“It had to be done” said Sally Noach, a Dutch-Jewish merchant in Persian rugs, about his resistance activities in the French city of Lyon during the Second World War. Instead of safeguarding his own vulnerable position as a Jewish refugee, he took tremendous risks rescuing people from French prisons and helping Engelandvaarders, among whom our father Jan ter Doest, on their way to unoccupied territory. After the war Noach rarely spoke about his work. In a recent film documentary, Forgotten Soldier, Noach's daughter, Lady Irene Hatter, sets out to 'uncover the truth behind her father's wartime exploits'.
1. Sally Noach after his escape to London
Salomon Jacob Noach, born in 1909, grew up in a large Jewish family in the Dutch provincial city of Zutphen. Later the family moved to Brussels, where Noach followed in his father’s footsteps learning the ins and outs of the carpet trade.
During the night of 9 to 10 May 1940 Brussels was startled by wailing sirens and exploding bombs. Although war was imminent, father Noach was not inclined to flee in a rush. Nor were the other family members who were all married and settled.
Sally decided to follow his instincts and headed for France. After various perilous detours he ended up in the textile city of Lyon where he found some previous trade relations. In addition to re-establishing a textile trade he offered his translation services to the 'Office Neérlandais', a by the Vichy-government stripped down version of the former Dutch consulates. The consul, or director, only spoke French and so far this sufficed because his well-to-do Dutch clientèle was in command of the French language and without pressing needs. Since the war had broken out, however, Consul Maurice Jacquet suddenly found himself flooded with Dutch refugees, all clamouring for help. An interpreter was now very welcome indeed.
Soon the streetwise merchant formed a somewhat unlikely but efficient team with the impeccable Jacquet. Diplomat Jacquet had a strong preference for the legal way to supply refugees with official travel papers but a lack of time and adequate means often forced him to rely on Noach’s unorthodox methods. In his own memoir 'Het moest gedaan worden' Noach mentions buying blank identity papers at book shops and filling these out with fake names. In a recent interview with us his son, Jacques Noach, adds that his father also requested blank papers from the French police who belonged to his trade network. "Mr. Noël Sergent, Chief Constable of Police writes in his own memoir that he gave my father in total about two hundred blank forms, so called 'sauf conduits'."
In this way Noach rescued hundreds of refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, from prison. In the summer of 1942 the atmosphere in nazi occupied Europe became more grim. During raids thousands of Jewish people were rounded up and deported, even in the so called Free Zone of France. After one such occasion, 12 August 1942, Noach went on a rescue mission to the St Jean prison in Lyon. When the guards denied him access he bluffed “I am the Dutch consul! Don’t you have any respect for diplomacy anymore?” Although not all officials were entirely convinced of Noach’s diplomatic status (he heard somebody mumble “I think he is a bloody Jew himself”) the prison gates were opened and not long after he walked out with over a hundred detainees. Sally’s home produced identity papers had worked as 'proof' of their Dutch and non-Jewish status. Likewise, he liberated over four hundred other prisoners in a second mission.
2. Cartoon by Max Appelboom about the adventures of an 'Engelandvaarder'
The desperate refugees not only needed documents but also food, clothing, a roof over their head, money and travel advice. Needs that required a lot of funding which not all Dutch diplomats were willing to provide. Some diplomats were even brazenly uncooperative. To compensate for the lack of financial help from the Dutch authorities, Noach established his own financial resources. He used his trade network to find private funds and he also asked more affluent refugees to donate money which he then redistributed to the poor ones.
After a while his clandestine activities began to attract the attention of the German Gestapo. Under the name of Jean Desbonnets he worked on doggedly. Only when he was warned by the French police to leave France as soon as possible did Noach follow this advice on 16 September 1942. He knew that staying on would mean a certain death. Via Portugal he managed to get to England. Just in time, in November the Germans seized Vichy France. Once on safe territory the loss of many of his own family and friends took its toll and he went through a period of depression. Both his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz and about a hundred and fourty members of the larger Noach family would not survive the war.
3. Noach at the Dutch royal palace during the award ceremony in 1969
Being an outspoken man he openly criticised a number of Dutch diplomats for not having cooperated as much as they could have done. For this reason he only received an award for his resistance work long after the war. And even then the award was not issued by the government but by the Queen. In 1969 Noach received the ‘Erekruis in de Huisorde van Oranje Nassau’, a royal appreciation for his innumerable efforts in which he risked his own life in order to help others.
Sally Noach was a man larger than life. Many letters written to him express enormous gratitude for the light he offered people in times of darkness. He always had a friendly word or a joke ready. The Dutch rabbi Jacob Soetendorp said “If he wanted to, Sally could even make a stone smile”. In his own memoir ‘Het moest gedaan worden’ (It had to be done) Noach concludes:
“My life motto is that every person has the obligation to contribute to the well-being of his fellow human beings.”
Sources of information
Het moest gedaan worden, Sally Noach's memoir written down by M.G. Haringman, uitg. Semper Adendo, 1971
Forgotten Soldier, Film documentary produced by Road On The Show, 2018
Rapport Meyer Sluyser, Sally Noach's notes dictated to publicist Meyer Sluyser commissioned by Queen Wilhelmina, December 1942, NIOD - dossier nr. 236, inventarisnr. 8
Television documentary about Sally Noach by Jaap van Meekren, Televizier Magazine, 4 May 1971
Interview by Ineke en Anke ter Doest with Jacques Noach, 18-9-2018
Letters - Bedankbrieven van Engelandvaarders die door Noach geholpen zijn, NIOD - dossier nr. 506, inventarisnr. 2
De vergeten soldaat van Oranje - Newspaper article in Eindhovens Dagblad, 22-12-1979
Voor Barbie moordde redde Sally Noach levens, Newspaper article in Nieuw Israëlitisch Weekblad, 22-5-1987
De Schakel, A selection of authentic stories of Dutch 'Engelandvaarders', written down by Frank Visser, Zuid-Hollandsche Uitgeversmij, 1976
Tulpen voor Wilhelmina, History of Engelandvaarders by Agnes Dessing, Uitg. Bert Bakker, 2004
Moments vécus sous l'occupation nazie, Memoirs by Noël Sergent, Chief constable of police in Lyon
1. Sally Noach in London - private collection family Noach
2. Cartoon by Max Appelboom - private collection of family Noach
3. Sally Noach during award ceremony - private collection family Noach