Feb 2009 Journal
Letters to the Editor
‘Underpaid, Underfed and Overworked’?
How disappointed I was to read your article ‘Underpaid, Underfed and Overworked’ - showing, however, a picture of a smiling ‘drudge’ Jewish domestic refugee doing the kind of work any housewife does in her own home.
Let us please remember that those left behind in Germany or any other Nazi-occupied country were starved, tortured and eventually murdered. We were allowed to enter this amazing country - now our England – and spared the horror of the death camps, which made the complaints in your article not worthy of the AJR Journal.
I worked as a domestic servant as a very young Jewish refugee in Bournemouth. While I was not the happiest domestic, my thoughts were filled with fear for my dearest parents, who were not able to escape. Sad to say, unhappiness and loneliness were completely ignored by the English Jewish residents of Bournemouth. Was there a synagogue in Bournemouth? We never knew of it or of any Jewish family. I think we were an embarrassment to them.
‘Underpaid, Underfed and Overworked’?
Your article was so apt. One further example among so many. My aunt Elsie, my mother’s sister and the only survivor of her family, was relieved to come down from Harrogate after toiling hard in domestic service. She worked there for an important official, probably the mayor. The moment she arrived in London she worked in a factory, run by Jews, making uniforms. No picnic either and only a short lunch break. Money was still short but she had her furnished room, which she later shared with a lady friend.
Although I came over on a Kindertransport, the death of our caring saviour forced me into domestic service at the age of 16. My salary was 16 shillings a week. I shared the room with the pleasant Viennese cook. She and her husband were employed as a couple, but then he was interned and replaced by me!
Unfortunately my employer had a drinking problem. His behaviour was most erratic – frightening for a young girl. One day I was accused of stealing cheese. So my employment there ceased. However, I was still in domestic service with a refugee family. Once I was 18 I joined the ATS. My younger sisters were exploited in unregistered children’s homes. Aged 13 to 14, they had to work long hours and sleep in the room with all the children.
There was no help. Finding out that we had left behind a total void and that most of those close to us had perished was still to come ….
Why was it so awful for the refugee domestics to have had to empty chamber pots? Those of us who became nurses had to carry out far more unpleasant tasks.
Sir – I was most upset by the view taken of refugees overworked and underpaid in their domestic work places. I came from a middle-class household in Berlin to Britain in October 1939. My middle sister too. She worked for a doctor before being interned on the Isle of Man and I was employed in a refugee children’s home.
We did the work we were given and we were grateful for it. Without which, we would have been condemned to slave labour along with our elder sister or to the gas chambers along with many more from our family. It is a dreadful thing to accuse the country which saved me, and so many, by taking us in during our desperate time of need. Certainly, some refugees must have had an unhappy experience – but please don’t overshadow the gratitude that the vast majority of refugees must, like me, feel towards a country and its people which had no responsibility towards us, apart from a humanitarian one.
My mother, from Linz, was one of the teenage girls who came to England with ‘domestic’ visas about whom Anthony Grenville writes so eloquently in your December issue. She recalls that her experiences at the hands of Anglo-Jewish families were especially unpleasant, made even more so perhaps because the ‘host’ families had no understanding of the secular and largely non-Jewish world from which she (though not her three Jewish grandparents) came. She obtained her freedom - and a decent wage - by joining the WRAC!
I am very sorry for the young refugees who found themselves in domestic service in this country, having themselves come from affluent middle class homes where domestic servants were employed. Added to this demeaning and frightening experience, it appears that many young people were exploited and abused. However, I cannot help thinking ‘Better a living abused domestic servant in England than a dead one in Auschwitz.’ Whatever the ulterior motives were for permitting young people to come to this country, at least their lives were saved.
My parents and I (a six-year-old boy) were allowed to come to England from Germany on a domestic visa on one of the last boats to leave the Hook of Holland to Harwich, on 29 August 1939. My mother had managed to obtain the release of my father from the Oranienburg concentration camp a few weeks before. He had come home badly injured and with double pneumonia.
They obtained a job with the Dixon family in Beulah Hill, Croydon, my mother as a cook/maid, my father as a butler/handyman. The family consisted of the parents and four children and they had also opened up their very large house to about six refugee lodgers.
My mother and father adapted very well to their new-found occupation, considering that they themselves had had their own domestic staff in Germany. We stayed with the Dixons till my parents were interned, my father being sent to Australia on the infamous Dunera and my mother to the Isle of Man via a six-week stay in Holloway prison. In the meantime, the Dixons looked after me as one of their own until I was allowed to join my mother on the Isle of Man two or three months later.
Whilst many people did help by sponsoring these refugees, I still feel that many more desperate people could have been saved had more Jewish families opened their homes to them.
I was most distraught reading Anthony Grenville’s article regarding the treatment of the Jews who were admitted to Britain for manual purposes. It may have seemed a humanitarian gesture to some, but to the people concerned it was a life saver and gratefully accepted.
The article generalises that that all these refugees were underpaid, underfed and overworked and were exposed to callous and inhuman treatment by employers. This to my knowledge is not true. There are quite enough writers and articles about distorting the truth without innocently adding to it. May I give the case of my own parents who arrived in England in September 1938 to take up positions as domestic servants. Their location was a large country mansion near York. On arrival, they were warmly welcomed and shown to a very comfortable room. My mother was the cook and my father the general handyman. They were not outcasts at meal times and often joined the family. In fact, once the family had tasted chicken soup on Friday night it became a regular part of the menu - this despite the fact that they were the largest pork butchers in Yorks. I who had been placed in a hostel in Leeds could visit any time. When the time came for them to leave there were tears in the employer’s eyes and for many years hence while living in Leeds my parents received visits from the family bringing presents especially at Christmas time.
Now, although this was my parents’ experience, I can immediately think of several other refugees who were treated in a similar and respectful manner. This may differ from the ??? generalisement as suggested in the article but these are the facts as I myself experienced them.
FROM KRISTALLNACHT TO KINDERTRANSPORT
Sir - Like your correspondents (January), I too remember that November night. It was followed a short time afterwards by my Barmitzvah, in a burnt-out synagogue and conducted by a young rabbi with a shaved head who had only a few days earlier been released from Sachsenhausen. I was discussing these events with a Jewish friend of Swiss nationality. She was then eight years old and remembers her parents taking her to a Zurich synagogue for a special memorial service which resembled the Yom Kippur Yizkor service (no shoes, dressed in white).
We wondered what had been the reactions of Jewish communities in the UK. It is now difficult to locate individuals, not former refugees themselves, who might remember the impact Kristallnacht had on their families. Were special services held? Where? By which communities?
The Kindertransports brought many of us witnesses to this country. Were the Kinder regarded as an inconvenience? What percentage of Kinder found their way into Jewish families? I know of none among my friends. It is all very well that, 70 years on, there should be stories in the media commemorating the terrible events of 1938, but what about the time when these events were actually happening? It was a bewildering time for most of us youngsters, alone in a strange land.
Sir – The Prince and the Kinder – a modern fable: Once upon a time, about 10,000 children escaped to the shores of England. Seventy years later, we Kinder commemorated that episode with a reunion of the Kindertransport, the third after intervals of two decades. We greatly appreciated these reunions and our thanks go out to the organisers. Though Bertha voiced doubts ten years ago about her presence at this event, we were very pleased to see her again. Without her efforts, we Kinder would have suffered our own diaspora.
The speeches from the podium were inspiring, the Chief Rabbi citing Moses gently gliding down the Nile as the very first Kind. Lord Attenborough told us again of his hospitality to two refugee sisters. We are reminded of the good people who hid us over there and those who rescued us over here. Hermann Hirschberger’s statistics on countries which gave refuge to individuals were well prepared. The one Labour MP on the platform could not help sneaking in a plea for ‘asylum seekers’ in the few words he spoke.
We then made for the dining room and wondered why it was so cold. I suppressed my discomfort with the thought that many of our relatives and friends suffered a degrading existence for years in unheated huts in Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz and were often humiliated, standing naked outside for long periods in the bitterly cold weather in the camps.
The organisers ushered in The Prince of Wales for an informal tea party - the highlight of the day. He engaged in conversations with Kinder as he walked between the tables. When he neared our table, he shook hands with several of us, asking me where I came from and expressing delight on hearing about the city of song and palaces. He wondered if I was now retired and I affirmed, saying I thought I deserved it after 42 years of service to industry in the country which had opened its doors to us. He amazed me, saying he would not have wished to have missed the opportunity of meeting so many Kinder who came to this country.
A memorable day. I am now saving up for the 80th reunion, hoping it won’t exceed 700 euros, assuming I will be fit enough to travel from Israel for that event, possibly my last one, and looking forward to reminding the King of our previous meeting.
Sir – When I was little, my parents were to have given a home to a refugee girl who, I understand, was to have come through the Kindertransport, but she never arrived. We were living in Eastbourne at the time. I would only have been seven or nine years old but I still remember her name, which I believe was Gerda Langer. I have always wondered what happened to her. It has been an unanswered question all these years.
KINDERTRANSPORTS 70 YEARS ON
Sir – Regarding Anthony Grenville’s November article ‘The Kindertransports 70 Years On’, my life was saved from the Nazis by my parents, my uncle, Sir Nicholas Winton and his team, my wonderful Scottish guardian, Jean Barbour, and, not least, by Great Britain. Therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, I do not share Dr Grenville’s reservations about British immigration policy and official attitudes in 1938-39. These may have been less than perfect but, compared to the rest of the world, Britain stood out like a beacon and it is irrelevant to say that it may have been mainly on account of guilt over Munich. If you study the efforts made by Nicholas Winton, Britain and Sweden were the only countries willing to take endangered Czechoslovak children.
I have always thought that the Winton rescue mission was not part of the main 10,000 Kindertransport effort, which was created for children from within the German Reich, of which the rump of Bohemia and Moravia became a part only after 15 March 1939. The conditions applying to the ‘Winton children’ were different as they had to have a guardian who had signed for them in advance and a £50 fee was due - a lot of money at that time. This meant that all the ‘Winton children’ were picked sight unseen by their prospective foster parents, which made their actions all the more praiseworthy.
Nicky Winton does not like to be called ‘Britain's Schindler’. That does not surprise me: Schindler was a very ambiguous character, which is partly what attracted Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg. Certainly, both Winton and Schindler were instrumental in saving hundreds of Jewish lives and there was a list of people saved in both cases, but that is where the comparison ends. (I should add that Winton was not only concerned with saving Jewish children but any child that was in danger.)
Regarding Bea Green’s letter (December):
1. Winton was not visiting friends with whom he intended to go on a skiing holiday but had cancelled his skiing holiday to visit Prague, at the request of Martin Blake, to help with the refugee problems.
2. On arrival, he saw that nothing was being done for the endangered children and he was told that nothing could be done. He ignored this advice and set up a Children’s Section as part of the British Committee for Refugees. (By the way, he returned to London in January not March l939.)
3. Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti were not working to get children out at that time, though later they, and others, did wonderful work in helping to save the children.
4. The key point is that without Winton’s initiative, UK negotiations and the organisation he put in place, the rescue mission would probably (in my opinion almost certainly) not have occurred. To say Winton was no more than ‘a valuable link’ is a complete distortion.
5. Finally, as indicated earlier, I do agree with Bea Green that it is totally inappropriate to call him Britain's Schindler - but not for the reasons she implies!
Sir – Jan issue just come in. Dull without the usual Rosstory. When comes the next?
The next article by Victor Ross will appear in the March edition - Ed.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Sir - In an otherwise fine review of the Kaddish commemorative concert (December), Gloria Tessler failed to mention Stephen Smith’s introduction in which he stated that this date was chosen because on that day Hitler ordered the expulsion of 17,000 Polish Jews (my father among them). In Berlin it affected adult males, whereas elsewhere in Germany it was entire families. It left a chink of opportunity which my eldest sister Ruth, then only 13, suggested to my mother and to which my mother bravely agreed, to put her and my sister Betty (9) illegally on a train to Belgium.
I wonder what happened to the other families left fatherless and destitute in Berlin. Circumstances would surely have forced them to go to Poland, where they had not lived since the First World War.
I was invited by the Berlin Senate for a week’s visit in September 2006. On our visit to the Jewish Museum, Aubrey Pomeranz of the Berlin Leo Baeck Institute told me there was little material on OstJuden: we seemed not to have been recorded. This is illustrated yet again by the general failure here (except for Stephen Smith) to mention the Polenaktion now and in the past.
John Farrago (also December) seems not to have read my article in the September issue in which I pointed out that Brussels is bilingual. It is located in Flemish Brabant and its original inhabitants are Flemish-speaking. They have a dialect, Marollien, which is a ‘minestrone’, if you know both languages, of Flemish and French - impossible to unscramble but comic to hear.
Jews were hidden throughout Belgium regardless of the linguistic divide - those who were heroic in rescuing Jews said they had done nothing special. They wished they could have helped more. Unlike in other occupied countries, 94 per cent of Belgium’s Jews were not nationals.
Stella Mann, in the same edition, mentions erroneously that Malines was a concentration camp. Caserne Dossin Malines was a transit camp for Jews and Roma to be transported to Auschwitz and entire families were deported from there. Lone children were no longer deported from Caserne Dossin after we 56 children in Wezembeek were raided by the Gestapo on 30 October 1942, a ‘promise’ having been given to Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians after her successful intercession for us. However, lone children remained hostages in the Association of Jews in Belgium (Judenrat) Children’s Homes and the ‘promise’ could be rescinded at any time. There was a concentration camp - the first the Allies came across - at Fort Breendonk which was for political prisoners, some of whom were Jewish.
A REFUGEE COMPLEX
Sir - Jack Lynes (December, Letters) is right that he has a ‘refugee complex’ but I would not call it a ‘non-refugee complex’. If the Battle of Britain had ‘gone the other way’ - as it very nearly did - Hitler would have invaded Britain and Mosley’s Blackshirts would have furnished the Nazis with lists of Jews to deport. Jack and I would then either not exist or be refugees.
According to the Nazis, no European Jew has the right to be alive today. This fantasy of a Judenfrei Europe did not end with the defeat of the Nazis but ‘went underground’. Today, there are people in every country of Europe, including Britain, who harbour hopes that someone will succeed where the Nazis failed and rid the world of Jews. There are even people willing to believe that the current economic crisis was planned by ‘The Jews’ as a prelude to taking over the world as forecast in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion!
This is the reality that all Jews live with, whether they fled the land of their birth or remained there. In rational external terms, Jack is not technically a refugee; in terms of the inner world - the non-rational sphere of emotional life - every Jew is a refugee, particularly in the face of the current mixture of mounting anti-Semitism and disinformation about Israel.
Jack is one of the few who is aware of this refugee-complex, and even more special in putting it into words. For most Jews whose families were not directly involved in the Holocaust, the effect on their emotional inner world operates below their awareness. This has led to a sort of deference to camp survivors on the one hand, and outrage on the other, at anything that could be interpreted as irreverent, such as voiced by those who object to Stolpersteine or Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book Fragments. This book was written by a classical musician about fragments of memory which, as proved later, could not have been his own. But they came from somewhere, in the collective unconscious memory of an entire people on whom the Holocaust had been inflicted. The book was recognised as a literary masterpiece. Perhaps a sensitive musician, whose boundary between the personal and the collective unconscious may have been more permeable than that of most people, was able to bring to our conscious awareness fragments of the untold stories of those who did not live to tell them. Those fragments are carried by the Jewish people generation by generation, although only a few, like Jack Lynes, are aware of it.
A TOUGH NEIGHBOURHOOD
Sir – Peter Prager (December) suggests I outline my peace plan. Just as I know he stands for appeasement and peace-at-any-price, he is aware of my sentiments too. So it may surprise him to learn that politically I’m with Gordon Brown but, when it comes to Israel, mindful of the nature of the enemy, I’m to the right of Genghis Khan!
Abbas has no real power base and the noises Olmert has been making are intended to salvage his tarnished image. It all hinges on Iran – a country that cannot be placated, with Israel threatened by its proxies from three sides. So I must ask for a moratorium on this, until the threat from the ‘mad mullahs’ recedes. The next US presidential term should settle it one way or another. I would have been happier with McCain but, if Obama fails to act, Israel will. With Iran out of the equation, Palestinian resistance would decline, creating an atmosphere for peace. In the meantime, I pray that Israel will not endanger its security by pulling back to what Abba Eban termed ‘Auschwitz borders’. So far, it has been a case of trading land for rockets, both in the north and in the south. Giving up territory may impress the wider world for a while but, as Golda Meir once said, ‘Looking good is important, but it comes a distant second to staying alive.’
Israel finds itself in a tough neighbourhood, where agreements count for little. One also needs to be aware of what is meant by ‘peace’ in that part of the world. Only in Arabic are there two words for it. One is Salaam, which is full peace that can exist only between Muslim states. There can never be Salaam with the Infidel - only a Hudna, a cessation of hostilities the Muslim side can terminate at will. In any event, this is meant to last for only up to ten years, to buy time for the next round. One should also bear in mind that Islam is not only a religion but an ideology, and peace is not one of its tenets. Jihad is.
As for Peter Jordan’s derisory piece, the separation barrier Israel was forced to erect is, as I described it, mostly fencing. Adjacent to heavily populated trouble spots, they had to resort to a defensive wall. I can think of many countries that have them for security reasons or to keep undesirables out. He only seems to have a problem with a ‘Jewish wall’. Would Mr Jordan rather see Israeli women and children blown to shreds? As for the ‘settlers’, were it not for settlers there would not have been a Jewish state - or perhaps he would have preferred that too. I’m sure the countless refugees who found a haven there think otherwise. Finally, I wonder why a disproportionate number of your readers cling to these views. The Arabs are united - at least on this score. Why aren’t we?
DER HUND MIT DER WURST
Sir – Vienna’s New Year Concert finished, as usual, with the Radetzky March. My father used to sing words to this, at the bit where the audience starts clapping, beginning ‘Wenn der Hund mit der Wurst übers Eckstein springt, da gibts a’ große Hetz!’, but I can’t remember any more. Can any of your readers help?