THOUGH HER mother was an American the girl was born in the Kremlin, where her father, a native of India, was instructing Tsar Nicholas II in the Sufi religion. After the Tsar’s abdication, throughout her teens she lived in France, and she grew to love the French people. It was for them, ultimately, that she would give her life. A young girl in Moscow, she’d been enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s ballet suites; now she loved listening to Debussy and Satie. Living in Paris, she visited the Louvre, the markets, the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens in flower or not.
She was enthralled by Les Miserables. She read Aesop and La Fontaine. She read Balzac and Stendhal studiously, Rilke devoutly, and a new discovery, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, with passion. Soon she began writing animal tales and tender fables. In her mid-twenties she read these gentle stories to children, but only on the radio. Noor Inayat Khan (her father had chosen her Islamic name: ‘Light of Womanhood’) was too shy to perform in person.
In 1940 the Second World War already was bludgeoning Europe. Germany had seized Czechoslovakia and Poland before the year began; Norway and Denmark were soon occupied, and now Hitler’s blitzkrieg—a ‘lightning war’ in which attacking air power, tanks, and infantry were coordinated with devastating effect—had struck Belgium and Holland. Initially, both nations were neutral, they were not at war with Germany. But the Wehrmacht was at war with them. They were Hitler’s means of evading the Maginot line and invading France, not from the east, as was feared, but from the north. Each day Noor read in Le Monde that fighting in the Low Countries was fierce and desperate, especially in Belgium. But both countries soon were overwhelmed by the superior numbers, ruthless planning, and weaponry of the invading Germans.
Fearing the wrath of Hitler’s war machine, which was much better equipped and coordinated than its own fractious military force, France officially capitulated. A resistance movement—at first a loose association of nationalists, socialists, anarchists, and communists, often at odds with each other—formed an alliance of cells and fought on. Then, suddenly, a unit of heavily armed Nazi storm troopers seized Radio Paris. Overnight her place of employment was converted into an instrument for broadcasting Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda and Marshal Petain’s lifeless collaborationist addresses, and Noor Inayat Khan fled to London.
Two years before the arrival of the German army in Paris—first the motorcycles, their sirens wailing to clear the way for a procession of trucks bristling with weapons and festooned with swastika flags, rumbling down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, then the tanks, followed by battalions of troops goose-stepping into the silent city—she had read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with its deeply troubling prophecy: “Liberation and development of the individual are not the key to our age, they are not what our age demands. What it needs, what it wrestles after, what it will create—is Terror.”
She was a small woman with a wreath of dark hair and large dark eyes. Their shadowed gaze, amid her ‘cloud-like complexion’, lent her a look of perpetual wonder that masked a keen and able mind. Like her father who’d raised her, Noor was a Sufi—the Muslim sect outlawed by an edict of the German government—and like him she believed love and compassion were the only weapons worthy of our nature.
Like her father, too, she shared a devout political sympathy with Gandhi; she envisioned a world at peace, and she vowed—even among her new-found friends in England—that one day she’d help India, by nonviolent action, gain its independence from British rule. Feeling that she was a refugee in Britain, Noor didn’t wish to be ungrateful, so she expressed these views only if she was directly asked for them. But her customary silence on the subject of the war misled many to assume she had no political awareness or conviction. In time they learned differently. For the German bombing of London, with its terrorist intent, broke her heart.
Enlisting in the RAF, she was promptly recruited by the French Section of British Intelligence. Its headquarters was located in sedately wooded Bletchley Park, a Victorian estate snugly settled in central England. There she took on a fictitious identity while she was trained in telegraphy and cryptography. Code name: Madeleine.
Already fluent in four languages, she earned promotion rapidly. However, though she was now equipped with an espionage agent’s training and mission, and was a member of a deeply dedicated force, her fundamental demeanor had remained pensive and modest. Colleagues who knew her only slightly thought she was trustworthy but timid. One who worked with her daily thought she’d become a Buddhist, at heart, because she observed a balance of effort and acceptance on the wheel of life. And while all agreed she was a stunning beauty, not all approved. “Where can we hide a girl who looks like that?” asked an older man. “Where can she possibly go unnoticed?”
“She’s a splendid, vague, dreamy creature,” another agent complained to all who’d listen: “How in the name of hell will she endure torture?”
Late one night in mid-June of 1943, a small monoplane took off from a pasture in Sussex. The craft had been painted dull black to disguise it from German pilots flying ME-109s over the English Channel. Now it flew low over the choppy waters, often no more than a hundred feet above the whitecaps, then it hedgehopped its way inland, finally dropping Madeleine into a field that was supposed to be illuminated by flares but, oddly, wasn’t. Her reception committee had failed to arrive. Though they’d been instructed to travel separately to the site, and to arrive early enough to make contact with each other and to scout the area, not one of them appeared. The Gestapo, through the capture and torture of these operatives and others held in the bloody basement chambers of the Place des Etats-Unis, already had learned her code name and the date of her arrival. Only the exact location was unknown to them on that night. Making her way to a railway station, Madeleine now traveled by train to Paris, her former home, bearing a passport that read pianist. An English pun: she worked with keys.
At last a contact led her to a safe house in the city. Where each day brought more distressing news. Within a week she learned that her entire cadre of agents, all who’d gathered information for the highly effective PROSPER network, couriers who passed it along, and those who, like Madeleine, were transmitters for British Intelligence, had been exposed and arrested. Almost from the beginning of her assignment in Paris, her secret role was compromised and she was left to function alone. Her superior officers at Bletchley, and in London among the Baker Street Irregulars, sought to bring her back to England while her life could still be spared, but she refused to abandon her assignment. To their urgent appeals she replied that if they should cancel her orders, still she would not leave France—she would remain and join one of the French underground cells—believing that her withdrawal would be an act of betrayal.
Madeleine dressed plainly in muted autumnal colors, and when she left the safe house she hid herself among crowds in the Metro stations or at a busy outdoor market—the last of the season—and once she went to a racetrack. Longchamps was temporarily closed but at Autueil she kept moving through the shifting throng. She thought the jockeys looked smart and surly in their silks. She loved seeing the high-strung eager horses parading onto the oval track; she thought they were proud, beautiful, and mysterious. But she viewed them on tiptoe among a mass of spectators in the grandstand. She had no interest in betting on them, and she dared not approach the paddock, where she feared being noticed. Twice she went alone to a large and popular cinema that had reopened near the Champs-Elysees. One day emerging from a crowd in the Gare d’Orsay she noticed, on the streets, the Germans’ cars were so rigorously polished that they gleamed.
After forming a new and fragile network of operatives, each night for four months Madeleine waited until precisely twelve o’clock—it was then 11:00 p.m. in London—to begin sending her coded messages. Terse reports of food shortages. Locations of hidden fuel supplies; camouflaged anti-aircraft installations. News of the requisitioning of river barges by the German military. Directions of troop movements. The routes of petroleum-bearing trucks. Progress—if any—with recruiting new agents. And, finally, her pressing request for explosives. A guerilla unit of the Resistance had found the sewers in which the Germans stored torpedoes for their U-boats.
Working in the region of the French underground which suffered the highest incidence of capture and death for its espionage agents, and knowing hers was the last signal still alive in this center, she set out each day to enlarge her circle of contacts, then returned through the damp and quiet streets to her temporary quarters, where she transmitted to London each night. Meanwhile she was hunted from street to street. Moving quickly and quietly, she managed to slip free just as each safe house was about to be exposed.
Usually she’d been placed in a small upstairs room with access to a toilet, and she rigged the pull-chain to serve as an antenna. She thought first in French now. She translated in her mind to English, then encrypted her messages in codes that were numerical, alphabetical, or a combination of the two, and transmitted the result on an out-of-the-way frequency. Finished, she tore her notes into tiny pieces; she soaked these in the toilet bowl, readjusted the pull-chain, and flushed them.
At night she couldn’t see the street below because of the heavy blackout curtain covering the window. She would hear the local policeman, a Frenchman, most likely born and raised in the city he now protected for its conquerors—or it might be the sector warden making certain that the blackout was not violated in his neighborhood—the clop clop of his boots louder as he approached the house, then receding as he withdrew into the muffling distance.
However, on the late October night when she heard the finely tuned Mercedes idling beneath her window, its steel-plated doors sliding open, Madeleine understood she’d been betrayed by her frightened hosts and given over to the Gestapo. Only the Nazis had such cars.
Like other agents from her section she’d been taught how to fire a pistol, how to slash and stab with a knife, and where the work of a knife could be most effective. If capture was unavoidable, she was provided with a cyanide capsule she could crush between her teeth. Back at Bletchley, where the outward appearance of innocuous comfort served to disguise a sharp focus on reality in an agent’s training, she’d been warned that her capture would lead to interrogation under torture, and, regardless of her responses, certain execution. But on this autumn night, working within the heart of Paris, she was caught unarmed and was easily overpowered. She had no opportunity to signal Bletchley about her arrest. But they’d soon suspect the worst. Three successive nights of silence spelled disaster. As with a pilot lost at sea, after four days and nights there could be little hope of survival.
She went quietly with her Gestapo captors into their smoothly purring car. That fragrance. Were two of them—not the driver but the others—wearing cologne? Bay rum. Strange how some Germans always wanted to be in France—God lives in France, Bismarck lamented—but didn’t want to be like the French. Their Nazi leaders, Hitler especially, actually thought they emulated English gentlemen, the sort who belonged to hunting clubs. Wore tweed jackets when they rode their horses. Without a word from Madeleine these men delivered her to their five-story command center at 74 Avenue Foch.
The first interrogating officer wore a weighty Walther –P-38 side arm and the black uniform of the Gestapo, accentuated by his tight-fitting and highly polished black boots, snug black leather belt, and two black leather bands crisscrossing his shirtfront, so that he, himself, resembled a weapon firmly secured in its holster.
Though he’d stripped her before he grilled her, searching her clothing for clues—which fabrics had been used; with what telltale stitches were they sewn; where had the buttons been manufactured—hidden behind her eyes the identity of Madeleine went undiscovered. To every question she responded with a remote silence, as though her soul were a well and no voice disturbed the surface that concealed its depth. Which orders had been intercepted? Codes broken? What background could she provide concerning new agents at Bletchley? Their fluency in languages? Their travel history? Prewar occupations? No reply. The beatings that concluded each session almost killed her, but she was revived for further examination.
Clearly she was not the only prisoner being questioned here; a fact they hoped might induce cooperation. No effort was made to mute the screams from an adjoining room.
That their captive—diminutive, frail, easily frightened—survived torture for so many months surprised not only a succession of Gestapo-trained interrogators, but also her colleagues at Bletchley and in Baker Street, astonished to learn from trusted sources that she was alive, but helpless to retrieve her. Many had thought she was a tenderhearted creature overly fond of fairy-tales; a woman dwelling so deeply in her dream-world that she couldn’t possibly cope with the warring world around her. Only the few who’d known her best could have counted on the role her character would play in these confrontations.
We can understand Madeleine’s astonishing endurance only if we recognize that, like her political idealism, which included the principle of active non-resistance, it was nourished by her spiritual nature. Though the religious view of the Persian Sufi is essentially joyful and celebratory—as demonstrated by its musicians, poets, and dervishes—at its foundation is an understanding of life that is sorrowful, producing a spiritual depth, or hal, which is felt as a profound melancholy or duende, an active and intense soulfulness. (Garcia Lorca once remarked that reading a poem written with duende is like being baptized with black water.) Underlying this sorrowful state is the individual’s conscious awareness of being separate from the surrounding world, with its comforts and wars, its joy and terror. And there is the compensatory belief—also applicable to Madeleine—that injuries and torments sustained in the material world will make the soul stronger.
In captivity she taught herself, through constant repetition, to distance her mind from the injuries she suffered at the hands of her torturers. They proceeded on the conviction that any woman was potentially hysterical; if she were subjected to enough torment—pain and degradation—in time her defenses would break down. They were practiced at inflicting excruciating pain on the surface of the victim’s body and internally, but Madeleine learned to isolate the pain, keeping it local by concentrating on the afflicted region and letting the pain master it. Her practice of non-resistance never lessened the intensity of her torment but it enabled her to restrict it, and thus to bear it. No technique, no life-time affinity with Gandhi, could diminish her suffering. It would be present every day. But her soulfulness, thought to be a frailty of her nature, helped her to survive it.
Madeleine, when she was conscious, stared at her guards with wide-eyed horror. They were members of the Schutzstaffen, the paramilitary security service known as SS, a fiercely devoted unit whose intelligence chief, Reinhard Heydrich, was immensely valued by Hitler. It was Heydrich who, by means of skillful forgeries, had deceived Josef Stalin and masterminded the purges that devastated the Red Army by removing most of its qualified officers prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. One of the few people to command the Fuhrer’s total trust, he was a vicious psychopath dedicated to exploring and practicing various strategies of espionage, forgery, interrogation, torture, and execution.
Twice Madeleine attempted to escape from her top-floor cell by leaping across the slate roof of the building. But each time the SS, zealous guardians of the Gestapo offices, dragged her back by her hair. After her second attempt she was dispatched to the prison compound. There she was branded “particularly dangerous” because her stillness was unfathomable.
Kept naked for the next ten months in a stock-pen, with both wrists clasped to her ankles, she was visited by officers at any hour, day or night. Threatened, ravished, once again interrogated: Which covert agents had been trained with her? What were the dates of their landings? Which contact groups were still intact in Paris? In the vital port of Marseilles? Which saboteurs were known to her? How had they obtained their explosives? Their maps? Which alternate landing fields might now be used? Portable transmitters—were they all as compact and lightweight as hers, or had hers been specially designed for her small physique? To this last question they already knew the answer; they’d captured many agents operating larger, bulkier equipment. But they pursued the question to test her truthfulness. A standard practice that in this case failed its purpose. She replied only with her large eyes luminous and appalled.
Throughout her captivity Madeleine was interrogated, guarded, escorted, brutalized, by physically imposing men who were heavily armed, far in excess of what might be needed to intimidate or control her. Daily they threatened her with a display of force that seems ludicrous until we recognize that it implies their fear of her. She’d come to be considered an incomprehensible creature, and for that reason, even when in prison, in chains, she was dangerous and feared.
Though Madeleine had been able to survive these months of captivity, she could draw on nothing in her training, nothing but the faith of her childhood, to banish her fears. In fact she was terrified. But her daily study of the progression of her pain taught her that once it became diffuse a stage of numbness would follow. This understanding led her to believe that even the worst physical torment—unlike her sense of shame—was endurable.
As before, the beatings were futile work. Slowly she demonstrated that, contrary to their conviction, no amount of torture or humiliation could make her talk. In the first weeks her refusal to speak had seemed willful and its effect was maddening, inciting harsher violence. But in time her captors accepted her silence, and in her presence they grew speechless too, oddly imitating her resistance, as they continued their work. Now the uniformed SS, with silver lightning bolts decorating their lapels, stepped quietly around her in their freshly blacked boots. They fed her, washed her with a hose, then left her shackled in isolation. Without a word their unwanted prisoner with her fund of secrets passed another month in the cold compound.
Eventually designated for removal from the prison, Madeleine was consigned to Nacht und Nebel; Rueckkehr Unerwuenscht—Night and Fog; Return Not Required. The words were Hitler’s own, a judgment implying final transport and a death sentence. She’d been the first woman telegraphist to transmit from France on behalf of British Intelligence and the French Resistance. Now she became the first British agent transported to a Nazi death camp.
Still in chains but accompanied by a black-shirted officer wearing his hefty side arm, cumbersome when he’s seated, and by a trooper equipped with a rifle and an automatic pistol, their troublesome charge was driven to Bavaria, to be registered in the concentration camp at Dachau. Where her daily terror came to a violent end. But not quite immediately.
In the heart of the sadist sits a little bookkeeper who insists that each victim must be accounted for; whatever the struggle, it appears to be a kind of scorekeeping that almost convinces him he is winning. Upon her arrival at Dachau, Madeleine was so debilitated by palsy that she was incapable of standing, even if she’d been unchained. She was registered for admission to the camp while she remained crouching in the back of the car. Then the question arose: Who was to be her executioner? Finally, even in these matters rank asserts its privileges. When the necessary papers had been signed, Madeleine was hauled to the floodlit crematorium, set down by the door, and shot, first by the officer and then by the trooper.
In 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War, Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the rare tribute of the George Cross, Britain’s highest honor for valor. Now nearly sixty years have passed since that day when she arrived in chains at the crematorium. Still her life and her death raise for us a question that is as personal as it is moral.
Was she wrong about our nature?
No act but love, she thought, is true to the soul, which is eternal and befriends us like the starry sky.
In the non-Muslim world of the west we hardly acknowledge cosmology; we think it has little relevance to our spiritual life. But it was central to hers—a concept of spirit sheltering us and nurturing us like the vault of the sky. A presence to be trusted. The love of this nurturing spirit is to be brought among us like water carried from a well that has no limit to its depth—this fundamental lesson her father had taught her as a child. Twenty years later she’d continued sending secret data from occupied France knowing her circle of operatives in Paris and throughout the surrounding countryside had been arrested and she would be next. She’d argued then, with friends among the French Resistance, that because she was the lone telegrapher still transmitting from the city she must not return to England when offered a final opportunity to escape.
Thirty-six hours later she was being escorted into the central headquarters of the Gestapo in Paris. A year of painful and humiliating torture was followed by isolation; then a brutal death. Week by week, throughout this same time, numerous other agents were seized from more remote locations and executed as the Nazis sought to quell all resistance, and in particular all acts of espionage, by an example of terror. Yet how many others—agents and civilians; men, women, and children—lived on because she would not speak?
Her sacrifice has been recognized. And, perhaps because of its rarity, all but forgotten. Then how are we to comprehend it—how do we come to understand it—except on her own terms? Her soul, throughout her last year of intense suffering, had remained the deep well which, since her youthful instruction, she had believed it to be. It was a well that contained, simultaneously, the night’s vast heaven above her and the limitless one within her—the two in a quiet but constant communion with each other. And still they are together, like father and daughter, for she is one with the silence and the dark.