By Charles Pfister
When Manfred Wolf published his 2014 Holocaust memoir, “Survival in Paradise,” he did not realize that he was helping to fill out the story of a Holocaust hero who has not had Steven Spielberg tell his story.
Wolf ’s memoir begins with the story of how his Dutch Jewish family escaped the descending darkness of the Holocaust of World War II in Europe and arrived at their final sanctuary at the Caribbean island of Curacao.
Although only seven years old when his family fled the Nazis, Wolf has vivid memories of a few months of uneasy sanctuary in the summer of 1942 in Vichy, France – where the invading Nazis briefly allowed a puppet French government to rule – while his family plotted their escape from Europe.
War refugees there found a landscape of shifting alliances where you could never be sure who your friends were. And where life or death decisions had to be made every day. During this time Wolf’s family made several desperate attempts to leave France.
Once they were taken into custody by French police and only escaped because Wolf’s mother charmed a certain officer and convinced him to let the family leave custody. They finally were able to cross into Spain just in the nick of time, thanks to an independent Dutch businessman named Sally Noach. Noach provided Wolf ’s father with the travel documents needed for the family to leave France just days before the Nazis invaded Vichy and closed the border with Spain for good.
Mention of Noach in Wolf’s book attracted the attention of a major film studio in England, Pinewood Studios, which was making a documentary about the life of Noach. Wolf was recently contacted by the producer and director, who scheduled an interview with him when the film crew was touring the U.S. hunting down Holocaust survivors like Wolf, whose life had been saved by Noach.
Soon, Wolf found himself on camera in his Sunset residence being interviewed about his father by Noach’s daughter, Lady Irene Hatter. Wolf had a child’s image of Noach, a dashing, chameleon-like figure, fluent in French and with shadowy relationships to government officials, who could procure travel papers. He could help refugees find safe routes out of France.
He recalled that his father made more than one desperate approach to Noach before he was able to gain Noach’s assistance in fixing documents so Wolf’s family could travel to Spain.
Wolf recalled some similarities of Noach to the hero of Spielberg’s film, “Schindler ’s List,” Oskar Schindler. Noach had many sides, was self-centered as well as benevolent. He enjoyed his prominent role in the community as a fixer for desperate refugees.
In conversation with Wolf, Hatter filled out the profile he had of her father as being a can-do type, not so much a thinker as a doer, and relatively fearless. She showed Wolf a 1942 letter to Noach that his father had signed, along with a dozen other refugees, thanking him for his role in saving their lives.
Noach was active for almost two years in France assisting Dutch refugees escaping Europe. His connections and daring were such that he was even sometimes able to get refugees freed from detention camps and save them from deportation.
Like Wolf ’s family, Noach himself escaped France days before the Germans over-ran Vichy in 1942.
Like other young Dutch men of fighting age, Noach fled to England. After recovering from psychological trauma caused by so many close calls in France, he spent the rest of the war performing intelligence work for the Dutch government in exile.
After the War, Noach lived a relatively quiet life, running a small business. Although recognized by the Queen of the Netherlands for his service in Vichy, he never gained widespread recognition as a Holocaust hero.
The movie “Schindler’s List” helped throw a spotlight on heroes that helped Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. But, unlike Schindler and other figures later gaining public recognition, Noach was Jewish. Wolf believes the British documentary about Noach may help show that there existed Jewish Holocaust heroes, and not just victims.