card game

 

Jun 2006 Journal

previous article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims
next article:Letters to the Editor

My brief career as a tweeny

Soon after the Anschluss it became clear that my only hope of escape from Vienna was to England as a domestic servant. I was not without accomplishments. I could reel off Latin and Greek proverbs; I could recite a number of poems by Schiller and Goethe in their entirety; I had read countless novels by authors of various nationalities; I had a bit of typing, a bit of shorthand and a smattering of English; I even could add up pounds, shillings and pence. But, although by no means to the manor born, I am ashamed to confess that, at the age of 18, I had never so much as held a broom. I attended a crash course conducted by an enterprising Jewish woman who attempted to teach me and other would-be maidservants some basic domestic skills. Alas, all that stuck in my mind was that you had to serve food from the left.

It must have been shortly after my nineteenth birthday that I landed a job in deepest Worcestershire as a between-maid, popularly known as a tweeny. A tweeny was to assist both the cook and the housemaid and, in effect, do any jobs they didn't feel like doing. As it happened, in my case the cook and her husband, the footman, were amiable Jewish refugees from Berlin and the house-parlour maid had been a medical student in Prague in her former life.

It was only fair that I should hold the lowliest position. Not only was I the youngest of the quartet, I was also the least competent. (Although I had been in England for only a few months I had already exasperated a good many police officers with my frequent changes of employer and address, which they had to enter in my Aliens Registration Certificate.) However, we ignored hierarchy and operated as a team; fraternity and equality were our watchwords.

We worked for the local squire. Our rooms were in the attic, the kitchen and servants' hall in the basement. A bit like Upstairs, Downstairs, but not nearly so grand, I am afraid. For one thing, apart from a gardener and a chauffeur, there were only the four of us to look after the master and the mistress, not the regiment of servants then still employed in the houses of the English upper classes; for another thing Madam was no Lady; not even a lady if the grapevine was to be believed. She was, so rumour had it, a former showgirl who had ensnared Sir.

I remember hardly anything about my duties in the household - to scrub floors and peel vegetables isn't exactly memorable - and even less of what we did in our free time, of which there was precious little. Only one image remains engraved in my mind. I can still see those two people, the squire and his spouse, night after night, in full evening dress, facing each other at dinner across the long table. Presided over by the footman, Susan, the Czech girl, and I waited at table. There were never any guests - Sir's family and friends may not have approved of his choice of wife - and if I had hoped to enrich my vocabulary by their sparkling conversation, I was disappointed. Long silences were broken only by exchanges of platitudes.

My one and only encounter with the English gentry ended abruptly when Madam accused Susan of stealing a scarf. In a show of solidarity, we all handed in our notice. Tired of too much rural solitude, we headed for the still undimmed lights of the metropolis.
Edith Argy

previous article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims
next article:Letters to the Editor