Ida Cook – Sister of Mercy

Day 109 of Colourisation Project – August 24

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Ida Cook born 24 August 1904 in Sunderland, England was a British campaigner for Jewish refugees and a romance novelist. Under the pseudonym of Mary Burchell, she wrote 112 novels for Mills & Boon, eventually becoming their most lucrative and prolific author.

Writing between 1936 and 1985, her most famous publication was The Warrender Saga, a series of 13 novels about the Opera and concert hall world. Many of her titles were later republished by Harlequin. Ida Cook was a founder and then second president of the Romantic Novelists’ Association from 1966 up to her death in 1986.

Cook Sisters

Photographer Unknown – Ida (l) and Mary (r) Cook  – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Ida’s own life story reads like something out of one of her Mills & Boon romances. Along with her older sister, Mary Louise, they embarked on an extraordinary crusade to rescue Jews from the horrors of Nazi Germany. Set against a backdrop of glittering opera houses,  prima donnas and famous musicians, they risked their lives rescuing dozens of Jews facing certain death in Hitler’s concentration camps.

Funded mainly by Ida’s writing, the women led an otherwise seemingly ordinary suburban existence working as secretaries in the Civil Service in London; except for the fact that they were opera aficionados. Their only indulgence in life was to go and listen to operas. They saved all their money to be able to visit the European opera houses. This led to their meeting the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and his wife, the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, who broadened their horizons about the persecution of the Jews and the holocaust.

The sisters made it their mission to do whatever they could do to help imperilled Jews. They used their opera star-gazing fanaticism as a cover for the numerous trips in and out of Germany. Posing as eccentric spinster opera fans willing to travel anywhere to see their favourite stars and operas. They regularly visited Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne, Berlin and Vienna and for the most part the Nazi border guards ignored them.

Refugees fleeing Germany were forbidden to take their money or possessions out of the country but they could convert their cash into exportable goods, which the Cook sisters were prepared to carry across the border into England. They would smuggle back diamonds and furs belonging to Jews to give them some financial security when they arrived on British soil. They even went as far as sewing fake London labels into the furs to avoid suspicion.

Ida’s writing career took off and she began making good money. Together the sisters were able to buy a flat in Dolphin Square, which they offered to the Jewish refugees on arrival in London. Ida spent much of her own money on rescue missions.

As part of their incredibly dangerous ruse, they stayed in the best hotels where they were certain to run into high ranking Nazi officers. Ida explains in her 1950 autobiography, We Followed Our Stars,

“We knew them all—Louise and I, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Ribbentrop (who once gave Louise ‘the glad eye’ across the breakfast room at the Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich). We even knew Hitler from the back… If you stood and gazed at them admiringly as they went through the lobby, no one thought you were anything but another couple of admiring fools.”

The memoir was later re-edited and expanded as Safe Passage, and is currently still in print. Ida Cook also ghost-wrote Tito Gobbi’s autobiography, My Life.

In 1965, they were recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority as righteous gentiles.

The sisters never married and remained devoted companions all their lives, continuing to assist and raise funds for refugees throughout Europe.

Ida died of cancer in Parkside Hospital, Wimbledon, in 1986 and was later cremated at Putney Vale. Mary Louise joined her not long after in 1991.

In 2010 they were each posthumously named ‘British Hero of the Holocaust’ by the British Government.


“I marvel now when I think of how we lived in a state of high drama part of the time, and continued our normal lives during the rest of the time. I wrote novels and Louise worked at the office. We had holidays. We had our recurring opera seasons. We had our family interests and our hobbies, particularly our gramophone records, which were a great consolation to us between opera seasons.”  –  Ida Cook, We Followed Our Stars (1950)

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, History, Literature, Opera, Women, Women writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ida Cook – Sister of Mercy

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Marvellously interesting story! Amazing how ‘ordinary people’ can be so extraordinary’ well told. Regards Thom.


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