Let's Make a Good Noise!
It is a delightful snowy day here in SW Colorado. The dogs and I went out early to make sure the wild birds had some food. We are sitting here now, watching the snow fall and a myriad of little birds contentedly feeding. It’s a good day to be alive.
I have been thinking a lot about just that recently-being alive. Yes, there is a lot of chaos, violence, and ugliness in the world but there is also much joy, love, kindness and caring. Recently, I have had a bit of a rough spot that could have ended my life or at least altered it drastically. Neither happened. My heart has overflowed with gratitude as friends and acquaintances have showered me with love, kindness, and caring. The world can be cruel, people can be cruel. When we focus on that alone, which the media helps us do, we get caught in a web of negativity, discomfort and often hopelessness. My hope is that each of you knows how very much I appreciate you.
I am choosing to focus on the positive, the loving, the kind, and the caring. Have I turned into a Pollyanna? No! However, the past months have brought me to a new place of gratitude and my eyes are seeing more and more beauty. I am so grateful to Spirit, my family and friends who have shown me ways of being loving and kind that I had never expected. Somewhere I have seen the saying that sometimes we think the storm has buried us, but it has only planted us and enabled us to grow.
This morning I was listening to an old folk friend from back east, John Gorka, sing one of my favorite songs, “Good Noise.” This song has always been a favorite, but today I heard it with new ears. I think we are all here to make a good noise! Let’s continue to make a good noise and drown out some of the ugliness and static that is often prevalent! I challenge you!
These two women are unusual and unsung heroines of World War II. They made a good noise for sure! I found them very inspiring. The following is an excerpt from an article in the New Yorker back in 2019. Enjoy.
By Margaret Talbot September 3, 2019
Ida and Louise Cook were not the sort of women who attracted the attentions of strangers. In the late nineteen-thirties, the sisters, unmarried and in their thirties, were living at home with their parents, in a middle-class London suburb. Louise worked at a secretarial job for the civil service. Ida, the younger by two years, had quietly discovered a knack for writing romance novels, and, under the pseudonym Mary Burchell, had begun publishing them with Mills & Boon, the British equivalent of Harlequin. The sisters’ friends respected them as ardent and remarkably knowledgeable fans of opera, with a circle of close acquaintances that included several of the world’s leading divas. But to know any of that you’d have to see beyond their unprepossessing appearances. The Cook sisters were plain and gawky and ingenuous. They often dressed in clothes that Ida had sewn at home from patterns she found in women’s magazines.
The underestimation of women, especially women who might be dismissed on the basis of their looks, was a resource that Ida and Louise deployed for enormous good. Once Ida had earned some real money from her writing, they began making frequent trips back and forth to Germany, flying out of Croydon Airport on Friday nights, in an era when commercial air travel was not at all common, and returning by train and boat from the Netherlands, in time for Louise to get to her office on Monday morning. They did not elicit quite the curiosity that you might expect. That held true, at least some of the time, even when they returned to England draped in fur coats and jewelry that they had not been wearing when they left.
The jewels and furs they sneaked out were not for themselves but for refugees from Nazism, mostly Jewish but some political, whom they were working to get to safety—finding people in England who would vouch for them and take them in, assembling their papers, and eventually purchasing a flat in London where people in transit could comfortably stay. To help support themselves in their new lives, refugees could sell the glamorous belongings that the Cook sisters managed to spirit away. For their work on behalf of persecuted European Jews, Ida and Louise would eventually be honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
Ida Cook’s memoir of their efforts, which was published in 1950 as “We Followed our Stars,” was reissued, in 2008, as “Safe Passage,” and is still in print. I picked it up in a used bookstore this summer, when the mistreatment of families at the border was again in the news. In it, Ida explains how the smuggling part of the sisters’ homespun mission worked. “It was fairly simple at first, but then came the time when the Hitler guard used to come on the train at the frontier and check everything you had, and when you came out you were checked again.” They adapted by entering at one checkpoint, wearing no jewelry, not even wristwatches, and leaving through another, positively glittering. That way, they wouldn’t see the same officials twice, “and there was no one to notice that we had become rather overdressed English girls with a taste for slightly too much jewellery.”
Once, the Cooks were planning the escape of a milliner from Berlin, called in the book only by her first name. Alice, a non-Jew married to a Jewish man, was “soft-voiced” and endearing, with lovely white hair and “hyacinth-blue eyes,” but she had “her own brand of moral courage, too.” Her husband had fled to the Netherlands, and would later be rounded up and killed; Alice had refused to make hats for the wife of the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and now urgently needed to leave Germany. The Cooks had helped her obtain a guarantee for legal refugee status in England, but she would not be allowed to bring her only financial resource, her jewelry. The sisters took it, but they had “a very bad half hour” at the border, when S.S. men got on the train and lingered in the corridor outside the Cooks’ compartment. Somehow, the sisters avoided having to open their handbags, where they had stuffed all of the jewelry they couldn’t plausibly wear. But they had been prepared for such an inspection: they were going to do their “nervous British spinster act and insist, quite simply, that we always took our valuables with us, because we didn’t trust anyone with whom we could leave them at home.” The Cooks had found that telling a lie that made them look meek and foolish was sometimes their best bet. So, too, was a hidden-in-plain-sight approach. Once, Ida recalls, she stuck a particularly large diamond brooch onto the front of her cheap sweater and forced herself to wear her coat open: surely that way no one would take the outsized pin for anything but costume jewelry from Woolworth’s.
Partly, it was that kind of wry, modest gallantry that made me fall in love with the Cook sisters. There was something so charming and almost dotty in the way Ida describes things getting “a bit awkward” when you knew they must have been terrifying, or in the wonderment she expresses after learning that one of their “cases” had been a valuable asset of the underground resistance—that “all those years ago, we’d been heroines, without the pain of knowing it!”
“Safe Passage” is well worth reading at a moment when so many of us feel numbed and overwhelmed by the gravity of the world’s problems. The book wasn’t written as a guide for activists or aid workers, but it is, incidentally, full of such advice. Working mostly outside of established organizations, the Cook sisters made up their own rules of conduct, but they seem to have been sound ones. They tried, for example, to keep families together. “Part of a richly happy family life ourselves, we knew that it would be poor comfort to be rescued oneself if a beloved mother or father, brother or sister still lingered in danger and the shadow of death,” Ida writes. “Whenever possible we worked right through a family, hoping one day to reunite them somewhere in the world.”
The sisters’ own family—a younger brother and particularly their parents—did them the service of “representing normal existence,” and thereby keeping us “fairly steady.” One day, when Ida came home from Germany, she went straight into the kitchen, where her mother was making “pastry, which is after all, one of the basic things of life.” Ida was crying, anguished by the thought of all the people she would not able to save. If her mother “had stopped and made a sentimental fuss,” Ida felt she would have broken down entirely. Instead, her mother went on making pastry and, in a few minutes, when Ida was a little calmer, said, “It’s no use tearing yourself to pieces. You’re doing the best you can. Now tell me all about it.”
It moved me that the Cook sisters continued, throughout their harrowing refugee work, to take joy and sustenance from music. There is a beautiful scene from just after the war, when the sisters gather some of their remaining opera-fan friends together in the London flat to make a transatlantic call to one of their favorites, the soprano Rosa Ponselle, in Baltimore. Ponselle asks if they would like to hear her sing. They gather close to the phone, some of them kneeling, while the sisters hold up the receiver. And from across the ocean they hear Ponselle, “in miniature, but clear,” sing “Pace, pace,” from Verdi’s “Forza del Destino”—“the pianissimo, growing on the incredible fortissimo and back to the golden thread of her unrivalled pianissimo once more. We would have known it anywhere, anytime, as Ponselle—at the North Pole or on the banks of the Styx.” And, after all, it must have seemed to some of the people in the room that the River Styx is just where they had been.
Ida frames the sisters’ decision to throw themselves into refugee work as a matter of luck. They were fortunate to have music-world friends who urged them to help Jewish friends of theirs, because that meant that, unlike many other people outside of Germany, they ceased being able to distance themselves from the situation. “We just happened to be lucky enough to see the problem in terms we could understand. In terms of personal friendship, in fact.” She may underestimate the danger the sisters sometimes found themselves in or the challenges they took on—Louise taught herself German so she could communicate better with the refugees. But it is certainly true, as Cook says, that there was a fearful asymmetry between what they could give and what was at stake. In trade for saving a life, they had only to provide “some trouble, some eloquence, and some money.” Conceived of that way, there’s so much a person can do.
Margaret Talbot joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2004. She is the author, with David Talbot, of “By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution.”