A legacy reclaimed: the story of one woman and her daring Auschwitz rescues

Suzanne Spaak rescued hundreds of children from Auschwitz so why don't we know about her? Anne Nelson lifts the lid on a very modern heroine

first encountered Suzanne Spaak as a beautiful woman in a badly retouched photo. I was researching my last book, Red Orchestra, about an anti-Nazi resistance group in Berlin connected to a Soviet spy named Leopold Trepper. There she was, in Trepper’s memoirs, briefly mentioned in the text but gazing from the page.

She never met the Berlin group, which joined Trepper’s network after years of traditional resistance and rescue work. A Belgian national living in Occupied Paris, Suzanne’s ties to the Soviets were tenuous, yet she was often described as one of Trepper’s agents.

Finally in 2009, with the help of Google, I tracked down her daughter Pilette, an 80-year-old knitting instructor in suburban Maryland. “Everyone says Mama was a Soviet spy,” she sighed.  “I wouldn’t care if she was, but she was actually something very different.”

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue is a multi award-winning magazine, edited by the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) current Editor of the Year.

I spent the next seven years piecing together the extraordinary story of Suzanne Spaak, the architect of an extensive network to rescue Jewish children in Paris from deportation to Auschwitz. Most were from poor Eastern European immigrant families. Spaak was not Jewish, Eastern European, or poor. Her coalition mobilised Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as Socialists, Communists and Gaullists. The key to her success was overcoming political differences for the sake of humanitarian action.   

Suzanne was the pampered oldest daughter of a Brussels financier but she was disenfranchised nonetheless. Her education consisted of needlework and household management; she studied literature and social policy on her own. It was illegal for a married woman to open a bank account without her husband’s permission, and women in France didn’t win the right to vote until after the war. 

At 14 she fell in love with a neighbour boy, Claude Spaak, a member of Belgium’s leading political family. The young couple married at 20, but there was trouble from the start. Claude was chronically unfaithful. Suzanne compromised by settling on her best friend, Canadian Ruth Peters, as his mistress. 

Codename Suzette:  An extraordinary story of resistance and rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson (Allen & Unwin, £17.99)

Claude, an aspiring playwright, struggled in the shadows of his older brothers. Paul-Henri Spaak was the youngest minister in the Belgian cabinet. Charles Spaak was on his way to becoming France’s leading screenwriter, culminating with the film classic Grand Illusion. Claude moved his family to Paris to advance his career, and vented his frustration on his wife and
children. His saving grace was his taste in art. He used Suzanne’s fortune, with her approval, to support a little-known Belgian surrealist named René Magritte. The couple acquired several dozen Magrittes, at least one of which now graces the Tate collection. Suzanne refused to consider divorce while her children were young, and turned to her friend Mira Sokol for consolation. A Jewish exile, Mira counted on few resources beyond her vibrant intellect and Suzanne’s friendship.

When the Germans invaded in 1940, the Spaaks made a dash for the coast and New York, but were cut off from escape. Paul-Henri, now Belgian foreign minister, was evacuated at Dunkirk and served in the government-in-exile in London. Claude and Suzanne returned to Paris with their two children, Pilette, 12, and Bazou, eight.   

Ever the banker’s daughter, she organised a business plan to provide the children with shelter and upkeep

‘Aryan’, affluent, and well-connected, the Spaaks could have waited out the occupation in relative comfort. But as the Nazis’ net tightened around the Jews of Paris, Suzanne joined the Jewish immigrant underground. She monitored BBC broadcasts and typed flyers, using radios and typewriters forbidden to Jews, and took in Jewish fugitives as ‘maids’ and ‘tutors’.

When the deportations began in March 1942, they were camouflaged as forced labour. It wasn’t until the July Vel d’Hiv arrests, which swept up pregnant women and small children, that the truth was apparent. Suzanne and her network stepped up their activities.

In February 1943, Suzanne learned of an impending arrest in Jewish orphanages, and launched the most audacious rescue of her career: “le kidnapping” of 63 children at once. It was organised with military precision, drawing on the support of everyone from her neighbour Colette to 15-year-old Pilette. Then, ever the banker’s daughter, she organised a business plan to provide the children with shelter and upkeep.

As the Nazis’ net tightened around the Jews of Paris, Suzanne joined the Jewish immigrant underground

Suzanne’s network connected the threads of an astonishing array of World War 2 sagas. Colette, often disparaged as a collaborator, emerges as a hero. Jean Moulin appears through Suzanne’s Protestant allies. The young Jewish diarist Hélène Berr turns out to be part of the network

Even the Special Operations Executive makes a timely appearance with the marvellous Johnny Barrett, who parachutes into France to save the day.

I haunted libraries and archives, but my touchstones were witnesses and survivors – Suzanne’s Pilette and Bazou, as well as nieces and nephews; children of members of the network; and the rescued children themselves. I met two of them soon after they had left a wreath on Suzanne Spaak’s grave, unaware that she had children of her own. I had the opportunity to introduce them to Pilette for the first time.

Suzanne’s husband burned her letters and photos after the war, fearful that her fame would outstrip his own. With Codename: Suzette I’ve done my best to restore her legacy.