Family & Education

My father, an unsung hero of the Holocaust

Irene Hatter's father would never talk to his family about his past in wartime France. In a new documentary, she goes in search of his elusive story


Lady Irene Hatter was born in Amsterdam, a few days after the creation of the state of Israel. Like many Jews of her generation, the Holocaust cast a shadow over the family. As a child she overheard muttered comments, whispered rumours, but that was all it was not until 35 years after her father’s death in 1980 that she set out to find out the truth about who he really was.

Forgotten Soldier, a new documentary narrated by Zoe Wanamaker and Henry Goodman, follows Lady Hatter as she embarks on an investigation into her father’s wartime past. At the outset she acknowledges that she knew little about his life during the war; she recalls only a single passing encounter as a teenager with a man who came up to them in the street in Amsterdam and told her father that he had saved his life.

With a film crew in tow, Lady Hatter set off to retrace her father’s wartime experiences. Sally Noach was born in the provincial Dutch city of Zutphen in 1909, into a large Jewish family. Even as a child he was something of a firebrand, and he left school aged 12 after an argument with a teacher, finding work as a butcher’s boy and a waiter before following his father into the carpet business. The family tended not to stay in one place for long, and in May 1940, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Belgium, they were living in Brussels. Sally was the only member of the family who had the instinct to flee; he took the train to Lyon, where he managed, with the help of some contacts in the carpet business, to set himself up as a trader. After the war he discovered that 108 members of his close family had not survived, including his parents, killed in Auschwitz.

After the fall of France in June 1940, up to 8 million refugees, often with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever they could pile into a wheelbarrow, took to the roads in what was called the ‘great exodus’, hoping to flee to the unoccupied southern zone. Lyon, sometimes called “the capital of resistance”, was teeming with refugees. Its Jewish population swelled from 4000 to 40,000 almost overnight.

Noach offered his services as a translator and interpreter to Maurice Jacquet at the city’s Dutch consulate. They must have made quite a pair: Jacquet the punctilious French diplomat, and Sally the stocky Jewish hustler, whose methods were rather more unorthodox. In the early days of the war, blank identity cards could be bought from tobacconists, and Sally would simply fill them in with false names. These saufs conduits, or safe passage documents, enabled people to cross demarcation zones and flee to safety.

Sally’s exploits became more and more daring as the war progressed. ‘He wasn’t afraid and he had lots of chutzpah!’ as his daughter notes. On two separate occasions he managed to get hundreds of prisoners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, released, telling the guards that he was the Dutch consul and entering the building with a pile of stamped papers that he had produced at home. Even in the face of openly sceptical police officers guarding the sites, he somehow managed to enter and not long after to leave with hundreds of newly “Dutch” liberated prisoners.

By 1942 the whole of France was under German occupation and Noach was advised to leave. He crossed the border into Spain and then Portugal, eventually making his way to the UK. He returned to Amsterdam in 1947, where Irene and her brothers Jacques and Victor were born.

It was not until 1969 that the Dutch recognised his bravery and his achievements, though the government refused to honour him during his lifetime. It seems extraordinary that it has taken over 70 years for his children to find out the truth. But that very long journey holds its own secrets.

Oxford professor Robert Gildea, author of Fighters in the Shadows, about resistance in France during World War II appears in the film, reminding us of the way in which the idea of resistance was moulded after the war to exclude the idea of saving people. “For a long time rescue didn’t get much of a seat at the table. People saw resistance as basically people sabotaging trains, taking pot shots at Germans. But Jewish resistance and Jewish rescue was a war within the war.” Rescue is now recognised as a vital form of resistance. Sally was, in the words of people who knew him, an “unsung hero”, an example of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.


But his story was not one of straightforward heroism. Sally was accused of being a black market profiteer, though of course, he had little choice, when Jews were barred from all other economies. He was accused of consorting with Petain’s police in Lyon but otherwise how could he and the Dutch consulate have bribed officials to release prisoners. He appears to have raised enormous amounts of money, and used that cash in unconventional ways. The Dutch authorities in London and later back in the Netherlands demonised him for his working methods, resorting to familiar antisemitic tropes and refusing to acknowledge what he had done and the risks he had taken. In 1943, at the request of Queen Wilhelmina, he wrote a damning report about the failures of the Dutch officials in France to come to the aid of Jews. The report was circulated among members of the Dutch government in exile in London, many of whom were furious.

Lady Hatter showed tremendous courage in exploring her father’s story in front of the camera, uncertain it was going to take her. Her husband, Sir Maurice Hatter, suffering from age-induced memory loss, appears briefly: a tacit reminder by the filmmakers of both the importance and the fragility of memory. As she says in the film, ‘Photographs are lost, buildings destroyed, documents destroyed. It’s up to us to remember.’

Forgotten Soldier makes stunning use of archive footage from the period, skilfully edited with present day interviews with Lady Irene and her brother Jacques, historians, and people who, thanks to Sally, survived the war scattered all over the world, from Surinam to Jamaica to California. “I came to find out about my father’s story but I found other people’s stories too. These survivors were children. I am filled with admiration for them, for their resilience and courage.”

The brief glimpse of the millions of refugees flooding the roads out of northern France in June 1940 is particularly horrifying. These were our parents and grandparents fleeing persecution, their lives dependent on the kindness of strangers. A few of the lucky ones, my father among them, found asylum in Britain. Seventy-five years later, almost unbelievably, populist rhetoric about immigration and asylum is once more raging all over Europe and America. Sally’s message and the message of this film need to be heard: it is incumbent on all of us never to forget our history, our humanity and our responsibility to other people less fortunate than ourselves.


Forgotten Soldier,is at the UK Jewish Film Festival, Phoenix Cinema, November 19 2018 and at Limmud 23-27 December 23 to 27

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