Dec 2008 Journal

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‘Underpaid, underfed and overworked’: Refugees in domestic service

Last month’s front-page article was devoted to the Jewish refugees who came to Britain on Kindertransports. Far less attention has been focused on another group of refugees, who were admitted to Britain for menial purposes and whose image does not tug at the public heartstrings as does that of the rescued children: the thousands of Jews from Germany and Austria, predominantly women, who were admitted to Britain as domestic servants. Many of them were young women barely older than the Kindertransportees.

The British authorities permitted refugees who had found positions as domestic servants to enter the country to work. Consequently, especially under the conditions of intensified persecution of 1938-39, Jews from the Reich sought desperately to find domestic positions, for themselves or for daughters too old to qualify for the Kindertransports. Advertisements appeared in large numbers in the Jewish Chronicle and in papers like The Times appealing for positions in British households for Jews trapped in Germany and Austria. They make pitiful reading today because of the evident desperation of those advertising their services, who were sometimes middle-class, mature and educated people prepared to clutch at any straw, however demeaning, to escape the Nazis.

Unlike the Kindertransport children, the admission of domestic servants can hardly be seen as a humanitarian gesture as it was plainly aimed at satisfying the demand for domestic labour in British middle-class households. Professor Tony Kushner has argued this point forcefully in his aptly titled article ‘An Alien Occupation – Jewish Refugees and Domestic Service in Britain, 1933-1948’, which appeared in the volume Second Chance: Two Centuries of German-speaking Jews in the United Kingdom (1991). Kushner estimates that as many as 20,000 refugees came as domestic servants.

Responsibility for refugee domestic servants rested with the Ministry of Labour until late 1938, when it was taken over by the Home Office; as the latter was less influenced by trade unions wishing to keep immigrant labour out of Britain, the change benefited the refugees. But the wage rates for domestics remained paltry: many refugees were paid the fixed minimum of 15 shillings per week. The task of administering the admission and allocation of refugee domestic servants passed to Bloomsbury House, where the Domestic Bureau coped as best it could; it is not fondly remembered by its former clients.

Domestic servants endured some of the worst treatment experienced by refugees, resulting from their lowly status in the households in which they were employed and from the work they had to do there. Many of them were from comfortable middle-class homes and found the indignities of life as a domestic intolerable, though they were probably treated no worse than other servants, including servants in middle-class households in Vienna or Berlin. Underpaid, underfed and overworked, they were exposed to callous and inhuman treatment by employers who, ignoring the emotional trauma of their flight from their homelands and their separation from their loved ones, simply saw them as skivvies. Domestics were notoriously at the mercy of their employers, isolated as they were within the confines of a household not their own. Refugees alone in Britain experienced such conditions almost as a form of imprisonment.

The memories of those who came as young girls frequently dwell on specific experiences: living in unheated and insanitary rooms or sharing rooms with no private space; struggling to survive on wages below a pound a week; having only one free afternoon a week; suffering constant hunger; and having to empty chamber pots and perform other degrading tasks. Above all, they suffered from the sense that their employers saw them as second-class human beings, oblivious to their feelings and sensitivities at a time when they were desperate for human warmth and support. These features of thankless drudgery, of acute loneliness and homesickness and of being barred from participation in normal family life and activities, like joining in a Christmas meal, remain central to most memories of domestic service.

Many of these young women were wholly unprepared for domestic service. This is certainly true of two former domestics known to me personally, whose experiences are probably fairly typical. Hortense Gordon, who came from Breslau in 1939 aged 19, was the daughter of a well-to-do doctor’s family who had found her a job with an affluent British family in Surrey; they kitted her out with an evening dress and parting instructions to learn bridge, the key to social life in England. But the two and a half years she spent as cook-general in Farnham were more reminiscent of the servants’ quarters in Upstairs Downstairs as she toiled from dawn to near midnight to supply a series of copious and frequent meals and was treated strictly in accordance with her status in the kitchen.

Edith Argy, who came from Vienna in 1938 also aged 19, recalls:

I had never so much as held a broom and I was supposed to keep a fairly large house clean, and heaven knows what else I was meant to do. I wasn’t used to eating in the kitchen – poor though we were, we had had all our meals, except perhaps for a hasty breakfast, in the living room – nor was I used to eating alone. I found the food hard to swallow – quite tasteless - and I had never had malt vinegar before. I was cold in bed. I missed my duvet. The thin blankets seemed to provide no warmth at all. I was desperately homesick. I wanted to die.

So desperate was she that she even applied for a German passport with the intention of returning to Vienna.

Like many domestics, Edith Argy had a string of short-lived jobs, most of which she remembers with undiminished bitterness. It was common for refugee domestics to try to escape poor conditions by switching jobs, but change seldom brought improvement. Some of the worst experiences they endured were at the hands of British employers who had lived in the colonies, where they had learned to treat servants as an inferior breed of human being, or had worked in organisations like the police force, where right-wing, hierarchical views fostered anti-Semitic attitudes. Some refugee domestics were mothers with small children; they had to display particular flexibility and initiative in order to remain in regular contact with their children, feats of fortitude and self-sacrifice that have often passed unsung.

A considerable number of refugees sought employment in Jewish households in Britain, where they were for the most part treated no better than domestics in other British households, as they often recall with some bitterness. But Edith Argy was treated well by British Jews. After her disastrous first domestic job, she was taken in by a rabbi who looked after her like one of his own children; and during her time as a mother’s help to a Jewish widow in Stamford Hill she was for once treated as one of the family. My predecessor Richard Grunberger, a Kindertransportee from Vienna who spent an unhappy period as a handyman with an upper-class English family, was then taken in by an Anglo-Jewish family who offered him a tailoring apprenticeship and gave him a new start in life.

Lotte Hümbelin, Viennese-born but now a Swiss citizen, experienced three types of employers - Anglo-Jewish, British and refugee Viennese - in the few months that she spent in England before re-emigrating to Switzerland in summer 1939. On her arrival in December 1938, she was taken to an Anglo-Jewish family where the lady of the house, on learning that she had a domestic permit, tried to engage her as a servant. Lotte Hümbelin was dismayed at the total lack of interest in her plight as a refugee - hardly what she expected from a fellow Jew - and refused the offer.

Her first, short-lived position, with a young British journalist, involved a manageable amount of work, but she was affronted at being treated as if she did not exist as a human being, commenting that it was in ‘democratic England’ that she came to understand what differences of class and status really meant. She then spent a month in London’s Golders Green with an émigré family from Vienna, Jewish and Social Democrats, who expected her to work 15 hours a day indulging their whims and those of their guests. A typically depressing story.

The outbreak of war in September 1939 initially had a severe impact on the refugee domestics, who became ‘enemy aliens’ and often lost their jobs in consequence. But as men were called up for the forces, the demand for female labour to replace them increased massively. The vast majority of refugees left domestic service at the earliest possible opportunity, happy to take almost any other position on offer and delighting in their new-found freedom; many found employment in jobs that contributed to the war effort. Though domestic service left bitter memories, the integration of refugees into the war effort and into British society generally meant that it could be consigned fairly rapidly to the past. By the 1960s, refugee households, newly prosperous, were themselves often employing au pair girls, charladies or daily helps.
 

 

Anthony Grenville

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