The French Resistance Socialite Heroine who Saved 60 Jewish Children
Everyone should know about Suzanne Spaak’s remarkable courage.
As the daughter of a successful Belgian banker and sister-in-law of the Belgian foreign minister, Suzanne Lorge Spaak was accustomed to an upscale lifestyle. Her husband Claude was a successful dramatist/film maker. Fellow Belgian René Magritte, a talented surrealistic artist, painted her portrait. Relocating to Paris in 1936, the Spaaks found a home at 9 Rue de Beaujolais, in the same building as famous French novelist Colette.
A highly devoted mother to her children, Lucie and Louis, Suzanne found fulfillment in raising her family while enjoying the life of a wealthy socialite in Paris. With the outbreak of World War II and the occupation of France by Germany, Suzanne Spaak’s life would never be the same again.
Feeling angry about the suppression, brutality and racial intolerance of the Nazi occupation, she decided to do something highly unusual for a woman of her affluent background. In 1942 she joined the French Resistance movement. However when she volunteered to work with the underground National Movement against Racism (MNCR), she was greeted with skepticism by their members. They wondered how - or if - this wealthy socialite would survive the difficult, dangerous conditions of their organization. At first they assigned her to simple tasks such as typing, distributing leaflets, and shopping for everyday supplies. After a while Suzanne asked for greater challenges. “Tell me what I must do, it is all the same for me to do this or that work… so I’ll know that I am serving in the struggle against Nazism.”
Portrait of Suzanne Spaak by René Magritte
Mr. Aronson, a fellow member of the MNCR, who initially doubted the new recruit’s abilities, began to realize he had misjudged her deep commitment to the cause. “We were not very optimistic regarding the capabilities of our new collaborator but how great was our mistake. She belonged to the category of idealists for whom their private lives and personal needs cease to exist the moment a great idea comes to possess their heart and soul.”
Never refusing an assignment, Suzanne walked all over the city of Paris in an effort to find a hospital willing to take the risk of treating Jews in hiding who needed urgent medical attention. Using her influence with the upper class of Parisian society, she knocked on the doors of lawyers, educators, judges, clerics, movie stars and writers asking for their support.
Aware of the growing atrocities of the Nazis, Suzanne devoted herself to ridding France and her native Belgium of their oppressors. She joined the Red Orchestra intelligence network, a Soviet-sponsored organization founded by Leopold Trepper, a Jewish communist from Poland. This group conducted very effective intelligence gathering in Germany, France, Holland and in neutral Switzerland with members known as the "Lucy Ring". The network grew so successful at infiltrating the German military intelligence service that the Nazis set up the Red Orchestra Special Detachment to eliminate it.
In early 1943, information concerning the deportation of Jewish children leaked out. As the loving mother of her own two children, Suzanne felt so overwhelmed by the danger facing the Jewish children it affected her personal life. Working tenaciously to save the lives of these Jewish youngsters about to be sent to the German death camps, she actively participated in a daring operation initiated by Pastor Paul Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot. They managed to smuggle to safety more than 60 Jewish children, ranging in age from three to 18.
Suzanne initially sheltered some of the children in her own home, despite the great personal risk. With the assistance of her comrades, she provided the children with ration cards and clothing, moving them to safe havens in various parts of France. Meanwhile in Belgium the Nazis traced and monitored Red Orchestra operative radio transmitters and started making their first arrests of the agents. Captured members were so brutally tortured that several divulged names and network secrets. As a result, during the next 18 months, more than 600 people were arrested.
Aware of the impending danger, Suzanne, who had already risked her life to save other people’s children, realized the time had come to save her own, Lucie aged 16 and Louis, 12. In October 1943, she managed to flee with them to the safety of her sister's home in Belgium.
However, a few days later Suzanne was arrested by the Gestapo. She’d had the presence of mind to give the lists of Jewish children and their addresses to an underground comrade, saving their lives. Taken to the notorious Gestapo-held Fresnes prison near Paris, the second largest prison in France was a horrific place with cold, filthy cells. Members of the French Resistance and captured British special operations executives imprisoned there seldom survived.
Righteous gentile Mary Elmes of Ireland (featured on Aish.com, August, 2017) had also been confined in the Fresnes prison but, due to the efforts of the neutral Irish government, she was released a few months later.
The notorious Fresnes Prison is still in existence today
Unfortunately Suzanne Spaak was destined for a different fate. Imprisoned for nine horrifying months, she was subjected to torture and sentenced to death by a German military court. As the Allied forces broke through at Normandy and started to fight their way to free Paris, the Gestapo prepared to flee. But before leaving they executed some of the prisoners, including members of the Red Orchestra. On August 12, 1944, Suzanne Spaak was shot to death in the prison, only 13 days before Paris was liberated by the Allies.
All the Jewish children she rescued managed to survive the war. Unlike many Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, Suzanne did not live to a ripe old age, enjoying her grandchildren and seeing the generations she had saved. Only 39 at the time of her death, this heroic woman had written on the wall of her cell: “Alone with my thoughts, there is still freedom.”