Archive for March, 2010

Mary Burchell, Hero of the Holocaust

Moved – as who could not be? – by this week’s honouring of British Heroes of the Holocaust, I have been re-reading the memoir that RNA President Mary Burchell, first published in 1950. Mira Books republished it in 2008 as Safe Passage under her real name, Ida Cook.

She was very much loved by members of the Romantic Novelists Association, having done a major reconciliation job on the organisation after it tore itself apart in the mid sixties over media sniggers at anything with ‘romantic’ in the title.   She was one of Mills & Boon’s brightest stars and proud of it.  ‘I am a born romantic’, she told the RNA, on taking up the presidency.  For her, romance was ‘akin to optimism and the determination to make the best of things, and has taken many people over dreary difficulties and prompted others to dare the impossible.’  She knew of what she spoke.  For, from 1934 to the start of the War, she had been daring the impossible in a big way, helping Jews to escape from Nazi Germany. 

She was only thirty – thirty! –  when her friend, the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, asked her and her sister Louise to take care of Madame Mayer-Lismann, official lecturer at the Salzburg Festival, who was coming to lecture in London.  Ida and Louise were flattered – they were both serious opera groupies and had encountered Ursuleac and her husband, conductor Clemens Krauss by standing in stage door queues – but bewildered.  The white haired sophisticate spoke fluent English and seemed better able to look after herself than they did.  However, they took her on a sight seeing tour in London and, when she asked whether St Paul’s was a Protestant or Catholic church, asked politely which she was herself.  Mitia Mayer-Lismann was astonished.  But she was Jewish.  Didn’t they know?  No, said Ida, they hadn’t thought about it. And she comments:  ‘We didn’t know – imagine!  We didn’t know that to be Jewish and to come from Frankfurt-am-Main already had the seeds of tragedy in it.’

And that was how a couple of opera-mad civil service typists turned themselves into the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Except that, unlike Sir Percy, they had no League, no contacts, and above all no money.  Mary Burchell had not yet published a book (her first was Wife to Christopher in 1936).  When she got her first contract with Mills & Boon, she left the Civil Service to write full time and a large part of her earnings went into helping refugees.  ‘Our guardian angels must have been looking over our shoulders at that time,’  she wrote.  ‘Before we had any chance to alter our way of living or get into the habit of spending what seemed to us then great sums, the full horror of what was happening in Europe finally, and for all time, came home to us.’

‘And so, at the very moment when I was making big money for the first time in my life, we were presented with this terrible need. …. it was much the most romantic thing that ever happened to us. … If we had always had the money we might not have thought we had anything to spare.  But I still had never handled more than five pounds a week in my life, and suddenly my income was rising to five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand a year;  big money then.’

It was not enough.    Ida started to raise funds, first from friends and contacts, then through speaking to groups, though she had never done anything like it before.  And she and Louise kept going back to Germany and Austria, ostensibly to hear opera, while they organised British guarantors for the people they helped and, just as important, smuggled out jewels and furs so that the refugees would have something to live on when they arrived. 

Ida was often afraid and appalled.   ‘Sometimes we thought we could not bear to go back into that hateful, diseased German atmosphere.’  But if they faltered, the friendship and support of Ursuleac and Krauss got them going again. 

Their parents, too, were a great source of strength.  The sisters continued to live at home, putting the flat that Ida had acquired in Dolphin Square at the disposal of the refugees.  Once, returning from a particularly harrowing trip, Ida went into the kitchen where her mother was making pastry, and burst into tears.  ‘If she had stopped and made a sentimental fuss of me I would have cried for hours,’  she wrote.  ‘She simply went on making pastry.  In three minutes I was all right.’  Safe Passage is dedicated to her ‘Incomparable Parents, without whose loving and common-sense upbringing we should never have been capable of doing the things described in this book.’ 

They were truly remarkable.  Ida fought bureacracy – with a truly impressive sympathy for the difficulties of the bureacrat himself, however irritating.  She never got hardened to the sufferings of others, no matter how much awfulness she saw.  She never gave up hope.  She was always sensitive – read her piece on how, in December 1938, the British Vice Consul in Frankfurt told her she couldn’t jump the queue of despairing people, saying ‘I’m sorry.  But do you realize that some of these people have been waiting since seven o clock in the morning to speak to me?  I’m afraid you must go away and wait your turn.’  She had a desperate mother and daughter to help but she noted, ‘As I and the Bauers withdrew, everyone smiled sympathetically, and I had the curious impression that they had become human beings again.  They had rights, just like any other human being.  It had just been demonstrated for them before their own eyes.’    He let Ida come back after hours and the Chief Consul’s teenage daughter, pitching in with her mother, took the details and agreed that they had to see her father.  And he found a way to get the Bauers to England eventually.

The other thing that clearly saw Ida through this terrible time was her sense of humour.  Pushed into bringing a valuable diamond brooch to England in 1938, she was horrified to find ‘a great oblong of blazing diamonds’.  Fortunately, she says, she was wearing a six shilling and elevenpenny satin M&S jumper with glass buttons, so she pinned it on that, daringly left her coat open and hoped everyone would think the brooch came from Woolworths.  They did. 

A wonderful woman.