Paulette Cooper, With Help From the Voice, Discovers Her Heartrending Past
In December, I finally got the chance to meet Paulette Cooper when we had breakfast near the offices of the Voice. For many of us who toil in this business of reporting on Scientology, we have no greater hero. Paulette's 1971 book, The Scandal of Scientology, was one of the first exposes of the church and remains one of the best. And no other writer who revealed Scientology's secrets paid a higher price: As we told in new detail on Thanksgiving Day, Paulette was framed by Scientology operatives who were determined to get her imprisoned. She faced 15 years in prison at one point, indicted for sending bomb threats that had actually been faked by the church. She lived with extreme harassment from 1969 to 1985, when the last of 19 church lawsuits against her were finally settled.
Paulette and Suzy in the 1980s
Even today, 35 years after an FBI raid on the church turned up documents revealing that Scientology had set out to frame Paulette, there are still mysteries about the plot against her, which church operatives called Operation PC Freakout -- we are making progress even today filling in those details, the subject of a future story.
But there was another, unpredictable outcome from that December breakfast, another part of Paulette's story that suddenly opened up to her in dramatic fashion. And today, we have those details.
You might remember from that earlier piece that Paulette had been in town to see her sister, Suzy, and we casually mentioned what she said the two had been talking about...
...the two of them are still trying to piece together exactly what happened when, as young children, they were rescued from a Nazi camp in Belgium, sparing them the fate of their parents, who were shipped to Auschwitz for extermination. A Belgian man rescued the girls by paying the equivalent of what today would be about $2 million to save 22 children from the camp, and to this day Paulette would like to learn his identity.
Within two days of us mentioning that, Paulette tells me, she had heard from people in three different countries -- Belgium, Israel, and the Netherlands -- and newspapers in both Belgium and Holland had picked up the story.
Since then, we've worked with Paulette to piece together information from people who knew her parents, as well as newspaper archives and other official sources of historical data. Over Presidents' Day weekend, I visited with Paulette at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, and we went over some new photographs and information she'd gathered. We're still hoping to fill in a few gaps, but today we have a much clearer picture of her origins.
This is what we were able to put together.
In July 1930, a Dutch man named Sijbren de Hoo was a member of an unusual voyage. On a minesweeper named the Nautilus that had been christened just the year before, he was part of a Dutch naval expedition to the island of Jan Mayen -- a desolate, remote, and strikingly beautiful place in the Greenland Sea that is dominated by the only volcano north of the Arctic Circle, the Beerenberg.
The island had been awarded to Norway by the League of Nations just 9 years earlier, but the Dutch Navy sailed there to commemorate seven whalers from Holland who had attempted to winter on the island in 1634, but had all perished.
The trip would be arduous, even in summer, but de Hoo had prepared well. Among his things were leather items of clothing that had been especially made for him by a good friend -- a Polish man living in Belgium named Chaim Bucholc.
De Hoo had met Bucholc at some point a few years earlier, probably through an aunt who lived in Antwerp. Along with a man named Ghislain Jules de Wulf and another named Leonard Alexander Rodrigues Lopes, de Hoo and Bucholc formed a circle of friends -- they were between 25 and 30 years of age, and people who knew them described them as a tight group.
Dutch naval officials on Jan Mayen, July 1930. Judging from a photograph of him taken years later, the man on the left may be Sijbren de Hoo.
De Hoo was a man of ambition. Besides taking part in the expedition to the Arctic Ocean, he would become a local official of some importance. We know less about de Wulf. But about Rodrigues Lopes -- a Dutch Jew of Portuguese descent -- more is known. A journalist, he worked for a London newspaper, the Daily Express, and was said to be feeding British intelligence as Europe descended toward a second world war. Rodrigues Lopes would spend the 1940s fleeing one country for another and surviving a couple of assassination attempts.
But that was in the future. In 1930, Rodrigues Lopes and de Hoo and de Wulf had befriended Bucholc, a man who had emigrated from his native Poland a few years earlier. A highly skilled leatherworker, Bucholc had brought with him to Antwerp his young wife Ruchla (née Minkowski).
More than 80 years after the Nautilus sailed to Jan Mayen, de Hoo's family still remembers that he took with him special items of clothing fashioned by Bucholc. And at the time, the voyage was celebrated. De Hoo's daily diary entries were published in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, perhaps through the help of his journalist friend, Rodrigues Lopes.
Some warm clothes weren't the only items that Bucholc crafted for his friend.
Sijbren de Hoo's family still has in its possession a leather book case made by Bucholc, which gives some indication of his skill...
Throughout the 1930s, the four men remained close, even though de Hoo lived in Holland and Bucholc and Rodrigues Lopes lived in Antwerp.
Then, in 1938, de Hoo was presented with what seemed like a promising business opportunity: He was offered the position of running the famous Bata shoe factory in Warsaw. He planned on taking Bucholc with him, and even talked with Rodrigues Lopes about joining them. But doubts about conditions in Poland convinced them not to go.
The next year, as Europe was once again plunged into war, de Hoo and Rodrigues Lopes each went through divorces; Rodrigues Lopes moved to Holland, but in 1941 he returned to Belgium as conditions for Jews in Amsterdam deteriorated more rapidly than they had in Antwerp, which had fallen to the Nazis in May, 1940.
De Hoo, meanwhile, had continued to rise in Holland, and was now director of the Central Distribution Office of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and had jurisdiction over food rationing, a critical role as supplies during wartime dwindled. Increasingly, he was in a difficult position: he had to serve the Nazi occupiers to distribute food to the population, but he also wanted to help his Jewish friends, who were running out of options. (When the war ended, de Hoo was fired from his position at the Ministry for working with the occupying Germans. De Hoo defended himself in a letter, saying that his attempts to bribe Nazis to help Jewish victims was misinterpreted as his enriching the occupiers to save his own skin.)
For families like de Hoo, after the war there would always be questions about how much they had helped, or how much they had benefited as Jewish families were rounded up and sent away.
That question is enshrined in a particularly remarkable way for the de Hoo family. At the Joods Monument, a digital museum of the Dutch Jewish experience in the war, there's a stunning and rare film, secretly made, of a Jewish family being rousted out of its Leeuwarden home. In the short film, you can see the family gathering their belongings as they begin a journey to their deaths.
A still from the film that can be seen at Joods Monument
The family, in fact, were cousins to Sijbren de Hoo, and after they were sent to be killed in Auschwitz, de Hoo inherited their house. The de Hoo family lives in it to this day.
Across Holland and Belgium, that story was repeated as Jews were rounded up and sent to be transported.
And on July 22, 1942, it was Rodrigues Lopes who brought the news to his friend de Hoo that neither of them had wanted to hear.
Chaim Bucholc had been taken to a Jewish concentration camp.
Hiding, Arrests, Corruption
When Bucholc was taken away, he left behind a two-year-old daughter, Sarah, and his wife Ruchla, who was very pregnant.
In fact, just four days after Chaim was taken away, on July 26, Ruchla gave birth to their second daughter.
She was named Paula.
After receiving records confirming the dates, Paulette wept when she learned for the first time in her life that her father never actually laid eyes on her.
Chaim was likely held for only about a week at the Breendonck concentration camp before he was among some of the first Jews moved to the Dossin barracks at the new Mechelen transport center, from which Belgium's incarcerated Jews were sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp.
The Dossin barracks at Mechelen in the summer of 1942
On September 10, 1942, Chaim Bucholc was among 1,048 prisoners on Transport VIII, a train that took its passengers to Auschwitz. This early in the war, the transport would have appeared to be a normal passenger train, and not the cattle trucks that would come into use later, after the Nazis became concerned about escapes.
After leaving Mechelen, the train's cargo would arrive three days later at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-controlled Poland, where the men would be separated from women, children, and the infirm, who would be gassed right away. We don't know how long after his arrival that Chaim Bucholc was led into the gas chambers himself. He was 38 years old.
Back in Belgium, Ruchla had to rely on friends to stay hidden with her two young children, Sarah and Paula, who would come to be called Suzy and Paulette. A network of support was run by people like Chaim's friend Ghislain Jules de Wulf, about whom we know little. For three months, Ruchla and the girls managed to escape detection. But then, Ruchla was discovered.
Paulette doesn't know how she and her sister managed to stay hidden while their mother was taken away. A family legend has Ruchla being given up for a bag of sugar by a friend who betrayed her. But there's no independent confirmation of that, and accounts like the popular new book The Twentieth Train by Marion Schreiber suggest that Belgians were particularly sympathetic with what was happening to Jews inside their country. Writes Schreiber...
After the war 200,000 Belgians were acknowledged as having been active members of the Resistance. It was thanks to many of these that the chances of survival of those hunted by the Nazis in that small country were relatively high. At any rate, over 50 per cent, about 30,000 of the 56,000 Jews registered in Belgium, escaped the Holocaust. In Holland only 12 per cent did so.
However she was discovered, Ruchla was taken to Mechelen for transport. But she managed to get a handwritten note to a friend (which Paulette has seen), asking the friend to "play and be happy with the children."
"She apparently realized that she would never live to see us again," Paulette says.
Ruchla Minkowski Bucholc, prisoner 950, was sent on Transport XIV, one of 995 Jews who left for Auschwitz on October 24, 1942 to their deaths. She was 31 years old.
Paulette and Suzy continued to remain in hiding for several months. And there's evidence that one person who was making sure they were getting what they needed was a man in a position of some power.
The de Hoo family credit a Belgian official, Robert de Foy, with helping to keep the girls hidden as they were pursued. Both bureacrats, de Foy and Sijbren de Hoo would have known each other, de Hoo's family says.
Like de Hoo, Robert de Foy was in a tricky position. He had been head of the Belgian State Security Service before the war, and was sent to Germany as a prisoner. But the Nazis then sent him back to Belgium to help administer the country. In 1943, he was appointed Secretary General of the Department of Justice. After the war, however, he was not jailed by the Belgian government as it returned from exile in London, and in 1975, he was posthumously named one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem for his efforts to help Jews in Belgium. (Just recently, a new claim has been made that De Foy had been a hardliner against Jewish emigration to Belgium in the years before the war and had some 50 Jews repatriated to Germany, which should outweigh the hundreds of Jews he saved during the war itself. Yad Vashem has opened an investigation into this claim, which could apparently take years to be completed.)
Robert de Foy, 1893-1960
But even with de Foy's help, the girls were ultimately discovered by Nazi troops. On June 18, 1943, they were taken to Mechelen to await transport to Auschwitz.
Paulette was assigned to be the 843rd passenger on Transport XXI, the next train scheduled to leave.
It would be only the second transport to use windowless cattle cars to prevent escapes. (About 200 passengers managed to escape in April when the Belgian resistance derailed Transport XX about 6 miles after it left the camp.)
Now, Sijbren de Hoo and Leo Rodrigues Lopes, who had been powerless to stop the extermination of their friends Chaim and Ruchla Bucholc, began a desperate attempt to save their children.
Their one advantage, it turned out, was that the Nazi running the Dossin barracks, SS Sturmbannführer Philipp Schmitt, was as corrupt as he was brutal.
Commandant Philipp Schmitt and his dog Lump [Credit: Otto Spronk/CEGES-SOMA]
The de Hoo family says that Rodrigues Lopes had some kind of connection inside the camp -- a prisoner who was being used in the camp administration, perhaps -- and through that connection Rodrigues Lopes believed a bribe could be paid to Schmitt.
He and de Hoo worked rapidly to raise cash. De Hoo used an inheritance to come up with 100,000 Dutch Guilders, and Rodrigues Lopes somehow gathered another 10,000 of his own through friends. A wealthy man in manufacturing may also have helped contribute, as well as some Catholic organizations. The de Hoo family says that some of the cash was converted to food, bought on the black market through de Hoo's Ministry contacts -- Schmitt was apparently willing to accept a combination of such goods as well as hard cash. Other specifics are missing -- whether de Foy played a part, or another wealthy man who was said to have paid large sums to get children out of the Dossin barracks.
Rodrigues Lopes and de Hoo had very little time for their scheme to work. Not only were the girls scheduled to leave on the next transport, but Schmitt himself was so crooked, even the Nazis considered him a disaster and soon replaced him. (In fact, records show that although Schmitt was deposed in November, he had been put "on leave" by that April. But the de Hoo family says that the bribe was gathered in order to pay off Schmitt and perhaps another man named Lauterborn -- we're not positive whether this was the notorious Flemish Jew Hunter named Felix Lauterborn who was later prosecuted.)
On July 31, 1943, Transport XXI left Mechelen bound for Auschwitz with 1,553 prisoners, including 174 children, 71 of them girls.
Paulette and Suzy were not on that train. The next month, in August, a record of them appears, showing that they had been moved to an orphanage. The bribe had apparently worked.
Suzy and Paulette, at an orphanage in 1945. From Paulette's collection.
Adoption, Emigration, Safety
In 1944, there is a record of them at a second orphanage. And Paulette remembers at least two more as she became old enough to have memories of her early life.
They survived the Nazi occupation, but they had lost their parents. In 1946, Suzy was adopted by their aunt and uncle. Two years later, Paulette was adopted by the Coopers, a wealthy couple who took her to the United States.
A photo of Suzy found in the papers of Sijbren de Hoo.
"Suzy stayed in Belgium, and then married an Israeli and moved to Israel. She became a widow. During the Gulf war, I flew her over and she now lives in New York," Paulette says.
Paulette became a copywriter at a New York ad firm and a freelance magazine writer, and then an author.
Her adoptive mother died in 1995. Last month, when I visited Paulette and her husband Paul Noble, a former television executive, she showed me the small condo building next to her own where she moved her father so they could be close by. "We had breakfast and dinner with him every day for the last five years of his life. He died last summer. We were very close. I was enormously lucky," she says.
We have been piecing together what happened to the people who helped her escape Nazi extermination. Leo Rodrigues Lopes, the risk-taking journalist, managed to get himself out of Belgium and to Spain, Portugal, and eventually to London. Highly critical of the behavior of the Dutch government, he was jailed for a time on the Isle of Man. He then returned to Holland after the war and reunited with his own children, who had been in hiding. As editor of Ochtendpost, he continued to criticize the Dutch and British governments for their conduct of the war. He also survived two assassination attempts.
Rodrigues Lopes was working on a book that he intended to expose the Dutch government's war record when he died of a heart attack in 1952. His manuscript was never published.
For several years, until 1949, he had been living in the house his friend Sijbren de Hoo inherited during the war.
Leo Rodrigues Lopes
In 1960, Paulette traveled to Europe with her parents. In Belgium, they were told an old man who was dying wanted to see her. She has only a dim memory of it, but she remembers meeting an ill older man who had medals pinned on his pajamas. She was told he had saved many children during the war, and had wanted to see them again.
On the ship home, she and her parents received word that the man had died. Today, she now realizes that it was Robert de Foy.
Sijbren de Hoo, the man who traveled to the Arctic with Chaim Bucholc's leather garments and who held on to the book case his friend made for him, suffered ill health after 1960, and died in 1965.
Sijbren de Hoo (the Dutch would pronounce it "de HOE")
The de Hoo family, who were one of several to get in touch with Paulette after seeing stories in Belgian and Dutch newspapers, have mailed to her the leather case that Paulette's father made for his friend.
She expects it to arrive today or tomorrow.
UPDATE: And here's a photo we are very happy to append to this story...
Paulette says her father's initials, "CB," are on the case. "It is probably the only thing my father ever made that has lived on -- besides my sister and me."
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.