Documentary: Forgotten Soldier at JW3
- Credit: Archant
During World War II Sally Noach saved around 600 people by giving them false papers. Now his daughter Lady Irene Hatter has gone in search of the truth about the father wouldn’t talk about his wartime activities
Charismatic “wheeler dealer” Sally Noach helped hundreds to escape their fate at the hands of the Nazis in wartime France.
But he was so reluctant to talk about it that his daughter decided to go in search of the truth decades later.
Followed by a documentary crew, Lady Irene Hatter travelled to her native Holland, the US and France to find out more about a man described as both an “unsung hero” and a “black marketeer”.
Compellingly told, Forgotten Soldier won the audience choice award at the UK Jewish Film Festival and screens at JW3 with a Q&A attended by the St John’s Wood resident on February 20.
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Born in Holland in 1909, Noach was a Persian rug dealer living in Brussels when the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940. He joined millions fleeing to France in the ‘Grande Exode’. But if a survival instinct drove him to Lyon, it was a brave, selfless urge that led him to save his fellow Jews - and non Jews - over the next two years.
A fluent French speaker, he volunteered as an interpreter to the Dutch Consul, creating fake papers for imprisoned refugees and giving them money to flee to Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.
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Befriending, perhaps bribing, French police to get blank ‘sauf conduits’, in August 1942, he walked into Lyon’s Justice building and freed more than 100 prisoners; loudly bluffing: ‘Don’t you know I’m the Dutch Consul’.
The next day, tipped off by a Police contact, he created false Dutch papers for 400 people being held at a sports stadium and marched them to freedom.
“All his life he was a wheeler dealer, a businessman who could sell ice to the Eskimos,” says Lady Hatter. “He had a great sense of humour and a lot of chutzpah. He was also an an amazing dad and family man.”
Growing up, she was unaware how many friends and neighbours owed their life to her father.
“I never realised how many people who came to our house when I was a kid he had saved.”
As a teenager she recalls crossing a square when a man approached her father.
“He became emotional and said ‘you saved me’ but my father brushed him off and said ‘please forget about that time. Go. Enjoy your life.”
Sally spoke little of his wartime activities until writing a slim memoir and making a documentary in 1971. Lady Hatter believes it weighed heavily that although he helped his brothers to escape, he couldn’t persuade his parents to flee. They perished along with 108 friends and family.
“It was Holocaust guilt. He saved hundreds of people, but he had a father and a mother deported and gassed in Auschwitz. To save all those strangers but you can’t save your own mum and dad is very difficult to live with.”
As to what drove this streetwise merchant with the gift of the gab to break rules and take risks, when he was also a refugee, his only comment: ‘it had to be done’.
“He felt disaster was coming, he coud see people were running for their lives and needed help to get out,” says Lady Hatter.
“For refugees coming to France, the black market was the only way to survive. My father knew where to get papers, who he had to be friendly with. He changed their names or changed them from Jews to Calvinists. He gave them money from people he knew in business to travel on. Some made it, some didn’t. One man told us how his family walked across the Pyrenees and he nearly died of typhus.”
Sally himself fled Vichy France in September 1942, just before Klaus Barbie the notorious ‘butcher of Lyon’ took over as head of the Gestapo.
“He changed his name to Jean Desponet but you could not imagine a more Jewish looking man than my dad. It became so hot, people were being killed in the street not just quietly taken away. He had get out.”
Sally made it to Lisbon then flew to London where he spent the rest of the war and met Lady Hatter’s mother- before moving back to Holland.
He would later criticise Dutch officials who failed to help the refugees, including the lead consul who rounded up Dutch Jews and put them in a camp.
Lady Hatter, who met her husband Maurice soon after arriving in England aged 18, says: “I had my children young. I was preoccupied. You are not that interested in the past when you are young. It’s really with time and age that I thought ‘if I don’t tell this story now.’. I’ve realised I didn’t know the half of it.”
Many have “come out of the woodwork” since making the film. During a Q&A at East Finchley’s Phoenix cinema three people had relatives saved by Sally Noach. Lady Hatter also discovered his wartime liaison had produced a daughter, and she is due to meet her two nieces for the first time.
“One is called Sally after my dad. It’s really touching the way people are taking it in and there’s been some closure,” she adds.
“I was born just after the war surrounded by everyone who was in it. Everyone had people in the camps or in hiding. But for some it’s a different story.”
She cites a poll commissioned by the Holocaust Day Memorial Trust which found 2.6m British people deny it happened.
“It’s frightening. When I started this journey, I really wanted to tell my dad’s story but I never realised how important it was. It’s easy to say ‘so what? It’s a lot of years ago’. But anti Semitism is bubbling up again. My father was once asked ‘do you think it could happen again?’, and without hesitation he said ‘of course.’” As for her:
“We have wonderful memories of a man who had been through so much and done so many good things. I just wish I had talked to him more before he died. My dad was really a hero who showed bravery in a time of need. My mum would have been so proud but I think he would have said ‘why all this fuss?’”
Forgotten Soldier screens at JW3 in Finchley Road from February 17-21. Tickets from Jw3.org.uk