Book Review: ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’

This review appeared originally on the Independent Catholic news

Book: ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’
Rebecca Tinsley
Sunday, June 21, 2015 3:40 pm.

‘Heroes of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith, published by Ebury Press

Lyn Smith’s work deserves a wide audience. For decades she has been interviewing survivors of war- soldiers and civilians- for the Imperial War Museum voice archive. Smith’s dedication has also resulted in a series of books about apparently ‘ordinary’ people who lived through extraordinary times. Although ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’ was published two years ago, it is especially timely as we mark 70 years since the end of World War Two.

There is no hyperbole in the way in which Smith’s heroes recount bizarre, horrific or life-enhancing events, for these aren’t Hollywood actors pretending to be brave, with the shameful parts edited out, or the valiant gestures exaggerated. These are real, sometimes uncomplicated folk, telling it as it happened, talking in a matter-of-fact manner. The result makes compelling reading.

“Heroes of the Holocaust” is about the largely unknown British people who risked their lives to save European Jews. Their stories are uplifting, but also sobering. They provide proof that even at the darkest times in history, when evil appears to be triumphing, individual acts of decency and humanity redeem our flawed and troubled species.

Some of Smith’s heroes were motivated by religious convictions, while others were not. Most of them kept their bravery to themselves. In many cases their families were astonished to learn of their remarkable achievements only after the war, or when they had died. Their reticence is all the more striking in an age when talentless, self-absorbed people are widely celebrated by our media for merely being famous.

One particularly delightful chapter is about two opera fanatic sisters, Louise and Ida Cook. They were quite apolitical at first, but as they travelled to performances across the Continent in the 1930s they were shocked by the rise of fascism, and the casual brutality of governments and individuals toward Jewish people. Using the profits from the Mills and Boon novels Ida wrote (she penned 120 of them), the sisters became financial guarantors of Jewish families, for whom they acquired papers and arranged transport to Britain. On their regular trips to see opera in Germany and Austria they met and interviewed Jewish families, smuggled their valuable possessions back to Britain where they sold them and set up bank accounts for the families. Then, writing profiles of the people whom they had met, they would find British families to act as their guardians and financial guarantors.

The Cook sisters persuaded British furriers to give them labels so they could take them to Germany or Austria, sew them onto the fur coats of Jewish families, wear the coats when they returned to Britain after their weekend of opera, sell the coats and open bank accounts. Quite why their story hasn’t been made into a feel-good movie is a mystery.

Smith’s book of testimonies of British children evacuated from cities is also to be recommended. Anyone who thinks we are currently living through frightening times because of the threat of terrorism must read the accounts of children who lived in Hull. They faced seemingly endless bombardment throughout the war. Yet even now Hull’s systematic destruction receives much less attention than Coventry. All the more important, then, that someone thought to record the impressions of those who survived such testing times.


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