World War II-era novels, both fiction and nonfiction, offer readers insights and glimpses into life during that particularly turbulent and brutal period of human history.
Joining that popular genre is “Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” the true story of an unlikely heroine written by award-winning journalist and author Arthur J. Magida. The book was recently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the biography/autobiography category.
Published by W.W. Norton & Co., “Code Name Madeleine” was released on June 9 and chronicles the life of Noor Inayat Khan, the Moscow-born daughter of an American mother and an Indian father who grew up in a posh Parisian suburb in the aftermath of World War I. Khan’s father, a member of a prominent Muslim family, was the founder of the Sufi Order, a form of Islamic mysticism, in the West.
“Noor is the exception to so many rules,” says Magida, a longtime Mount Washington resident who appeared at a virtual book launch event June 24 hosted by The Ivy Bookshop. “She was the exception to the rule that women can’t be fighters, that women are weak or that people who engage in spiritual activities are barely in this world. Noor defies all expectations, is incredibly and unexpectedly strong and embodies the best of spirituality, religion and faith.”
When World War II broke out and France was overrun by Nazi forces, Khan and her family fled to England, where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and learned how to operate a wireless telegraph. She was soon noticed by the British espionage, reconnaissance and aid organization known as the Special Operations Executive for her linguistic skills, and was recruited to be a part of that agency.
The SOE trained Khan to be a spy, gave her the code name of “Madeleine” and in the dead of night sent her back to Paris, where she managed to stay ahead of the Nazis for months. Her communiques back to London played a critical role in the war effort and significantly aided the Allied forces landing at Normandy on D-Day.
Captured by the Nazis in October of 1943, Khan was imprisoned, tortured, attempted a pair of daring escapes and spent 10 months in solitary confinement before being transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. She was executed there by the Gestapo on Sept. 13, 1944, with three other female agents, at the age of 30.
“Noor could have easily stayed in England when she got there in 1940, but she wanted to do more and did do more,” says Magida. “Everything Noor did was part of tikkun olam [the Jewish precept of repairing the world] from a Sufi perspective. Her father once said being an angel is not difficult [but] being a human with all its messiness is difficult. He was saying we are here to serve and get our hands messy. Noor fully recognized her humanness and her responsibility to others.”
Magida was first introduced to Khan’s story in 2014 through a PBS documentary titled, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.” But what initially drew his attention was Khan’s father.
“I read and write about different faiths and was familiar with Hazrat Inayat Khan, the famous, influential mystic,” says Magida, 74. “I was about halfway through the documentary when his name was mentioned, and at that point I couldn’t resist learning more about how his daughter became a secret agent during the Second World War.”
To thoroughly research the biography, Magida traveled to Europe three times and conducted nearly 100 interviews, including with the mother superior of a convent located at Dachau, a woman who served in the resistance movement during the war and a handful of Khan’s family members.
“Before my interview with Noor’s nephew, I emailed to ask if there were any Sufi teachings that may have sustained Noor in that horrible prison,” Magida says. “He sent me a verse from [the Hindu scripture known as the] Bhagavad Gita. I also have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that I hadn’t opened for maybe 25 or 30 years. At that point, I opened mine to the same verse, which I had bracketed all those years ago.
“I very tentatively say perhaps Noor was speaking to me in some matter when I put those brackets around the verse.”
Magida — whose previous works include “Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation” (Basic Books) and “The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle” (St. Martin’s Press) — says he hopes Khan’s story might someday hit the big screen.
“I’ve been in talks with a few film producers,” he says. “Noor’s lessons are too important for us not to learn from. This is a story we can all benefit from, both morally and spiritually.”
For information about The Ivy Bookshop’s virtual book launch event for “Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” visit https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_-N7sNNiKSfCwT_5M4J96KA.