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Selflessness Under Pressure

18 October 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘My children are safe while others are threatened.” That anguished thought gave Belgian heiress Suzanne Spaak the determination to risk everything to protect Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Paris from deportation to, and probable death in, concentration camps. Although absolute numbers are hard to come by, author and playwright Anne Nelson estimates in her immersive chronicle, “Suzanne’s Children,” that Spaak and her Resistance colleagues may have helped save hundreds of young Jewish lives.

At first glance, Spaak’s pampered early life contains little that would suggest her later capacity for selfless courage. The beautiful daughter of a prominent Belgian financier, she had harbored idealistic tendencies as a child, but chose status when she married into a distinguished Belgian political family.

. . . .

By 1939, however, the real picture had darkened considerably. Angered by her husband’s self-centeredness and caddish infidelities, yet fearing the scandal a divorce would cause, a distraught Suzanne consented to share him in an awkward ménage à trois with his mistress—a woman who had once been her best friend and who would, after Suzanne’s death, become Claude’s second wife. Suzanne was further unnerved by the increasing likelihood of a coming war with Nazi Germany. Even her budding involvement with left-wing political groups seemed futile as the Nazi machine closed in on Jewish immigrant friends trying to escape Europe. With little solace to be found from either her personal life or the world around her, she suffered a breakdown.

. . . .

[W]ith the fall of France and the start of the Nazi occupation, Suzanne gained new purpose. “What can I do?” became her constant refrain as she became ever more active in an ever-larger number of Resistance groups, working with Jews, Catholics and Protestants as well as communists, Soviet agents and followers of Free France’s leader, Charles de Gaulle.

Counting on her innocent demeanor and chic style to avoid suspicion, Spaak routinely acted as courier, concealing in her bodice or girdle a delivery of identity documents or leaflets warning Jews of the next Nazi round-up. Her upper-crust position apparently also deflected doubts as she employed Jewish refugees as “servants” on their way to finding safe passage out of Europe. She contributed her own money to the cause and called upon her wealthy acquaintances for additional funding. She herself provided temporary shelter to Jewish children en route to their new homes.

. . . .

Suzanne, a lapsed Catholic, would take the train to a small town and, while taking confession at the local church, would matter-of-factly ask the priest if he knew families that might take in endangered children. Most audacious of all was her role coordinating an elaborate operation known as “le kidnapping.” Sixty-three Jewish children whose parents had already been deported or disappeared were rescued from the barely survivable orphanages where they were being kept in advance of their own transport to Nazi death camps.

That rescue took place in February 1943. Over the next several months the Gestapo hunted her, interrogating and imprisoning her siblings, in-laws, and children, before finally arresting her that November. Suzanne revealed little; during her months in solitary confinement in Fresnes prison—described by Ms. Nelson as a “factory of despair”—she remained noble to the end. To keep herself busy, she unraveled the threads of her blanket and used toothpicks to knit a tie for her son; for her daughter, she created a doll from strands of her hair. Yet on August 12, 1944, amid the pandemonium just before the liberation of Paris, Spaak was taken to the prison courtyard and executed. In 1985, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, honored her as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Here’s a link to Suzanne’s Children


One Comments to “Selflessness Under Pressure”

  1. Great highlight of a real hero. She’s going on my list of Most Interesting Historical People You’ve Never Heard Of.

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