IT may have felt as if it was a plot from a Mills and Boon story, but it was in deadly earnest – and could have ended in death.
I suppose innocent Ida Cook, a typical Englishwoman of her times, didn’t quite realise what she was getting into when she decided to help desperate people flee Nazi Germany.
A successful writer who churned out the equivalent of today’s “chick-lit” page-turners, Ida was visiting Berlin in the mid-30s with her sister Louise when they came across Jews and other “undesirables” in Germany desperate to flee.
Anyone else might have tutted with a sense of helplessness and then do nothing. But Ida and Louise, romantic souls with a sense of Christian ethics, decided to act – and over the next few years helped people to escape to Britain, providing sufficient funds to persuade the Nazis to let them go.
They knew the odds were against them, and that one wrong move could set the German terror machine against them.
But like all good romantics they just had to hold out a helping hand, no matter the repercussions.
A romantic myself, who sometimes likes to tilt against the odds, I couldn’t help warming to the story of the two sisters, seemingly unremarkable to outsiders, when I heard it told by biographer Anne Sebba at the Weiner Library in Marylebone on Tuesday.
Here were two innocent respectable church-going middle-class Englishwomen. Louise, a clerk, Ida, a new member of the Mills and Boon stable of authors, both spinsters and lovers of opera, who on holiday embarked on running an escape route with the sort of skill that experienced espionage agents would have envied.
Yet they succeeded, bringing over scores of people to these shores.
Their quiet heroism later earned them recognition from Israel as being among “the righteous”.
Both of them lived in Dolphin Square, West End, and had died by 1991, but on the pages of their autobiography, Safe Passage published by Harlequin, their ordinary-extraordinary lives are still gripping.
“I think they were just innocents,” their nephew John Cook told me after the talk. “I knew them well and they were simply irreproachably nice. I’m sure they probably never quite knew what danger they were in. But if they had known it would have made no difference – they just wanted to help people.”
Their sense of fairness and romanticism is still alive today. All those who refuse to accept the machinations of politicians and the diktat of bureaucrats and protest in whatever form, with petitions, letters to newspapers or in demonstrations, all carry within them a romantic spirit that Ida and Louise would have recognised.