by Anne Nelson, Simon & Schuster, 318pp, £15.97
Sometimes the circumstances of war bring out generous instincts that otherwise lie dormant. For instance, Etty Hillesum was a secular Jewish Dutchwoman moving in the bohemian circles of Amsterdam. Yet as the persecution of Dutch Jews intensified, she developed a deeply compassionate insight into their plight, revealed in her posthumous Diary.
Another improbable hero of the last war was Suzanne Spaak, subject of this recent biography. The daughter of a Belgian financier, she had married Claude Spaak, a member of Belgium’s leading political dynasty in 1925. In 1937 the family moved from Brussels to Paris. In 1939 she joined a Jewish resistance group, Solidarité. Her niece later recalled Suzanne as someone “who was full of kindness”. She had found a meaningful humanitarian role: helping to save Jewish children.
As a courier and fundraiser, Suzanne also helped find safe houses for those orphaned after their parents’ deportation. A “resolute atheist throughout her adult life”, she used to visit small villages near Paris, go to the local Catholic church, ask the village priest to hear her Confession, then in the Confessional solicit help in finding suitable refuges.
In October 1943 the Gestapo tightened the net around resistance workers and their contacts. Suzanne, with a misplaced “magical belief in her own invulnerability”, returned to Brussels. On November 10 she was arrested and sent to Fresnes prison in Paris. There, on August 12, 1944, she was taken to the prison courtyard and shot in the back of the neck.
Anne Nelson asks who killed her and why. The facts have never been properly established; probably her death sentence was “a stupid, horrible, administrative mistake”. After the liberation of Paris, Claude visited his wife’s former cell at Fresnes, weeping at the inscriptions she had written on the walls; they included Rudyard Kipling: “Where the children are, the mothers should be, so they can watch over them.”
Nelson has done much research to bring Suzanne Spaak’s efforts to save French Jewish children to prominence. Unfortunately, Suzanne’s husband burned her letters and papers. This prevents the reader from getting to know her in a deeper, more personal way.
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