SUNDERLAND IS TO HONOUR two of its bravest former citizens who risked their lives to save Jewish refugees from pre-war Nazi Germany.
A Blue Plaque commemorating the Cook sisters is being unveiled at 10.30am on Friday (27 Jan) on the entrance gate wall to Croft Avenue (off Chester Road) which was their childhood home.
The Mayor of Sunderland Councillor Alan Emerson will host the event which co-incides with international Holocaust Memorial Day
Joining the Mayor for the unveiling ceremony will be several members of the Cook family and representatives from the local Jewish community, with invited guests including Julie Elliott MP, senior councillors and members of the East Area Committee who have funded the plaque and education activities based around it.
Children from nearby St Joseph’s primary school in nearby Rutland Street have been learning more about the Cook Sisters in their history lessons, and how they helped Jewish refugees escape from Nazi persecution in Nazi pre-war Germany.
Following the unveiling ceremony, guests will be invited at 10.45am to a celebratory event at the nearby Chesters public house to hear speeches from Cllr Emerson and his guests from the Cook family and Newcastle Reform Synagogue.
After the speeches there will performance by pupils from St Joseph’s with the Time Bandits historic re-enactment and education theatre group, who have been involved with the school history project.
The Mayor will then invite Rolf Cook who is the youngest member of the family present to join him, and cut a commemorative cake shaped and decorated like the Blue Plaque they have just unveiled.
The Cook sisters were honoured by the state of Israel in 1965 alongside others like Oscar Shindler with the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award, and by the British Government in the 2010 as national ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’.
Posing as eccentric opera lovers to repeatedly travel to Germany during the late 1930s, the sisters smuggled the personal possessions of those facing persecution back with them to Britain to sell and raise funds for the emigration papers and travel documents the refugees needed to escape to safety.
The Mayor, Cllr Alan Emerson said: “We are all delighted that John Cook and other members of the family are travelling to Sunderland to join us for this occasion, and to help our city commemorate the bravery of the Cook sisters.
“Ida and Louise willingly faced terrible danger and possible execution if they were caught, in order to save the lives of those facing terrible persecution from one of the most evil regimes in world history.
” Their bravery is an example for us all, and I am honoured to represent the people of Sunderland at the unveiling of this blue plaque at the entrance of Croft Avenue which was their childhood home as a permanent reminder of their heroism.”
John Cook who lives in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire said: “I am delighted to be able to attend the unveiling, together with my cousins Peter and Rolf.
” Ida and Louise viewed what they did as simply the right thing to do, and would be surprised and humbled by the honour that Sunderland does them today.”
Ida was a romantic novelist who wrote more than 125 novels for Mills and Boon under the pen-name of Mary Burchell, and used her income as an author to finance the sisters’ visits to Germany.
In 1950 she wrote her autobiography ‘We Followed Our Stars’ which was re-edited as ‘Safe Passage’ and is still in print today.
Mills & Boon, Executive Publisher Lisa Milton, said: “We are hugely proud to publish Ida Cook. Writing as Mary Burchell for Mills & Boon she brought her warm, romantic storytelling to countless readers over the years.
” But undoubtedly the greatest story of all was that of the extraordinary rescues of dozens of Jews from the Nazis, that she and Louise pursued relentlessly, risking their own lives to save others. It is an honour to have published their own remarkable, brave and deeply moving story. It is testament to them both that Safe Passage is still in print today almost 70 years later.”
Ida Cook also appeared on national television in 1956 as a subject for ‘This is Your Life’ hosted by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.
It was the Cook sisters’ friendship with Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and his fiancé, opera singer Viorica Ursuleac, that led the sister to their risky lives as double agents.
Ursuleac asked the sisters to help a Jewish friend, Mitia Mayer-Lismann, make her way out of the country. They soon volunteered for further missions, using their reputation as eccentric opera fanatics to make repeated trips to Germany between 1934 – 1939 attending performances and meeting Jews trying to escape.
The money raised from the sale of the refugees’ property would be used to provide immigration guarantees.
When interviewed about their exploits, Ida said: “We were careful on detail. We never took earrings for pierced ears, because neither of us had pierced ears.
” That was the kind of thing they caught you on.”
Helped by Krauss, who often arranged to perform in the cities that the Cooks needed to visit, the sisters rescued 29 refugees.
Chairman of the Newcastle Reform Synagogue, Tony Wortman who lives in Fulwell said: “The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘How can life go on’ for those who survived the horrors of genocide?
“Ida and Louise Cook saved many Jews who may have settled in this country. In many cases they married and had children, who then married and had children of their own.
“Many of these survivors who are still living, are now surrounded by their children and grand-children and for them life has gone on. This would have not been so had it not been for the bravery of the Cook sisters, and I am pleased to be invited to honour them on behalf of all those they saved.”
Following the unveiling of the Blue Plaque local historian Stuart Miller is giving a free talk at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens at 1.30pm about the lives of the Cook sisters (please call 0191 561 2323 for details or visithttp://www.
A small touring exhibition ‘Rescues of the Holocaust’ is also on view at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens in Burdon Road until 28 January which includes the story of Ida and Louise Cook.