Leo Baeck 2


Jun 2009 Journal

previous article:Fred Uhlman: Lawyer, artist, writer


I had two aunts who came to this country in 1938 to work as domestics. Both were appalled by the treatment meted out to household staff and each, in her own way, decided to rewrite the rule books and make their employers feel pretentious and decadent in the most charming manner. Upper middle-class wives were easy to manipulate: they felt insular compared to my aunts, who were used to moving in Viennese high society and frequently travelled abroad.

My father’s sister was married to a lawyer and was entitled, in accordance with Austria’s unwritten law, to call herself ‘Frau Doktor’. She expected instant service – and got it. She was an excellent cook and anyone invited to her magnificent flat considered themselves very fortunate. She had two daughters who went to Vienna’s finest lyceum. Alas, the Anschluss forced changes in her household.

Through her ongoing connections she was appointed a cook in one of Britain’s finest ladies’ boarding schools. She made it a condition of her employment that her daughters received a free education in the establishment. On her arrival, she immediately announced to management and staff that she was ‘Frau Doktor’ and wished to be addressed by her full title. The school considered itself honoured by her presence and was sad to lose her at the end of the war when she returned to Vienna.

My mother’s youngest sister was an astute businesswoman; men were visually stimulated by her and easily manipulated. She held soirées in her flat in the Innere Stadt and politicians and businesspeople vied for an invitation. She received an early warning from friends that Austria’s days were numbered and was advised to cut and run. But she was a patriotic citizen and her husband was an officer in the reserve. However, the Anschluss changed everything and a few weeks later she obtained a visa and found a position in an upper-class English household as a cook. I don’t think she had any idea what the job entailed and she certainly couldn’t cook. Her husband, a spit image of the Hungarian-Jewish comedy actor ‘Cuddles’, Szöke Szakáll, was installed as the butler.

In late 1938 I was invited to spend Christmas with her family and new friends. She forgot to state her address on the invitation but, checking the cancellation on the envelope, I discovered it was posted in Gerrards Cross. She included a postal order to cover my Green Line Coach fare, adding that I could spend the night with friends in Chalfont St Peter - or Chalfont St Giles! – who’d be waiting for me at the bus stop.

That December England was covered in snow and travelling was hazardous. The coach stopped in Finchley Road and that’s where the fun began. The conductor asked for my destination and I said Chalfont St Peter - or, maybe, Chalfont St Giles. I explained in my best Viennese dialect that my invitation didn’t say which. I produced my letter and he was mystified by the mishmash of English and German. He called for assistance from other passengers and the letter was passed from hand to hand. I was looked upon as an alien object, my elegant Austrian ensemble causing much mirth. The letter was passed on to the driver, who looked as bewildered as the passengers. Eventually we stopped at the first Chalfont, but no one seemed to be waiting for me. When we got to the next stop, with no one in sight, I bravely got off the coach – profusely thanking everybody for their assistance.

I trudged around the village, glancing through windows into rooms decorated with mistletoe and cards hanging from the ceiling - so different from a Viennese Christmas Eve. I was cold, hungry and lost. Before long, I spotted my old friend the bus driver on his return to London. The conductor beckoned me to get on and they dropped me off at the local bobby’s house-cum-police station. I questioned the constable whether there were any foreigners in the area, but he couldn’t say and suggested I return to London. He telephoned his superior and arranged transport for me, and in no time I was back in Lancaster Grove. Welcoming me were more police - my aunt had reported me missing. I was whisked back to Gerrards Cross. When we got there, the ever-resourceful constable popped in at the local nick and established there was only one foreign couple in the village - it had to be my aunt and uncle. They delivered me at the house safely.

My aunt, whom I hadn’t seen for months, welcomed me with the inspiring words ‘I’m glad you’ve finally arrived but I have a problem. I’m making a strudel and I need 1 kg of Topfen. Be a good boy and run down the road and speak to Herr Sainsbury. He has a grocer’s shop in the village.’ I found the shop but couldn’t find the mysterious Herr Sainsbury. The staff searched the shop for Topfen. Everybody was consulted, customers included. The net was widened and neighbouring shopkeepers were questioned. But what on earth was Topfen? Fruit, vegetable, washing-up powder? Or more foreign muck!

I insisted that my aunt had said ‘Everybody knows Topfen’, but it was no use. It was a rare comedy: a foreigner dressed in funny clothes, speaking a guttural language, and demanding something no respectable English shop would sell! It confirmed the English attitude that all foreigners were mad.

Crestfallen, I returned to my aunt, only to be chided ‘You are totally useless!’ I’d got back just in time for tea and joined family and friends in the lounge. Everyone was given a saucer and a cup of hot water, but there was no teapot. Tea without a pot - whatever next?

The lady of the house announced pompously that since the Viennese cook – ‘a much-travelled, health-conscious woman’ - had arrived, the family had been made aware that tea brewed in a teapot was unhealthy, insular and … unfashionable! We were seated balancing our cups of boiling water on our laps as my aunt went from one to another dipping a Continental ‘tea egg’ on a chain in the water and mumbling ‘Very good for you!’

My uncle the butler, who could just about tell the difference between red and white wine, served refreshments. He wouldn’t disclose the contents of the glasses - it was a traditional healthy Austrian drink. I noticed he abstained from tasting the liquid he served. He was a model of patience, forbearance and loyalty, but occasionally he bravely refreshed himself with a glass of French brandy which he kept for medicinal purposes!

Christmas Day was the big day in the house. An enormous turkey was prepared, mounted on a large serving plate, and wheeled into the dining room by the butler. The assembled guests eyed the bird hungrily.

The cook was congratulated on presentation. The master of the house sharpened his carving knives ever so professionally and carved up the bird to great applause. He forced his fork into the wobbly carcass and began slicing but, to everybody’s horror, the bird disintegrated. Tears rolled down the hostess’s face. Silence prevailed during the entire meal. My aunt, unaware she had spiked an old tradition, cheerily informed everybody who cared to listen that in a civilised society people shouldn’t be expected to chew meat from a bone in the company of others. Instead of bemoaning her ill-fortune, the lady of the house heartily agreed with my aunt that meat and poultry should always be carved in the kitchen and that the old tradition would be laid to rest. This incident became the talking point in the upper echelon of local society and crossed the Atlantic, there to be immortalised in the Hollywood production of Mrs Miniver.

Aunt and uncle left service during the war and set up home in the area. They were universally liked and obsessively dedicated to taking the stuffiness out of the old English society. Near the end of the war they bought a small house in Berkshire. After the war they were invited by Viennese friends to return home but informed their friends that if they wished to see them they would be welcome in England at any time. They would never ever cross the Austrian border again. Their friends regularly came to England to visit them. My aunt and uncle loved the English and the local countryside passionately. Both are buried in Berkshire. In their own way they punctured way the pretensions of middle-class England - a breath of fresh air in a stuffy society.

Henry Werth

previous article:Fred Uhlman: Lawyer, artist, writer