Little Things Are Big: What the Legacy of Ida and Louise Cook Tells Us About Why Heroism Will Never Be Enough and Why We Can’t Let That Stop Us
The other day, I was mindlessly scrolling through my social media feed in a way I’d vowed not to do anymore (a promise broken by the morning of the second day of the new year, I should note), when I came across a post about Ida and Louise Cook, English sisters born in the early 20th century. Something made me stop and skim a little blurb about the sisters I’d never before heard of; maybe it was their radiant faces; maybe it was their ease and comfort with each other’s company, very evident in the black-and-white photo that accompanied the post; maybe it was that I was just trying to put off work.
Reading the four or so paragraphs of a basic introduction to these sisters, I felt immediately compelled to read more. It turns out that there is quite a bit written about the Cooks and their work in the 1930s bringing Jewish and other threatened people from Germany to safety in London, including in Ida’s own words in her 1950 memoir of their missions, We Followed Our Stars, which was republished in 2008 under the new title Safe Passage.
I will give you the abridged version, but please do read more about the Cook sisters because their story is so rich and interesting.
In the 1930s, Ida and Louise Cook, were two single, close London sisters in their 30s whose love for opera took them on weekend excursions to Germany and Austria to indulge their passion, which was being in the audience of some of the most acclaimed operatic productions in the world. Even though Louise was a civil servant clerk and Ida was just beginning her career as a romance novelist under the nom de plume Mary Burchell, the opera world was small enough that deep enthusiasts like the Cook sisters could develop real friendships with luminaries, like Clemens Krauss, conductor and director of the Munich Opera House, and his wife, Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac. It was through these connections and conversations that the Cook sisters learned of the accelerating threats against the Jews with the rise of the Nazi party. As crackdowns on Jewish people ramped up, especially after Kristallnacht, the sisters devised a plan to ensure safe passage for some of those facing increasing subjugation.
During this time, Jewish Germans could still travel but they were closely monitored and they couldn’t take money or valuables with them, which added financial stressors to the laundry list of why it is difficult to leave a place, even if you’re unsafe there. The Cook sisters drew up a plan to secure the future refugees they worked with by smuggling — either in their purses and bags or in plain sight — fine jewelry and other expensive belongings back to London so the sufficient funds that Great Britain mandated for new arrivals could be ensured. (If that’s confusing, I understand: These items belonged to the people they were working with, they weren’t stolen, the Jews simply couldn’t leave with them without eliciting suspicion from the border guards and endangering themselves.) The idea was that once the refugees reached England, they could sell their valuables and resettle. The sisters also bought a flat in which the émigrés could safely catch their breath and get their bearings in their new country.
Pulling off this plan, elegant but deceptively complicated, was no small feat. The sisters, who did actually see performances while they were on their missions, had to maintain a ruse that they were just a couple of harmless, unmarried ladies, “spinsters,” if you will, who were simply there as opera lovers, not noticing or knowing a thing about the worsening conditions for the Jews of Germany.
The Cooks would go in through one checkpoint looking as plain as possible and they would leave through a different border crossing so as to not arouse suspicion of any of the guards who might think they looked familiar. In their exits, their bags, which had been nearly empty at their arrival at a different crossing, would be stuffed to the gills with valuables and the sisters would be wearing the finery of the soon-to-be refugees, though otherwise, they maintained an unprepossessing, casual bearing. If they were questioned about why they had such expensive jewelry in their bags or on their person, the sisters rehearsed that they would simply giggle about not trusting their families to not steal their possessions in their travels. The large diamond brooch on Ida’s plain sweater? It had to be costume jewelry on the dotty woman. The sisters would return home, find locals from their network willing to vouch for the Jews who would be coming to England or offer employment, give them a space for getting their bearings in the flat and reunite the émigrés with their possessions to sell so they could start a new life thanks to the little nest eggs that were waiting for them. If their operation had been discovered, the sisters could have been arrested and imprisoned in Germany right before WWII, and they could have easily ended up in concentration camps along with other prisoners.
The Cook sisters were from a loving, close middle class family; they did not have great wealth but they did have a conviction about right and wrong that happened to intertwine with their passion for opera. In fact, one of the rescued was Else Mayer-Lissmann, who would go on to become the founder of London’s Mayer-Lissmann Opera Workshop, the first school of its kind. The Cooks were self-financed, living frugally in order to fund their missions, until Ida’s career as a romance novelist unexpectedly took off.
The point of all this? Ida and Louise were able to secure the future of just 29 people in all their missions back and forth during this time. In the concentration camps of the Holocaust, six million Jewish people and unaccounted millions of Romanies, LGBTQ people, political prisoners and disabled people were murdered. Well more than six million lives ended in those camps; 29 souls lucky enough to be caught in the sisters’ safety net isn’t even a drop in the bucket.
It is estimated that Harriet Tubman brought 70 people to freedom during the ten years she was running her rescue missions to the south. There were more than 3.2 million people who were enslaved in 1850 according to the U.S. census. This was how many she could safely hide without risking detection during that period.
We love our heroes. We love our dramatic stories. The truth is, though, that almost always, those who are committed to saving lives understand that the ones they can protect are a veritable drop in the bucket, if that. This is true of people who protect and rescue other species as well. Farm Sanctuary, after all, started a movement of other similar rescue organizations for farmed animals when Gene Baur and Lorri Houston found a goat named Hilda, barely alive, on a stockyard deadpile. They funded their original sanctuary by selling vegan hotdogs at Grateful Dead shows.
I can only imagine the pain and the guilt of the Cook sisters, how much the ones she couldn’t take along haunted Harriet Tubman. It’s a veritable endless ocean of need. As an advocate, you can drown in that much grief, in that much suffering, in that much self-doubt. You can wonder what is the point of so very little relief; it’s almost better to not try than to expose yourself to the heartbreak of the deeply unfair, gut-wrenching decisions you’ll be forced to make, whether your rescue work is clandestine or in broad daylight.
The voices around you, too, will mostly not help in the slightest. They will cluck at your efforts, seeing them as pointless, futile. They will imagine that they would have done more. They will imply that what you are trying to do is self-aggrandizing, that you are looking for back pats. People get bizarrely angry and defensive when the status quo is upset. “Who do you think you are? You’re not that great. I mean, 29 people from the Cooks; 70 people from Harriet Tubman. That is fewer than 100 people rescued against millions.”
They will undermine you at every turn and the voice in your head may sometimes agree. This is heavy-hearted, painful work, not joyful missions, and I can only begin to fathom its psychological and emotional toll. Little things are big, though, and little things are usually the best we can aspire to in cases of massive oppression and suffering.
In her memoir, Ida recounted how once she had just returned from a rescue undertaking in Germany and her mother was baking in the kitchen. Ida began crying, just overwhelmed with what was on her shoulders, of the many she couldn’t save, and her mother stood in over her bowl, continuing to mix her pastry as Isa sobbed. Ida collected herself, and her mother calmly said, still stirring, “It’s no use tearing yourself to pieces. You’re doing the best you can. Now tell me all about it.”
Do you need to hear this? It’s no use tearing yourself to pieces. You’re doing the best you can. Now tell me all about it.
Day in and day out, you have your voice, you have your courage, you have your resources, you have your insistence on a better life for everyone. We need you for this. We need you, the Cook sisters, Harriet Tubman. We need all of us on deck for making the world a better place. Rest when you need to; take breaks; take care of yourself. (Remember, the Cook sisters never stopped enjoying opera, and, in fact, their love for it gave them sustenance.)
But don’t let that voice tell you to quit because it’s not enough. Not enough will have to do. If it was good enough for the Cooks, Harriet Tubman, Farm Sanctuary and the everyday heroes everywhere, it has to be good enough for us.
PS — Also, if you didn’t already know it, stop underestimating women, especially those of us who are middle-aged and older, just because we can slip through the cracks. We just might be up to something and you may not like it. (Do you like this brooch? Why, thank you. I found it in a resale shop bin for $2.00.)
Marla Rose is cofounding partner of VeganStreet.com.