It was a seven-minute, black-and-white film of a Dutch-Jewish wedding that provided the trigger for a journey that would take Lady Irene Hatter across two continents and 75 years back in time.
The footage, which went viral as soon as it surfaced online, was one of the final testaments to normal Jewish life in the Netherlands before Hitler’s invasion. Shot in 1939 at the wedding of Mimi Dwinger and Barend Boers, it had been stashed away for decades in the attic of the couple’s home.
A friend, who knew Hatter had been born and raised in Amsterdam, thought it might interest her and sent her a link. Hatter, in turn, forwarded the link to her older brother, Jacques, because he was the sibling who had always taken a keen interest in their family history.
Her brother called Hatter immediately with a revelation that shocked her. “He told me that our dad had saved that couple,” she recounts in a phone conversation with Haaretz.
The 71-year-old British-Jewish philanthropist — she is married to Sir Maurice Hatter, a prominent industrialist — had known that her late father, Salomon (“Sally”) Noach, had helped hundreds of Jewish refugees escape the Nazis in southern France. But he never spoke much about what he did and she never asked for details.
Suddenly, she was intrigued and wanted to know more. How many people had he saved? Where did they end up? And how was he able to pull it off?
“Forgotten Soldier,” scheduled to have its Israeli premiere this week, is the fruit of her ambitious efforts. In the feature-length documentary, Hatter retraces her father’s footsteps during World War II, coming full circle when she succeeds in locating several of the Jews he rescued.
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It’s a journey that begins in southern France, where Noach sought refuge from the Nazis in the early 1940s, and ends in Florida with an emotional encounter with the child of a family he saved.
When she was a young teenager, strolling the streets of Amsterdam with her father, Hatter recalls how they were suddenly approached by a stranger, overwhelmed by emotion, who thanked Noach for saving him and his entire family. That was how she first learned of her father’s daring exploits during the war. “And my dad, what he said in response was, ‘Please forget about it.’”
In 1971, nine years before his death, Noach published a short memoir about his experiences during the war. By her own admission, Hatter did not display much interest in the book at the time. “You’re young, you’re busy with the kids,” she says. “Of course, I read it and thought it was nice, but did I ask any questions? I remember saying, ‘Dad, it’s really amazing what you’ve been through.’ And he’d just shrug his shoulders.”
One of six children, Noach was born in the Dutch town of Zutphen in 1909. At age 12 he first showed signs of being a maverick when he dropped out of school over a dispute with his teacher. A first job as a delivery boy for a butcher shop led to another as a bellboy and waiter, before he eventually joined the family textile business.
Noach and his family were living in Brussels when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940. A few days after the Nazis had occupied the city, he boarded a train, joining millions of other refugees from around Europe seeking safety in the south of France. Despite his pleas, his parents stayed behind and were later murdered in Auschwitz (altogether, Noach lost more than 100 members of his extended family in the Holocaust).
Eventually, he found his way to the Dutch consulate in Lyon — the heart of the Resistance movement in Vichy France — where he volunteered his services as a translator. The consul, who spoke only French, was more than happy to take him up on the offer. And so, for many Dutch refugees in France, Noach became the first point of contact.
As the film relays, Noach would often embark on so-called freedom missions — entering prisons and holding centers where Jewish refugees were detained before deportation to the death camps, and releasing them using forged papers supplied by the Resistance which proved they were not in fact Jewish. Often, bribes and gifts to guards and police officers became necessary as well.
With these fake documents, the refugees were able to board ships bound for Spain and Portugal, and from there to their final destination in the Caribbean and South America.
In one of his most daring exploits, over the course of two days in August 1942, Noach freed hundreds of Jews almost certainly bound for the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
On the first day, he walked into the local Lyon courthouse and pulled out 118 prisoners. The following day, he received a tip that the remaining prisoners — many of them Polish Jews — were being held at a stadium on the outskirts of town. Presenting false documents he had personally drafted to prove they were Dutch, he got another 432 prisoners out of the stadium. He also fled soon after, making his way to England via Spain and Portugal and escaping the clutches of Gestapo head Klaus Barbie, aka “The Butcher of Lyon,” who had begun operating in the city.
But Noach did not receive a hero’s welcome in Allied territory when he arrived in early 1943. No sooner had he arrived in England than he was taken into custody by British spy catchers who suspected he might be a Nazi collaborator. Some of his fellow countrymen, also in exile, denounced him as a profiteer whose feats of bravery were greatly exaggerated. After all, they said, Jews are known to be cowards.
After the war, Noach returned to the Netherlands, where he married, fathered three children and became a successful carpet merchant. According to his daughter, most people who spent time in his company would not know that he carried deep scars from the war.
“He was larger than life and very funny,” Hatter recalls. “When he walked into a room, he lit up that room and everybody wanted to sit next to him. He lived life to the fullest.”
Produced by London-based film executive Paul Goldin and directed by Lucile Smith, “Forgotten Soldier” will have two screenings in Israel to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day: at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on May 1 and Haifa Cinematheque on May 2. A park in Haifa will be dedicated in Noach’s name the same day by Lady Hatter and her brother Jacques.
The documentary, which is also scheduled for screenings at the Toronto and Washington Jewish film festivals, was the recipient of the Audience Choice Award at last year’s UK Jewish Film Festival.
When Hatter decided to make the film, a friend advised her to place ads in newspapers to track down survivors. The strategy worked, and in the course of making the documentary she says she received many responses. Since then, she has discovered other survivors as well.
“When we had our screening in London [last November], three people got up during the Q&A and said they either had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who were saved by my dad,” she recounts.
Documentation exists, according to Hatter, of approximately 600 Jews who were rescued by her father during the Holocaust. “But an archivist who worked on this film believes the number is closer to 1,500,” she says. “At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter because as the saying goes, if you save one life it’s as if you’ve saved an entire world.”
Reflecting back on her father’s feats of bravery, she adds: “It was pure chutzpah. There is no other word for it.”