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Aug 2001 Journal

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Anglo-Jewry and the Refugees from the Continent

Among the Jewish refugees from Hitler who came into contact with British Jews very early were those young women who had come to Britain as domestic servants – one of the categories of refugee to whom entry visas were most readily granted – and found themselves working in Anglo-Jewish homes. Astonishingly enough, this area has been almost completely ignored by the scholars who have worked on the Jewish refugees from Hitler in Britain. For example, Professor Tony Kushner’s powerful account of the plight of those who came to Britain on domestic permits, An Alien Occupation, contains one solitary sentence on the treatment endured by refugee domestics in Jewish households. To read Kushner, one would think that the ladies who mistreated their refugee servants were all gentile British and that none were Anglo-Jewish. This is plainly far from the case. On the contrary, it is obvious that many young refugee women would have been domestics in Anglo-Jewish households. Firstly, because such households would have been more likely than their gentile counterparts to take on Jewish refugee maidservants, out of a sense of duty and being better informed about the plight of the Jews under Nazi rule; and secondly because the refugee women, or their families who made arrangements for them, naturally often aimed for positions in Jewish homes.

But for academics like Kushner, who are primarily concerned to highlight the poor treatment of the refugees by the British, any evidence of hostility between the refugees and Anglo-Jewry is an unwelcome diversion, since it threatens to obscure the supposedly clear division between the refugee Jewish ethnic minority and an intolerant, xenophobic and latently antisemitic British majority. The subject of conflict between the Jewish refugees from Central Europe and British Jews is virtually taboo for such scholars.

Callous Indifference

I have gathered material about refugee domestics in Anglo-Jewish households, and by and large it tells a sorry tale of exploitation, insensitivity and a lack of compassion often verging on callousness. Of course, many refugees had positive experiences of Anglo-Jewry and many developed close ties with that community. But it did not take many cases of bad treatment in the early days to embitter relations between the two groups permanently. The experiences of two former domestics with whom I conducted interviews are cases in point. Both came to London from Vienna as very young women not long before the war and both endured a succession of truly dreadful jobs in Anglo-Jewish homes. What struck me was not so much the humiliating drudgery, poor wages, demeaning treatment and squalid conditions: these would have been the lot of servants everywhere, in Vienna or Berlin as well as in England. Far worse was the lack of basic human compassion shown by fellow Jews to persecuted co-religionists, helpless young women desperately concerned about their families trapped in Nazi Austria. One was offered a job by a wealthy Jewish lady, but on condition that she never spoke about Hitler or her family in Vienna; when she asked another employer to act as guarantor for her mother and brother, he shouted at her and told her that she was asking him to sign his own death warrant. When her brother did get to England, he was forbidden to enter the house. Her mother never got out.

The other young woman was the victim of a cruel deception. To stop her handing in her notice, her employers promised to bring over her sister and mother. When her sister arrived and refused to work for the family because of the appalling conditions, it emerged that the employers had not made an application for her mother, and now had no intention of doing anything. Given the shortage of time before the war, this sealed her mother’s fate. That a Jewish family should sabotage the last chance of a young Jewish refugee’s mother to escape from the Nazis, pocketing her wages into the bargain, is shocking. Clearer evidence of the lack of natural bonding between the two groups of Jews would be hard to find.

Cultural Divide

Part of the problem lay in the fact that the Anglo-Jewish hosts, though reasonably affluent, were still only on a relatively lowly rung of the British social ladder, and that the level of sophistication in such lower middle-class households compared unfavourably with the emphasis on culture and education in Continental Jewish homes. My interviewees encountered levels of ignorance and even illiteracy that astounded them, not to speak of habits of personal hygiene that led one former refugee domestic to remark that whenever she began to like her employers, she only had to walk up the stairs close behind them for liking and respect to evaporate. Another interviewee, who after the war worked with a Jewish fund-raising organisation, commented that the local committees were composed of volunteers who included magnates from the financial and property worlds, but who had little interest in the musical and artistic high culture in which the refugees were steeped. Wealthy British Jews might be seen at the socially prestigious opera, but not at the theatre or at concerts, whereas for the refugees the Wigmore Hall became something of a cultural Mecca. This difference in interests proved a real barrier to closer social interaction. The ascent of British Jews up the social scale took place under a system of values quite different from that of the Continental Jews, accentuating the divide between the two groups.
Dr Anthony Grenville

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