LONDON — In August 1942, as the Nazis’ net grew ever tighter around the Jews of Vichy France, a Dutch diplomat walked into Lyon’s Palais de Justice and successfully demanded the release of 118 prisoners being held there.
The following day, the same Dutchman, Sally Noach, appeared at the Stade des Iris on the outskirts of the city. He had received a tip off from a police source pointing it out as the place where all the remaining Jews from Vichy’s holding centers were being detained.
Most spoke Polish and Yiddish, and he spoke neither. However, using mime and sign language, he managed to make himself understood.
“I gave people made-up names and fake personal details. I went on writing until I ran out of papers,” Noach later recalled.
In all, 432 people were issued false papers registering them as Dutch and thus securing their freedom and escape from near-certain death.
But Noach was no ordinary Dutch diplomat and, although perhaps the most daring and audacious of his efforts, this was not the first time he had used a combination of extraordinary bluff and bravery to rescue imperiled Jews.
In fact, Noach was himself a Jewish refugee and former traveling textile salesman. In the summer of 1940, Noach had volunteered his services as a translator at the Dutch consulate in Lyon and, over the course of two years, used his position to undertake what he termed “freedom missions.”
Noach — who died 40 years ago this month — rarely spoke about his wartime exploits. It is only through the relentless digging and detective work of his children, Lady Irene Hatter, a British philanthropist married to the former industrialist Sir Maurice Hatter, and Jacques Noach, that the full story of his activities in Lyon has now come to be told.
Produced by Paul Goldin and released last year, the resulting feature-length documentary, “Forgotten Soldier,” lifts the veil on a man whose willingness to break the rules ensured that during his lifetime he would never receive the recognition he undoubtedly deserved.
The making of a rebel
The rebellious streak which would later help save the lives of countless Jews and opponents of the Nazis was evident years before Noach arrived in Lyon in 1940. Born in December 1909 in the Dutch town of Zutphen, Salomon (Sally) Noach was one of six children. He left school at the age of 12 after a row with a teacher. He worked for a butcher, as a bellboy and a waiter. When his family left for Brussels, he became a traveling textile salesman with his brothers and father.
In May 1940, as the German blitzkrieg swept through Belgium and the Netherlands, Noach boarded a train to Toulouse and joined what became known as the “Grande Exode” – the six million people desperately fleeing Hitler’s advancing forces. He was unable, however, to persuade his parents to leave with him.
After a short stay in a village in the Pyrenees, Noach made his way to Lyon. Thanks to its position in France’s southern unoccupied zone – which was ruled by Marshall Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime – it became a magnet for refugees. Within weeks, its Jewish population of 4,000 had swollen to 40,000. With its reputation for lawlessness, the city become known as the “capital of the resistance”; a place from which it was possible to escape eastwards to the Swiss border or south to the frontier with Spain.
In Lyon, Noach found the Dutch consulate and volunteered to be a translator. The offer was gratefully accepted by the consul, Maurice Jacquet, who spoke only French. Noach thus became the first point of contact for the Dutch refugees – many of them Jewish – who were by now overwhelming the mission. Noach also took a role as interpreter at the military court and began to build contacts with sympathetic officials in Pétain’s gendarmes. He also used his business contacts to persuade prominent textile merchants to provide much-needed cash for the consulate’s “fighting fund” to assist refugees.
This combination of roles allowed Noach – with Jacquet’s assistance, authority and support – to begin his “freedom missions.” Using fake documents supplied by the resistance (which supposedly proved the inmates weren’t Jewish), he entered prisons and holding centers with the aim of securing the release of as many refugees as he could. He greased the process with bribes and gifts for the guards and police. Not only were the documents fake, but Noach frequently demanded the release of far more inmates than those specified in the papers he was carrying.
Noach wasn’t beyond elevating his position. One survivor in “Forgotten Soldier” recalls him berating the French police with the words: “How dare you take my people. What do you mean taking my Dutch people, I am the consul.” Another remembers him successfully freeing prisoners with the words: “I am the Dutch consul. Is there no more respect for diplomacy? I need my people.”
“He got everybody out… and he made everybody Dutch,” Jenny Grishaver Weinshel tells Hatter in the film. As Sierk Plantinga of the Dutch National Archives suggests, “I think he was a master in bluffing.”
Hatter herself says, “my father never went by the book in any shape, size or form. He did what he wanted to do. He was full of chutzpah… It was his personality, his character,” she told The Times of Israel.
Jacquet’s consulate, though, was a rarity. Only in Lyon and Perpignan were consulates actively engaged in helping refugees. (Jacquet was later sent to Mauthausen concentration camp.) Noach’s rule-breaking also began to attract the negative attention of senior Dutch officials in Vichy France.
False identity and escape
As the round-up and deportation of Jews intensified in 1942, Noach assumed a false identity; the identity in which he would pull-off his greatest feats at the Palais de Justice and the Stade des Iris. As Hatter remarks in the film, “It was such a dangerous and brave thing to do. For a Jewish man, in a time of war, to face up to Petain’s police.”
Oxford University Prof. Robert Gildea is one of the many experts interviewed in “Forgotten Soldier.” Says Gildea, “The story of Sally Noach is really a story about rescue and, for a long time, rescue didn’t get much of a seat at the table of resistance because people saw resistance as basically being about sabotaging trains and taking pot shots at Germans.”
“But Jewish resistance and Jewish rescue was a war within the war because not only were they fighting a war against Nazi occupation, but they were also fighting a war against the Holocaust,” says Gildea.
Soon after the Palais de Justice stunt, Noach realized that it was time himself to flee. “Leave, now, Sally, before it’s too late,” Jacquet urged him. He followed the route he had helped others to tread: through the Pyrenees to Spain and from there to Portugal and safety. A military seaplane then carried Noach from Lisbon to Poole on the south-coast of England. From there, he was accompanied by police to London and interrogated by British intelligence. They were impressed by what they heard. “A shrewd, patriotic Dutch Jew, who did extremely good work in the south of France and helped hundreds of people to escape,” an officer reported. “He’s politically totally trustworthy.”
The film indeed credits Noach with saving 600 people. The real number is probably much higher, says Hatter, as that figure includes only those whose names are known. An archivist working on the film, indeed, believes Noach probably rescued at least 1,500 people.
Hatter, however, seems uninterested in attempting to quantify her father’s bravery in this way. “If you save one person, you know the saying,” she responds.
If you save one person, you know the saying
But some of Noach’s fellow Dutchmen who had also made it to London were more suspicious than British intelligence of his heroism. “He’s a Jew and Jews are cowards,” Noach overheard one saying.
Noach was also soon to make some powerful enemies. Queen Wilhelmina, who was living in exile with her government the British capital, asked to see Noach and then requested he prepare a report for her. Its sharp criticism of some Dutch officials in France provoked anger when it was circulated. Noach was swiftly branded a trouble-maker, untrustworthy and a black-marketeer. Denied intelligence work, he was shunted into an administrative role. “The powers that be … crushed him,” Hatter suggests in the film
The end of the war brought terrible news: Noach’s mother and father had been murdered in Auschwitz. This, believes Hatter, helps explain why Noach said so little in later years about what he had done in the war. “He never really wanted to talk about it,” she suggests. “If you can imagine, if you save all these strangers… and your own mum and dad get taken away, together with 108 close family, all deported, never came back. That was the guilt he had to live with.”
If you save all these strangers… and your own mum and dad get taken away, together with 108 close family, all deported, never came back
Indeed, she recalls being with her father as a teenager in an Amsterdam street when he was approached by a stranger who said he was responsible for saving their family. “Please, forget about it,” Noach replied. “Dad doesn’t want to talk about it but he helped some people during the war,” Hatter’s mother explained to her.
Among those he saved were two of his brothers, their wives and children. Hatter, however, wasn’t aware of this until one of her cousins told her at the premier of “Forgotten Soldier”: “You know, we were saved by your Dad.”
Brief moment of recognition
Noach did break his silence, but only briefly. In 1971 – two years after he had been honored by the Dutch Royal Family with the highest award the House of Orange can bestow – he published a short memoir and gave an interview to Dutch TV. “I read it but not really fully taking it in,” Hatter recalls. But when he was nominated for a medal that had been awarded to those who helped Dutch citizens during the war, the government refused. It was only finally granted when he died in 1980.
The jealousies and pettiness which led to Noach’s treatment by officialdom cannot compete, however, with the story Hatter’s film tells and the living proof of her father’s courage and tenacity she uncovers. She begins the film by tracking his passage through France to Lyon and then on to London. “We went on this journey but as I went along, I found out more and more,” Hatter says. “All the bits that I knew, it’s like a puzzle, you put them together and it became more and a more of a full picture to me.”
The film’s closing scenes take place in the United States where, thanks to advertisements that had been placed in newspapers, Hatter meets with survivors who readily acknowledge the debt they and their families owed to Noach.
Herman Veder was six when, together with his brother and parents, they were arrested in August 1942 and jailed at the Palais de Justice. Noach secured their release with false identity papers — discovered by Hatter’s brother in an Amsterdam archive — which had altered the family’s religion from Jewish to Calvinist. The papers allowed the family to travel from France through Spain and Portugal and then on to safety in the Dutch colony of Suriname on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America.
At the end of the war, Veder’s family of 60 was reduced to less than 10 — four of whom owed their lives to Noach.
“Basically, he saved our lives,” an emotional Veder tells Noach’s children. After its liberation, the family returned to Amsterdam, where he recalls seeing, and speaking with, Noach on many occasions. To him, he recalls, he would always be “Uncle Sally.”