Dec 2007 Journal

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Danger! Enemy Alien!

By the beginning of 1940, English women began to join the Armed Forces, and vacancies arose in factories and offices. Consequently, the Home Office relaxed the stringent conditions of employment under which we were allowed to remain in England, and I got myself a job as an invoice typist with a firm of printers in Exeter.

I had moved into the home of a German woman, the widow of an Englishman, who let a few rooms and provided full board for £1 a week. My salary was 25/- a week, from which 1/6d was deducted for, I suppose, tax and national insurance. This left me with 3/6d net – not a great deal even in those days. To augment my income, I gave German lessons to a couple of doctors’ wives two evenings a week. They had not experienced my domestic skills first-hand but knew of them by reputation and probably felt I couldn’t possibly be a worse teacher than I had been a servant. They were right.

The firm I worked for was owned by a family of devout Baptists who did all they could to befriend me. They asked me to tea at weekends, and a maiden aunt (every family had one then) sometimes drove me to the near-by seaside. But there was a small price to pay for their kindness. The poor people were bent on saving my soul and asked me to accompany them to chapel rather too often for my liking. Alas, my soul has always been stubbornly resistant to proselytisers of any persuasion, including ultra-orthodox Jews. .

Just as I had contentedly settled in my job, in the spring of 1940, the authorities decided that I lived too close to the coast and, despite my employers’ protestations, they conveyed me, together with a bunch of other dangerous female Jewish ‘enemy aliens’, to a Rowton House in Taunton, Somerset. Although my Chambers Biographical Dictionary tells me that Montague William Lowry-Corry Rowton (1838-1903) ‘devoted his time and money to the provision of decent cheap accommodation for working men’, the institution we were sent to seemed more like a Dickensian workhouse - a refuge for the flotsam and jetsam of society. There were children and old people and confused people – all poor and apparently unwanted.

We were housed in a large dormitory and the food was appalling. Nevertheless, we had quite a good time there. A Quaker lady volunteered to organise walks and even arranged an excursion to Wells Cathedral. I used my unexpected leisure to adapt the shorthand I had learned at school for use in English.

Right at the start of the war we had been issued with gas masks, and the blackout regulations were rigidly enforced – much to the anguish of Rosie Bergmann (sister of Richard, the table-tennis wunderkind, world champion at 17) who suffered from claustrophobia – but any air-raid warnings at that time were promptly followed by the reassuring all-clear. (Over half a century later, by an extraordinary coincidence, a woman got talking to me at a bus stop in Willesden Lane, and it emerged not only that we were both native Austrians and had been in Taunton at the same time, but also that we had both worked in Munich for the US Army after the war. She was to call it our ‘me too’ conversation.)
Eventually, so everybody tells me – although I have no recollection of this whatsoever - I must have appeared before a tribunal. Be that as it may, all of us at Rowton House metamorphosed from ‘enemy alien’ to ‘refugee from Nazi oppression’ and were free to go anywhere we liked. Once again I headed for London, just in time for the Blitz.

Edith Argy

previous article:The British and the Mandate
next article:A small cemetery in Bohemia