Aug 2009 Journal

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History lived in Selsey-on-Sea

There are certain public events - whether they affect our private lives directly or indirectly or not at all - that remain forever etched on our minds. For us Austrian Jews, one such was, of course, the Anschluss. More generally, in the second half of the 20th century, most people remember the exact circumstances in which they found themselves when they heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Princess Diana’s death. And my guess is that Barack Obama’s inauguration in the first decade of the 21st century will have a similar impact.

For all of us old enough to remember, 3 September 1939 will surely remain unforgettable. At the time, I had quite the most unpleasant job (my sixth) since my arrival in England. I was working as a house-parlour-maid for a family of three - an elderly couple and their gutless, unmarriageable daughter - in Claygate, Surrey. The cook-general, Paula, was a non-Jewish Austrian professional servant who helped me in every possible way. The couple actually referred to each other as ‘the master’ and ‘the mistress’ when they addressed us, the servants. The ‘mistress’ hated my guts. (The feeling was mutual.) It says much for the desperation for servants of the British middle class at the time that she put up with me at all.

Some time in August, the entire household moved to Selsey-on-Sea near Chichester for a break by the sea. At 11 o’clock on 3 September, Paula and I were summoned to the drawing room to listen to Mr Chamberlain’s solemn announcement: ‘This country is at war with Germany.’ Barely a year earlier, the very same Mr Chamberlain had promised ‘peace in our time.’

My feelings on hearing this news were confused. On the one hand, I knew that war was a bad thing - that people would get killed - and, on a personal level, I feared for the safety of my stepmother and that of my relatives and friends who were still in Vienna and with whom I would no longer be able to communicate. On the other hand, I reasoned, the Allies would surely defeat Hitler in no time and I would be able to return home, to a normal life. I believe my overriding emotion was one of relief. I had conveniently forgotten that the last war - der Weltkrieg as it was referred to in my childhood and in which my father had served - had lasted for four long years although everyone had expected it to be over by Christmas. Nor could I foresee the unspeakable horrors that awaited Jews in Nazi-occupied territories.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, things came to a head between the ‘mistress’ and myself. Her constant nagging and bullying finally wore me down and, in today’s parlance, I ‘lost it.’ The details escape me but somehow the police got involved and I remember sobbing ‘She treats her dog better than she treats me.’ Paula, to her credit, stood loyally by me although, politically naïve, she had complained, almost tearfully, that everyone ‘had it in’ for Germany. The police must have felt that I had a case and needed a rest. Incredibly, although I was technically already an enemy alien, they found me lodgings with a maternal woman, with whom I stayed until my money ran out.
The weather was perfect. I swam in the sea every day and became acquainted with the eating habits of the English working class. I came to love hot roast on Sunday, cold roast on Monday, and shepherd’s pie on Tuesday.

My next stop was Exeter, where, a few months and three jobs later, my inglorious career as a domestic servant finally ended. At the same time, the war that was to claim 61 million lives, of which 6 million were European Jews murdered by the Nazis, started in earnest.

Edith Argy

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