Story by Ammie Bryant, images provided by Anne Nelson
“Everyone said she was a soviet spy,” Lucie ‘Pilette’ Spaak said in one of 3 dozen interviews with Anne Nelson about her mother, Suzanne Spaak. Anne Nelson began taking the 80 year-old knitting instructor for coffee in 2009. Last October, after eight years of research, Nelson published a book about Suzanne Spaak and her efforts to rescue hundreds of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Paris.
This February, Nelson will return to her hometown to talk about her latest book, “Suzanne’s Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris.” The author will be at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar on Fri., Feb. 9 at noon to talk about her book. That evening, Bliss Books & Bindery at 120 E. 9th Ave will host a book signing from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Bliss Books has copies of the book available for purchase.
Anne Nelson grew up in Stillwater. She moved here with her family when she was 12. She was the first Oklahoma woman to graduate from Yale where she was in the third class to enroll women in 1972. She majored in American Studies with a concentration in history.
Along with her love of history, Nelson enjoyed performing. She was active in Stillwater High Musical performances and Town and Gown Theatre productions. She carried that love with her through her college years.
After Yale, she worked as a journalist, covering the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala. In 1995, she became the director of the International Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Since 2003, Nelson has taught at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.
Anne Nelson also writes and lectures on the topics of international affairs, media, and human rights. In 2009, she published “Red Orchestra” about how the media was used in Nazi Germany for both propaganda and resistance. In 1986, she published “Murder Under Two Flags: The U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Cerro Maravilla Cover-Up” which went on to be made into the movie “A Show of Force” in 1990.
Combine Nelson’s love of history, writing, and theater, and it’s no wonder that she has written numerous plays. Most notable is “The Guys,” based on her own experiences in the wake of 9/11. The play was first performed in a hit off-off-Broadway production starring Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray. “One of my bizarre claims to fame is that I’m probably the only SHS graduate who has been ‘played’ by Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Peggy Lipton, Felicity Huffman — and Oklahoma’s own Jeanne Tripplehorn,” said Nelson.
“The Guys” has been performed in all fifty states, fifteen countries, and as a feature film. It is often used as a fundraiser for local fire departments and related causes. “The Guys” was performed in Stillwater in 2011 with proceeds benefiting the Sheerar Center and the Stillwater Fire Department. The Fire Department used their portion of the funds to purchase a traditional ceremonial bell, to be used during the funeral services of fallen firefighters.
Nelson has been especially drawn to the topic of human rights and stories of women. “I have always been aware of injustices in the world and the temptation to feel powerless and so I look for inspiration from people who fight against it.” So when she stumbled across references to Suzanne Spaak in researching her book “Red Orchestra” she decided to do a little more digging. She discovered that Suzanne’s daughter was living in a Washington, D.C. suburb and sought her out to learn more.
Through her interviews and extensive research, Nelson discovered the story of a Belgian heiress who was surrounded by famous and powerful people, who believed that her own elite background protected her. The beautiful daughter of a prominent Belgian financier, Suzanne married into an influential political family. Her husband, Claude, was a writer and patron of the acclaimed Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. The couple associated with the likes of author Colette (of “Gigi” fame), writer Jean Cocteau, and Christian Dior, before he became famous for his fashion designs. The Spaaks had two children, Lucie who they nicknamed “Pilette” and Paul-Louis or “Bazou.”
By 1939, the facade of an idyllic life was beginning to crack. The Spaak marriage was not a happy one, but Suzanne made concessions to try to make it work. Meanwhile, war with Nazi Germany loomed on the horizon. Spaak could not ignore the danger threatening Jewish children when she and her children were safe.
While Nelson is unable to provide us with an explanation of what spurred Spaak to take the actions she did (Claude burned all of Suzanne’s papers after the war), Nelson provides a picture of a woman driven to act. Believing that her social status protected her and her family, Suzanne helped those who needed it. She became increasingly active in multiple Resistance groups; she worked with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, communists, Soviet agents, and followers of Free France’s leader, Charles de Gaulle.
Nelson reveals a relentless Spaak. Whether consciously or not, Spaak was also oblivious to the danger she faced and exposed her own family to as she pursued a number of methods to secure safety for Jewish children. She forged papers to provide children with new identities. She searched out homes to shelter children. She even coordinated an operation to rescue sixty-three Jewish children from an “orphanage.” As a result of this rescue, the Gestapo hunted Spaak down.
In January, Nelson learned that “Suzanne’s Children” was named a finalist in the National Jewish Book Awards. “This is quite unusual, given that neither the author nor the subject is Jewish — but the book, like Suzanne herself, is all about humane values and transcending differences,” said Nelson.
Suzanne Spaak’s story needed to be told. Thankfully, it found a thorough researcher and eloquent author in the form of Anne Nelson.