Life & Culture

The opera fans who saved Jews from the Nazis

Meet the musician whose new album tells the extraordinary story of two Sunderland sisters who saved 29 Jews from the Nazis


Musical tribute: Alison Cotton

When viola player and composer Alison Cotton discovered the story of Ida and Louise Cook, two sisters from Sunderland and keen music fans who helped to save 29 Jews from the Nazis, she couldn’t understand why it wasn’t better known.

“The more I read about them, the more intrigued I was and impressed by their incredible story,” says Cotton.

“Yet when you look online, there’s very little about them.”

So overawed was she by the sisters’ story, Cotton has made an album entitled Engelchen in tribute to these “little angels”.

From Sunderland herself, the London-based musician was instantly drawn to the unmarried sisters who’d moved to the capital in pursuit of the opera stars of the day. We have met at the Royal Opera House to discuss Cotton’s project. It is where, she points out, the Cooks would regularly queue from 6am to see their heroes.

“I had similar obsessions with music when I was growing up,” says Cotton, whose classical roots developed into a love of bands such as the Charlatans and Suede. “They’d wait to see the opera stars coming in through the stage door, and that was how they met all of them. I would do the same thing to catch a glimpse of [the bands].”

Both sisters worked in secretarial roles for the civil service, until Ida – younger by two years – started writing Mills & Boon romance novels under a pseudonym. Her earnings funded their tours of the opera circuit around Europe in the 1930s – Germany in particular. They sent bouquets to dressing rooms and took photographs of their musical heroes, gaining an access to them that was to lead to their missions secretly helping Jewish people escape the Nazi regime.

They befriended the A-listers of the scene, including the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and his wife, the soprano Viorica Ursuleac, with whom they had struck up a bond while taking their photographs. On one of the Cooks’ trips to Germany in 1935, Krauss asked the sisters to help a musicologist friend called Mitia Mayer-Lismann and her daughter leave the country. It was only when Mayer-Lismann had reached London that the sisters realised she was Jewish.

“And then every time they went [to Germany], they’d see more evidence of what was going on and hear more stories,” says Cotton.

Mayer-Lismann was the first to be smuggled to safety by the Cooks; her daughter eventually followed. Soon people on the music scene began to hear about the two sisters who were saving lives. 

The sisters had a system. They would fly to Germany from Croydon airport on a Friday night, and the next day go to Frankfurt, where they would meet people, and go to the opera in the evening. Krauss would have asked them beforehand which opera they wanted to hear and arrange the programme accordingly so that when they entered and left the country they would have a plausible story to tell the authorities – that they were visiting to see that particular work. They then returned by train often with the refugees they were rescuing, through Holland, getting the boat to arrive back in time for work on Monday.

Since money couldn’t be brought out of Germany, they wore expensive jewellery and fur coats, cramming extra ones into their suitcases — these were for the guarantees needed to get refugees through British immigration. Sometimes they wore cheap coats out and returned with expensive fur ones, which could then be sold by the newly landed refugees. The memoir details one terrifying episode when they were on a train with a suitcase full of jewellery when SS guards were in the neighbouring carriage. Ida also bought a flat in Dolphin Square, Pimlico, which they used as a temporary bolthole for those they’d rescued.

Cotton was captivated by Ida’s memoir. She was driven to make Engelchen because “music was the thing that helped the whole situation to begin with”. In Engelchen, she tells their story through the music, which is tense rather than celebratory. Sometimes a capella and sometimes featuring lush string arrangements, the record captures the emotional intensity of the opera that inspired the Cooks and the danger facing them and the refugees on their journeys.

Their dangerous trips are captured best by the album’s long opener, We Were Smuggling People’s Lives. “It’s almost like a tone poem, because you’re going through different stages of the journey with different sound effects,” says Cotton. You can hear gulls on the English coast; an ominous military drumbeat; the sound of a car; a chugging steam train. Cotton recalls how she turned to her husband, a record producer, and asked for some sandpaper to recreate the sound of a train. “It’s a weird thing to suddenly ask for,” she says. “But sandpaper being rubbed together did work.”

Cotton came to play viola only because by the time she — a shy child — reached the front of the queue for the violins at school, they had run out. It turned out to be a blessing. “As much as I love the violin, the viola has different depths to it. And there’s something more melancholic as well.”

As an improviser, Cotton has a style that’s typically introspective. “I sort of get a bit lost in everything,” she says. But even she agrees that overall Engelchen is “a lot darker” than her usual work.

This, she puts down to having the sisters’ tense story swirling round her head when recording, not least during the heart-wrenching title track. “There are lines where it’s quite difficult for me and I’ve got a tear in my eye while I’m singing it,” she says. “The only time I performed that song live was in Sunderland, and it was really emotional.” Also emotionally wrought is the single Letters Burning, about the sisters’ correspondence relating to their work, which Louise, who outlived her younger sister by four years, is thought to have burnt. Cotton thinks it could be a sign of her regret and haunting memories around all those they couldn’t save, an issue Ida discusses in her memoir.

“I thought about the end of Schindler’s List when he says, ‘what about the people that I didn’t save?’” she says. “I wanted to dedicate the song Engelchen to the people they saved, but a big part of the whole project for me was to try and somehow commemorate those lives that were lost.”

Engelchen features the devastating fate of two little boys aged eight and ten mentioned by Ida as “gazing” at her from a photo. “She talks about looking at their lovely painstaking handwriting,” says Cotton. “Obviously, they had that image in their heads. And I don’t know whether it was just too late, or they did everything they could. But at the same time, the UK government weren’t making it easy either. And that made their job a lot more difficult, because you had to find a guarantee for everybody.” She adds: “If they didn’t have to save them, Ida and Louise’s story wouldn’t be there in the first place. Music can say a lot about the most horrific stories like this. It’s the way I express myself. And I want as many people as possible to know this story.” The sisters were recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1964.

When putting together the album, Cotton met up with refugees living in the UK today through the charity North East Rise to discover the challenges they’ve faced; those experiences appear in the final track, Engelchen Now, and connect the Cooks’ story to the present. “The whole refugee situation is an ongoing problem,” Cotton says, pointing out that her project began in March 2022, around the time of Russia’s war on Ukraine. “It felt relevant then, and it feels even more relevant now.”

Alison Cotton plays at St Pancras Old Church on 5 April

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