Heroes of the Holocaust: Suzanne Spaak, martyr for justice Part 1

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Some people have all the luck. Suzanne Spaak certainly had her share. Born the daughter of a wealthy Belgian banking family, Suzanne enjoyed a fine European upbringing that took her to the elite social circles of Belgium. She married extremely well and eventually settled into a glamourous home in Paris where she and her husband enjoyed life in Paris’ high society.  

It all sounds like a fairy tale, a charmed life well lived. But this was Paris in the early 40s and everything changed with the invasion of the Nazis. Suzanne’s perfect life was turned upside down and she was faced with a choice. She could either turn a blind eye to injustice and try and live as normally as possible during the occupation like so many of her rich friends, or she could listen to her conscious and do something about it. She chose the later and became first a hero and then, tragically, a martyr.

Silver spoon, golden heart

Suzanne came from a family of means. An established Catholic family with deep ties to the banking business, she wanted for very little in life and was brought up from an early age to become a "proper” young lady. She received an excellent elementary education but was frustrated by her parents insistence that she study house management and embroidery as she matured. She independently studied literature and political science, with an eye towards social issues. It was this interest that brought her into contact with Jewish women’s groups in Brussels, many of which had already fled homes in Eastern Europe as the antisemitism in those areas became more intense and violent.  

It was also these interests that made her so fascinating to her husband Claude Spaak. When we say Suzanne married well, that’s a bit of an understatement – she married into a dynasty that might as well be considered the Belgium Kennedys. A family of political movers and shakers, businessmen and important figures. Claude was an accomplished man in his own right, a pioneering filmmaker and playwright. Sadly, he also proved to be a difficult and sometimes selfish man. He was unfaithful and prone to mood swings, but Suzanne stuck with him, largely for the sake of her two children, a daughter name Pilette, and a son, Bazou, both of whom she loved intensely. While her marriage could have been better, she embraced motherhood and was incredibly devoted to her children.

In 1938 they relocated to Paris to be closer to the emerging film and arts scene. They moved into an upscale building in the heart of the city, one of those gorgeous buildings that people just stop to look at and dream about. The two young children settled into Parisian life immediately, making friends and excelling in their studies. It was a fantasy come to life – until the Germans invaded in 1940.

The Spaaks originally tried to flee. Joining the millions of people fleeing the country, they intended to travel to New York and the safety of America but were cut off by German roadblocks before they could reach their boat. So, they returned to their Paris home and prepared for the worst. But to their surprise, the worst didn’t happen to them.

Make no mistake, the Nazis occupation of Paris was brutal. There is no telling how many people "disappeared” during that dark time. Fear was the order of the day, you never knew who was listening, where the Gestapo were lurking, or which of your friends had become an informer. It was a nightmare for Jews and anyone the Nazis considered an enemy. But if you were not a Jew, but wealthy, politically connected, and willing to keep your mouth shut, things could still be relatively comfortable all things considered. 

Suzanne’s position shielded her and her family from the worst of the occupation. But she could still see what was going on. Jews were suddenly not allowed simple basic freedoms. They were barred from parks, cafes, or movies. Their movements were controlled and monitored, and possession of a contraband item like a simple radio could earn a Jew a death sentence. She saw it all and was disgusted by it. She felt terrible guilt seeing such injustices mercilessly meted out to innocent people while she got to comfortably go about her life like nothing changed. 

But as angry and upset as she was, nothing prepared her for the shock of losing a friend. One of the Jewish women she met in her groups back in Brussels, Mira Sokol, also moved to Paris. The two had bonded over their shared interests and become close friends. Originally when Mira moved to Paris it was a welcome and celebrated event. But now with the Nazi occupation, it was a disaster. Sure enough, Mira and her husband were arrested by the Nazis, taken away to parts unknown and doomed to an uncertain fate. All for the crime of having Jewish heritage.

It was too much for Suzanne, she couldn’t stand by and just watch. So, she made the most of her position. As a wealthy Belgian married to a politically connected man, she could pretty much roam Paris unimpeded. She would use this freedom to raise funds for Jewish families trying to keep their heads down and avoid detection. Her home was unlikely to be targeted for inspection, so she listened to verboten radio broadcasts from the UK and allied forces, sharing the news with friends and creating a whisper network to keep people up to date with what was going on in the world.

While many of her social circle resigned themselves to quietly enduring the Nazi occupation, taking comfort in their remaining freedoms, and trying to ignore the plight of others, Suzanne chose a different path. She joined the underground National Movement Against Racism (MNCR) and dedicated her life to the struggle against Nazism.

Find out how this socialite became a hero in part 2 later this week!

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