Suzanne Spaak. Photo via Wall Street Journal

We sometimes think that those who risked their own lives during the last world war for the sake of their fellow men and women must have been born with a heroic dimension to their character. This may be true of some; yet the circumstances of war sometimes bring out generous instincts that would otherwise lie hidden. For instance, Etty Hillesum was a secular Jewish Dutchwoman who moved casually among the artistic and bohemian circles of Amsterdam; yet as the persecution of Jews intensified in Holland, she slowly developed a deeply compassionate insight into the plight of others that was later revealed in her Diary, published posthumously after the War.

Another similarly improbable hero of the War was Suzanne Spaak, the subject of this recent biography. The daughter of a leading Belgian financier, she had married Claude Spaak, a member of Belgium’s most prominent political dynasty, in 1925. The couple had two children, a son and daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Pilette” and “Bazou”. Claude, who was selfish and irascible, also had a long-term mistress, a Canadian called Ruth Peters. In 1937 the family moved from Brussels to Paris, for the sake of Claude’s screen-writing career.

It was in Paris that Suzanne’s social conscience was awakened. Apolitical and a lapsed Catholic, but aware of the growing marginalisation of French Jews, she gradually became involved in their plight. In 1939, although cushioned by wealth and privilege, she joined a Jewish resistance group, Solidarite, telling its leaders, “I’m ready to take on any task, as long as I can serve in the fight against Nazism.” She deliberately groomed herself to be the public face of Solidarite, changing her role from “grande dame” to simple office worker as occasion demanded.

Her niece later recalled Suzanne as someone “who loved people – she was full of kindness and generosity, luminous.” No longer seeing herself as the privileged yet neglected wife of a difficult husband, she had found a meaningful humanitarian role: helping in the rescue of Jewish children in Paris, and running considerable risks in doing so. Acting as a courier and fund-raiser among her circle of rich friends, Suzanne was also involved in the formidable task of finding safe houses for the great numbers of children orphaned when their parents were deported wholesale to concentration camps from the grim holding and dispersal railway station at Drancy in north-east Paris. This situation became increasingly desperate after the mass round-ups of Jews in July 16-17 1942.

A “resolute atheist throughout her adult life”, Suzanne was haunted by the knowledge that her own children were safe while others were threatened.  Using her Catholic roots and culture partly for strategic purposes and partly, one suspects, because of the urgings of her conscience, she devised a plan to visit small villages not far from Paris, go to the local Catholic church, ask the village priest to hear her confession and then, in the confessional, tell him that she needed to find suitable homes for Parisian children. In this way she found many rural addresses where Jewish orphans could be hidden until the end of the War.

In October 1943, as the Gestapo gradually tightened the net around resistance workers and their contacts, Suzanne returned to Brussels with her children for their safety.  Going into hiding, she seemed to have “a magical belief in her own invulnerability”. This was misplaced; her name was revealed to the Gestapo and pressure was put on family members to reveal her whereabouts.

On 10th November she was arrested and sent back to Fresnes prison in Paris. Fellow prisoners later testified that she was “unfailingly kind and reassuring.” Given her powerful connections – her brother-in-law was the former Belgian Prime Minister, Paul-Henry Spaak – both Suzanne and her family circle believed she was being held simply as a hostage for other arrests and that she would eventually be released.

It was not to be.  On 12 August 1944, she was taken to the prison courtyard and shot in the back of the neck, a favourite method of the Nazis. Author Anne Nelson raises the question: who killed her and why? The facts have never been properly established. It is thought likely that her death sentence was simply “a stupid, horrible, administrative mistake”. This was not improbable, given the chaos in Paris as the Germans realised they were losing the war and made haste to conclude unfinished business and destroy their records.

After the liberation of Paris Claude visited his wife’s former cell at Fresnes and saw the extraordinary collection of inscriptions, 300 in all, she had written on the walls during her months of captivity, mined from her memory to sustain her in her isolation. There were quotes from literature and philosophy, including this particularly significant one from Rudyard Kipling: “Where the children are, the mothers should be, so they can watch over them.” It is estimated that Suzanne and her fellow members of the Jewish resistance, saved several hundred children from certain death.

Anne Nelson has done a great deal of research to bring Suzanne Spaak’s efforts to save French Jewish children to prominence. Unfortunately Suzanne’s husband, for whatever reasons of selfishness or guilt, burned her letters and papers, an act deplored by her two children as they grew up and one which also prevents the reader from getting to know her in a deeper, more personal way (as we do get to know Etty Hillesum from her Diary). She remains a somewhat elusive figure, always a “grande dame”, yet determined to move beyond her safe, comfortable existence because, as she remarked when the dire situation in Paris had become clear to her, “Il faut faire quelque chose: “Something must be done.”

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.