Pictured top row: JLNO President-Elect, Alice Glenn, JLNO President, Kristen Koppel, NCJW Leaders Barbara Kaplinsky and Karen Sher. Pictured bottom row: Janet Bean, Anne Levy , Nicole Spangenberg and Joyce Pulitzer.
“A woman is like a tea bag- you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt, Junior League member
Junior League prides itself on empowering smart, independent, successful women to channel those traits into improving their communities, but arguably the most critical characteristic to elicit change is courage.
On March 21, the Junior League of New Orleans, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National World War II Museum hosted Anne Levy and Nicole Spangenberg at a lecture titled Women of Courage. The stories of how they survived World War II are harrowing, but at their core lay an inspiring message of what we are capable of when we are brave.
Nicole Spangenberg was merely 10 years old when she saw her French classmates being forced to wear yellow stars identifying themselves as Jewish. She and a friend asked their mothers to sew the same star on their coats as a show of solidarity.
“They declined, thinking it was a little too imprudent,” said Nicole. “Just the fact that they were made to stand out infuriated us, and yes; it was to defy the Germans.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that in the years to follow, Nicole would find herself allied with the French Resistance forces, leaving her family behind and becoming an impromptu nurse tending to young fighters, injured either by German infantry or in attempts to sabotage railways, bridges and German arms depots. These men were complete strangers to her, and yet she never hesitated to do what needed to be done, all for the greater cause. Nearly 70 years later, Nicole was honored for her bravery with the Legion of Honor medal bestowed by the U.S. French Ambassador.
Nicole’s impressive civic participation in New Orleans sprang from this sense of involvement at such a young age. When pressed to explain how to encourage others to become helpers, Nicole simply stated, “When bad things happen, you don’t think. You just do.” Bravery can be born out of inspiration or necessity.
Anne Levy was living in Poland when the Axis powers invaded. Attempting to flee their home to join her mother’s family, her family ended up in the Warsaw ghetto. After two years, her family escaped and was taken in, at great personal risk, by a Catholic woman who claimed they were her relatives.
Her mother did not have traditionally Jewish features, so she was able to blend in. One day, she came upon a warehouse selling possessions that had been taken by the Germans during raids of Jewish homes. She was forced to smile and agree when those around her made snide comments about the items previous owners. As outraged as she may have been, speaking out would have had devastating consequences for her family. Courage comes in all forms.
Anne, on the other hand, was easily recognizable as Jewish, so she and her sister Lila spent most of their childhood silent and scared, hiding or on the run from Nazis. They hid in cellars, attics, armoires or wherever they were told, and at age six, she never made a sound.
This experience shaped Anne’s future community activism. She struggled to embrace her appearance and her European accent once she arrived in the U.S., desperately wanting to assimilate as a new American. But in time, Anne found herself reaching out to children the same age as she was during the war, sharing a message of self-acceptance, telling them, “As much as we want to change our own looks, you are who you are when you’re born.” Self-confidence is the first step towards becoming a strong, brave and courageous individual.
She also found herself speaking out against then-candidate David Duke during his run for Louisiana Governor, rallying against his infamous past. “We are individuals, and we have to be tolerant of people other than ourselves,“ Anne said, adding, “We are all responsible to speak up for our country for things that affect all of us. Women today have the right to fight for their future and speak up for the wrongs when they see it.”
The torch has been passed.