The ‘spinster sisters’ who saved Jewish opera stars: Isabel Vincent interviewed by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Toronto-born author Isabel Vincent’s sixth book, Overture of Hope: Two Sisters’ Daring Plan That Saved Opera’s Jewish Stars from the Third Reich, is a Holocaust story with unlikely heroines—because rather than being glamorous seductive spies, Ida and Louise Cook were women who weaponized their frumpiness.

The sisters travelled from England, posing as the smitten opera fans they were—but used those trips as secret missions to help Jews emigrate from Austria and Germany. No one would suspect that these frugally clad fangirls were subverting authoritarianism. They just wanted to take in a show!

Overture of Hope is the story of two middle-class British ladies who stumbled into saving Jews from the Nazis. But it’s also the story of Clemens Krauss, the Austrian opera conductor—and accused Nazi collaborator—who put them on that path. It’s a story with dramatic scenes of rescue and escape, but also with compelling ambiguities: Did Ida and Louise risk their lives to save Jews because it was the right thing to do, or was it more, to borrow a phrase from Meat Loaf, that they’d do anything for love—love of Clemens Krauss, and of the opera scene more generally? And was Krauss an opportunist, a collaborator, a hero, or an all-of-the-above?

It’s no surprise there’s a film adaptation in the works.

(Also in progress, but delayed due to the pandemic: a movie version of Vincent’s 2016 book Dinner with Edward, to feature David Suchet, the British actor best known for playing Agatha Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.)

While stories of Holocaust rescue are heartwarming, they always risk erasing the unfortunately bigger story: gentiles doing the wrong thing, and Jews not surviving. Overture of Hope avoids this with references to the broader Jewish refugee crisis and the horrors that followed, and, more subtly, through the detailed explanations of hoops would-be refugees had to go through.

The value of the Cook sisters’ example is not that theirs is a feel-good tale, but rather that they offer insights into what drives some to choose good over evil or indifference.

Vincent grew up in a Portuguese-Canadian family, and attended a Toronto high school with a large Jewish population before her journalistic beginnings in University of Toronto student newspapers led to reporting for the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the now-defunct Saturday Night. Today, she’s a journalist for the New York Post.

But this isn’t the first of her books to touch on Jewish themes: Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice (1997) won a Yad Vashem Award; Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas (2005) won a National Jewish Book Award in Canada (In addition, Gilded Lily was the title of Vincent’s 2010 biography of billionaire Lily Safra, who died on July 9, 2022.)

For those who have not yet read your book: Who were Ida and Louise Cook, and what’s their significance?
The Cook sisters lived in London. They became opera fans in the 1920s. At first both sisters worked as civil servants, as typists in the law courts. Ida would go on to become a romance novelist and, under the pen-name Mary Burchell, wrote 170 books. The sisters lived for opera, starting in their 20s. They would stand outside Covent Garden and line up for the cheap seats, and in so doing, they would see all these opera stars and conductors coming into the stage door and they shyly asked for their autographs or to take a picture with them.

This is how they met Clemens Krauss. Krauss was an up-and-coming Austrian conductor. He soon became Hitler’s favourite conductor. Hitler put him in charge of Munich State Opera, which was the jewel of the Third Reich cultural scene.

In the early 1930s, Krauss asked the sisters to help him save Jewish musicians and scholars. The Cook sisters were Church of England, and they’d never met Jews. They had no idea what was going on with the Nuremberg laws. And they said yes. They knew absolutely nothing of what they were getting into, and in the end, they saved 29 families.

The sisters’ frumpiness is a key part of the story. You write that they were “forgotten for the very reasons that made them successful: they were unglamorous, largely anonymous.” How did plainness work in their favour?
Louise was sort of beautiful, but they were unglamorous. They wore Marks and Spencer’s and Woolworth’s dresses. One of the things that they were able to do was smuggle people’s capital across the border because border guards didn’t give them a second look. They would take the jewellery that Jewish refugees entrusted to them, and they would plaster it on clothes. Set against their cheap dresses, they figured that it can only look fake. And so they did this in plain sight over and over again, and got people’s furs and jewellery out of the Third Reich. Jews leaving Austria and Germany had to give up nearly all their property. Some would sell their property and put the money into jewellery, which the Cook sisters took across the border.

The Cook sisters also stuffed their purses with jewellery. They had a plan: if they were ever stopped and searched, they would just say, and this is their phrase, not mine, that they were “nervous British spinsters,” meaning, Well, we just don’t trust anybody to look after our valuables when we’re away, so we take them with us when we go to the opera.

Was Clemens Krauss’s first wife, Margarethe Abraham, Jewish? I ask because of the last name, and because it’s a possible explanation for his interest in saving Jews.
That’s a good question. I don’t know. If so, it may have entered into his thinking. But I also think that he was just really loyal to the people who were around him, and he got in trouble for that.

You write that Ida Cook defended Krauss against accusations of being a Nazi collaborator. The reality seems more complicated. He and his wife Viorica Ursuleac helped rescue Jewish refugees, but he cooperated with high-up Nazis not just for survival but for his own professional advancement. Also, Ida and Louise Cook were infatuated with him, potentially clouding their judgment. Is Krauss better understood as a maligned resistance hero, or an example of the challenges of placing many historical figures definitively into categories of resistance fighter or collaborator?
Consider Oskar Schindler. He’s a very complex hero. He saves his Jewish workers. He’s also a war profiteer, making money off of the people he’s saving. It was similar with Krauss.

Krauss was he was never a member of the Nazi party. But he worked to take over positions other conductors didn’t want. He saw his opportunity. He wrote letters to Hitler’s secretary, asking to take over apartments abandoned by Jews sent to concentration camps. He wanted those apartments for musicians that he was bringing over from other parts of the Third Reich. There are all these things against him.

But then he does risk his life to save Jews. Jews who were his friends, and whom he’d been loyal to for so many years. He was the one who came up with the idea of using opera as an excuse for the Cook sisters to travel to these different places to interview the refugees before they left.

I wonder if this was, after all, a bit of a love story, just not a traditional one, since it’s about two grown women with an unrequited crush.
I think they would have done anything for him. People told me that they were both completely in love with him. And with his wife. And in fact, when Ida writes her first romance, she dedicates the book to her. They were in love not only with the people but their artistry. These were women who lived in this world of melodrama and make-believe. Their own personal lives were pretty mundane.

Have you faced any backlash for writing about Jews when you’re not Jewish yourself?
No. I think a lot of people assumed I was Jewish. And I may have some Jewish background. Both my parents were Portuguese, from an area where there were a lot of hidden Jews. But I’ve always been interested in, more so than Jewish subjects specifically, man’s inhumanity to man. And the Holocaust is one of the most, if not the most, horrible examples of that.

When I wrote my book about Jewish prostitutes, which is to say, Jewish women who Jewish mafia members had trafficked into prostitution, between 1867 and 1939, I wondered how this would be received within the Jewish community. And I just remember people being so supportive of it at the time.

Are there present-day equivalents to the Cook sisters? What would that look like?
I think of all these brave people in Ukraine. Recently I wrote a piece about a conductor in Kherson, Yurii Kerpatenko, who was killed because he refused to conduct a propaganda concert for the Russians. The whole invasion of Ukraine had so many overtones of the Second World War.

While reading, I found myself wondering if there was any artist I’m enough of a fan of that I’d drop everything and join a noble mission at their instigation. No one immediately came to mind.

I’m a Leonard Cohen fan. I don’t know—if he came up to me and asked… maybe there’s the answer to your question. If Leonard Cohen had said it, I might do it.

Now that I think of it? Rufus Wainwright.

This piece also appeared in the Winter 2022/23 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News: