Feb 2007 Journal

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Mother's help

Somewhere I wrote that I had had dozens of domestic jobs, but that can't be right. With the best will in the world I can only count nine, but even that is quite impressive, given that my inglorious career as a resident domestic servant lasted only 16-17 months, from September 1938 to the beginning of 1940. By that time, the Home Office must have decided that I had fatigued for long enough their overworked police officers, who had to record my every move, and they allowed me to do office work.

But when hapless Sadie got hopeless me, the world was still at peace and I was still only 19 years old.

Sadie was a widow of 26 with a 4-year-old son called Geoffrey who had arrived from the East End - not quite yet in Golders Green or 'the Suburb', but Stamford Hill. She and her sister Freda shared a house and ran a small grocery store. They were out all day and it was my job to look after the child, keep the house clean, do the washing and ironing, prepare lunch for Geoffrey and myself, and help with dinner in the evening - all for 12 shillings a week. But they did treat me as one of the family.

How I managed to cope with the workload I don't know. But I do remember one day, when Geoffrey touched the hot iron while I was ironing and we both ended up in tears - he because he was in pain and I because I had no idea what to do about it.

Sadie must have kept a kosher home, but not obtrusively so. It was at the Mandebaums', the girls' parents' home in Cable Street, where we spent every Sabbath, that I encountered a truly orthodox household for the first time.

Of course, I always knew I was Jewish. For one thing, my school reports said so. Religion: Mosaic. Also, we used Yiddish expressions at home, like meshugge, rachmones and nebbich. And, looking back, I find that all my friends were Jews. It was always tacitly acknowledged that we lived in an antisemitic country, although my parents' generation, totally unfairly, largely blamed any antisemitism on the Polish Jews, the Ostjuden. It was also, again tacitly, understood that we shouldn't make ourselves conspicuous - keep a low profile! But that was as far as my Jewishness went. My stepmother was the only one in the family who observed the holiest days and fasted on Yom Kippur. I never went to synagogue except for weddings and, reluctantly, for the occasional semi-compulsory youth services conducted by my religious education teacher. To me, a religious Jew was one who went to synagogue on Saturday and didn't eat pork.

Our Friday nights at the Mandelbaums' amazed me. There must have been prayers, performed by Mr Mandelbaum, but I don't recall them. What I do remember is getting into trouble for using a blue tea towel for fleishig. What did I know about milchig, fleishig, red tea towels, blue tea towels? The food, invariably borscht and boiled chicken, had to be prepared before the Sabbath and kept hot on a burner - all news to me.

Mrs Mandlebaum spoke to me in what she took for German but was really Yiddish, and one of her verbal attempts to rouse me from deep sleep became a source of hilarity to my friend Renee (Mittler-Cohen, one of the Hakoach swimmers to whom the film Wartermarks was dedicated), who was in London at the time. Decades later, in France, she would still chuckle over it.

This was actually one of my more congenial jobs but, after a while, I grew tired of helping mother and left in search of further adventures.
Edith Argy

previous article:Lightening the February gloom
next article:Speaking again: hidden children of the Holocaust (Review article)