At first blush, Suzanne Spaak didn’t seem like a strong candidate to help the underground. She was an heiress who married into even more money. As a foreign-born non-Jew living in Paris, members of the underground were initially skeptical when she asked how she could help. What was this rich girl thinking getting involved in this world? What could she possibly bring to a resistance movement that needed to get its hands dirty from time to time? Nobody took her very seriously.
This was an attitude Suzanne made sure did not last long. She threw herself into the work with a zeal that surprised even her other resistance members. She took any assignment without hesitation or complaint. Whether it was physical labor, clandestine scouting and observing the Nazis, or creating and distributing leaflets, Suzanne completed her tasks quickly, efficiently, and always asked for more.
But her work wasn’t just limited to standard underground fair. Suzanne came from a unique background, one that afforded her access and ears that were closed to most other people. One of her major tasks was finding hospitals and other safe houses that were willing to accept fugitive Jewish families. It was dangerous work with a huge amount of risk for everyone involved. Everyday the Nazis broadcast and published propaganda with a simple message, anyone caught aiding or hiding Jews would be put to death as well as their entire immediate family. Asking someone to shelter Jews was asking them to accept the possibility of arrest and execution for them and the people they cared the most about.
Suzanne, the socialite adept in the ways of conversation and persuasion, was one of the best at getting people to accept this risk. She rang up judges and authors, knocked on the door of priests and painters, she used her social standing and incredibly diverse circle of friends to pry open doors and solicit aid for Jewish families like nobody else.
She even got her own family in on the effort. Her daughter, Pilette, helped her forge documents for Jewish families. It was like an arts and crafts project they would do together, taking old ID cards they collected from friends, they would use a hot iron and moist cloth to lift the original signatures off the card. After a bit of clean up they’d write in a new name and presto, a fugitive Jew suddenly becomes a respectable citizen with right of passage.
Still, this wasn’t enough for her, she wanted to do more. She HAD to do more. Suzanne was haunted by stories of Jewish children being taken. She would look at her own beloved children and could not shake the deep, deep horror of what the Nazis were doing to kids and mothers exactly like them. It began to affect her psychologically; she’d wake with nightmares and have trouble focusing from time to time. Handing out ration cards and new IDs was a good start, but there had to be more she could do.
That’s when she began to hear rumors about a mass arrest the Nazis were planning. There were preparations being made to raid all of the Jewish orphanages in the city and deport the children to Auschwitz. This was a singular horror to Suzanne. These were innocent children who already had their lives ruined (the reason so many Jewish children were in orphanages at the time was because their parents had already been forcibly deported and likely murdered by the Nazis). They had nobody, so Suzanne decided to be that somebody, to be the person who would save these children.
She set to work immediately. She recruited a local Pastor, Paul Vergara, who was known for his fiery anti-Nazi sermons. They were joined by Marcelle Guillemot, the woman who ran the church’s soup kitchen and was all too familiar with the precocity facing Jews and particularly Jewish children at that time. Together, they put a plan. A series of "kidnappings” that would take those children far from Nazi clutches.
On February 15, 1943, there was a strange amount of interest in Jewish orphanages in Paris. More than 30 women (vetted by Suzanne and her allies) showed up at orphanages around the city. They offered to take some children for a walk, get them out of the building and stretch their legs. And of course, the orphanage staff was glad for a break and naturally agreed. More than 60 Jewish children from ages 3 to 18 walked out of those orphanages that morning and never returned.
The children were given new names, clothing, and ration cards. The yellow stars marking their former clothes were burned. This was a massive and risky operation involving multiple people, safehouses, and smuggling methods. Suzanne herself sheltered some of the children in her own home for a time, hiding them from the ever-present eyes of the Gestapo and the opportunistic French collaborators who would gladly sell information about a Jewish sympathizer to the Nazis.
This was why Suzanne had allied herself with the "Red Orchestra” (a loose network of resistance cells that originated with anti-Nazi Germans in Berlin and spread all the way to France). She needed their network to help smuggle and place the children either in allied countries or safe areas across Europe. Sadly, it was this association that ultimately led to her fate.
Unbeknownst to anyone in France at the time, The Red Orchestra network was compromised. Members captured in Germany were tortured and forced to give up their allies. Those allies were then rounded up and tortured into giving up their friends. Again and again the horrible pattern continued, eventually reaching all the way to Paris. More than 600 members across Europe were rounded up in a year long Gestapo operation - and one of these members was Suzanne.
It is only by the grace of God that Suzanne received last second word of the Gestapo’s operation. Not enough time to save herself, but she had just enough time before she was arrested to give the names and locations of the Jewish children she saved to another underground member not affiliated with the Red Orchestra who would be able to keep track of them. This last heroic act was done in the hope that those children could eventually be found by any surviving family they had be reunited someday. Even up to her last moments of freedom Suzanne thought of the children before thinking of herself.
On August 12, 1944 mere days before the liberation of Paris, Suzanne Spaak was executed. They conducted her execution while simultaneously preparing to abandon the prison and flee from the inevitable march of allied forces. A completely senseless and spiteful murder committed by an evil regime.
Suzanne left behind her husband and two children. Her accomplishments and heroism would go largely unknown for years but have thankfully since been recognized, with Suzanne being inducted into Yad Vashem’s "Righteous Among the Nations.” In 2009 her surviving daughter Pilette, by then an old woman herself, finally got to meet a few of the children her mother saved. Old themselves, they were able to tell Pilette about their own families, the lives they got to lead and the children and grandchildren they got to have thanks to Suzanne. All of them forever connected by the love and sacrifice of a woman who gave up everything to do the right thing.