . the agony of losing a life . . . the blessing of surviving The Blitz. . .
‘Then one woman looked directly at her husband. ‘Is our place gone?’
‘I’m afraid so, girl,’ he said. ‘There isn’t much left up there. But we’re alive. We’re all lucky to be alive. We’d have been dead if we’d stayed up above.’
‘Oh, what a mercy we didn’t!’ she exclaimed. ‘How lucky we are!’
Incredible though it sounds, within a few moments, a whole lot of people were congratulating each other on their extraordinary good fortune in only having lost all their worldly possessions.
Do I recommend the book? I most certainly do. It’s charming and inspiring. If you’re an opera aficionado, you’re sure to geek out; if you’re nothing of the sort, you just might learn a thing or two. In short, it’s a perfectly delightful read–proof it behooves us, every now and again, to pick up a book we know nothing about, and see what it has to offer.
It’s also a good reminder: you just never know what an ordinary life might accomplish, or the difference a passion can make.
This book was originally published in 1950 as We Followed Our Stars. John Murray is said to be publishing a biography of the sisters in 2020; and there have been talks about a film, as well.