Mar 2009 Journal
Letters to the Editor
‘Underpaid, Underfed and Overworked’?
This is the second part of a selection of letters received in response to the article ‘“Underpaid, Underfed and Overworked”: Refugees in Domestic Service’ by Anthony Grenville in our December issue. The first part appeared in last month’s issue.
I came over at the beginning of 1939 as a domestic servant to a couple of retired doctors who had practised in Burma and had previously employed a large number of Burmese servants. My tasks were to bring the couple early morning cups of tea, make breakfast, do light housework, prepare lunch, and provide afternoon tea and supper. I was allowed to eat as much food as I wanted, although if we had a joint of meat it was served directly on to my plate.
I finished at about 8.00 pm. I had one afternoon a week off and once a month I had a whole day off. If I went out, I had to be in at 10.00 pm and report my return. This may seem harsh. However, the gardener’s wife did the heavy work in the morning and my employer, the husband, helped me with the lunchtime washing up. For this I was paid 15 shillings a week all found. This never seemed a fortune but I had no other expenses. I could get up to London to see my fiancé only on my full day off. Just once a month.
I had a very pleasant room and was allowed to sit and read in the morning room. My employer allowed me to read the Daily Telegraph after she had finished with it. After the war broke out, I would sit in the study with them and listen to the 6 o’clock news. After a while I had saved up enough money to buy a small radio for my own room. I was living deep in the Surrey countryside, where I went for lovely walks in my time off.
When we lived in Germany before the rise of Hitler, my family had a cook/housekeeper and, when my brother and I were small, we also had a nanny. The cook/housekeeper’s room was disgustingly small and she had no real sitting accommodation. She probably had pretty much the same hours off that I did. Of course, she had to go in 1933 because Jews were not allowed to employ Arians.
Whatever happened, we must never forget that our employers saved our lives. If they had not employed us, we would probably have ended up in concentration camps, like many people did.
I came to England in June 1939 after being refused entry to Cuba on the St Louis. I was not yet 16 and Bloomsbury House sent me to a Jewish convalescence home in Broadstairs as a domestic. I was paid the princely sum of half-a-crown. There were three of us of about the same age. We had to work very hard and were always hungry. Fortunately we made the acquaintance of Czech soldiers stationed there and their cook gave us some food.
Three months later I met a Jewish family on holiday in Broadstairs and they offered me work in London for 10 shillings a week. I had never done anything domestic in Berlin but I ran their home, cooking, cleaning and looking after two girls of six and eleven. If they were sick, I had to write a note to the teacher. He must have been very amused as, after only three months in England, my English wasn’t great.
Once war broke out, I was allowed to do war work, making soldiers’ uniforms and gun powder bags. But we survived and did not suffer like the rest of our families who did not get out.
My step-mother, Trude Schrecker, who was an active member of the AJR, died in 2006. When I went through the family papers, I came across about 20 letters, which my mother had written in Prague to my father in Shanghai between August 1940 and August 1942. (My parents had divorced in l935, when I was three years old, but maintained a friendly relationship.) Many of these letters are heart-rending, especially the last one, in which my mother wrote how much she regretted taking my father's advice not to leave Prague when she had had the chance to accept an offer of domestic service in England. About two weeks after she wrote this letter, she was sent to Terezin and then Auschwitz, where she was killed aged 37.
My father (who survived the war and married Trude Engel) never liked to talk to me about my mother. I assumed it was out of consideration for my step-mother. However, the discovery of this letter has made me wonder whether it was not also due to a guilty conscience for having given my mother well-meaning but tragic advice.
My mother was beautiful and, from all I have learned, intelligent, a linguist and, inter alia, an excellent pianist. She lived for a while with a conductor at the Scala Milan so must have been socially sophisticated. Although these may not sound like the best talents for a good domestic servant in England, how I wish she had become one - even if ‘underpaid, underfed and overworked’.
Sir - In early 1938 my father had been released from Buchenwald, then interned in Kitchener Camp. In late 1938 he obtained visas for his wife Ettel and sister Gusti to enter England from Vienna as domestics.
The position he found for his wife was with an apparent lesbian, who asked him ‘Does your wife wear trousers?’, to which he replied ‘She does, all the time.’ For his sister he found a job as a serving maid. On the first day of work my aunt, handicapped with one leg shorter than the other, spilled a tea tray on the laps of the upper-class women she was to have served. She was fired. Whether what she did was deliberate or not was never admitted to at home – there were only sly smiles. My aunt had her own domestic in Vienna and was not going to be someone else’s maid!
My mother weighed about 75 pounds at the time and my father had found them a room to share in Whitechapel with an elderly Jewish woman. As for my mother, at my father’s insistence she never reported to work and my father sneaked out of Kitchener at night to work for a local farmer so as to send money to support his wife and sister and keep them ‘out of sight’ of the authorities.
My parents left Liverpool on the last transatlantic voyage of the Lancastria, on 9 March 1940. I was born in the USA on 22 February 1941. My childhood memories include remarks about how good the English working class was and how revolting the ‘upper class’ was.
It took a British author in Japan - Kazuo Ishiguro - to bring the plight of bewildered German-Jewish refugee girls reduced to below-stairs status and falling victims to anti-Semitism in an upper-class British household into a Booker Prize-winning novel, and thus into the mainstream of English narrative fiction. It took my equally Booker Prize-winning sister, Dr Ruth Prawer Jhabvala CBE, born in Germany of a Polish father and a German mother, working with an Indian producer and an American director, to convert Ishiguro’s vision into a successful film. I refer, of course, to The Remains of the Day. The novel was first published in 1989; the film had its premiere in 1993; the producer was Ismail Merchant, the director James Ivory.
My mother entered domestic service in the large Victorian house of a retired coal merchant and his family near Birmingham in April 1939.
At that time, my father was given shelter by my mother’s sister in Edgware but was penniless. My brother and I had been sent to Brussels on a Kindertransport and were living there when in August my mother’s employer decided to take his wife and three adolescent children on a caravanning holiday. Reluctant to leave my mother alone in a large house in the country, he paid all the expenses of bringing my brother and me from Ostend to Dover (an old business friend of my father had taken us from Brussels to Ostend), my father’s fare to Dover, and the rail fare for the three of us to his village for a holiday while he and his family were away.
I remember an unbelievably happy fortnight, picking raspberries and plums and being reunited with my parents. Imagine my father’s delight when, on the thirteenth day of our holiday, war was declared and my brother and I couldn’t return to Brussels! These people in their generosity saved my brother’s and my life.
GOD ON TRIAL
Sir - Peter Phillips February) is right to call for greater tolerance among the different sects of Judaism, but for him to attach this to a denial of God and the mitzvoth seems extreme. It was, in fact, tried before in Germany. Many of those who should have been leaders of the community converted to Lutheranism (if you disbelieve in God, it does not much matter if he is Jewish or Lutheran) and the remainder of the community replaced belief in Judaism by belief in German culture with iconic figures such as Wagner, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Had the community remained united, it could have provided a much more effective opposition to Hitler.
I am intrigued that Mr Phillips sees kashruth as out of date. Kosher animals can eat and digest cellulosic materials such as grass, while most other animals compete with humans in the food chain. Short of vegetarianism, this is the ‘greenest’ option one can imagine. Kashruth also has a strong element of public health about it and, while conditions in the UK are not too bad, on a worldwide basis there are good reasons for the prohibitions Mr Phillips deplores. One can’t remake religious commandments for every country in every era. Nonetheless, he might have noticed a gentile campaign to persuade people to wash their hands after using the toilet and before meals - some of us have done this (with or without a bracha) for many years.
As far as the other mitzvoth are concerned, I think one might still be uneasy about adultery, murder, and hating one’s neighbour. There is also much to be said for a day off each week.
I wonder what would be left of Judaism if Mr Phillips were to have his way. How would one express one’s commitment to the Jewish people? By signing anti-Israel advertisements in the press? Hopefully not.
Sir – Peter Phillips comments on the fictional BBC trial in Auschwitz. Apparently, such a trial did indeed take place in the Kovno ghetto, Lithuania, a notable seat of Talmudic scholarship. The learned men present arrived at the same verdict - that there was no ‘Jewish’ God in heaven; how else would He have allowed all that suffering to afflict His People. The mock trial over, they rose to a man to daven afternoon Mincha service!
I come from a modern-Orthodox home in Poland, imbued with a love of Zion. After the Shoah, my mother in Israel gave up all faith in God, having lost her husband and two sons. Yet she always lit Shabbat candles and never mixed meat with milk, and so on. She couldn’t do otherwise: it was inbred in her – not unlike those wise men of Kovno.
Sir – I agree with Peter Phillips 100 per cent. I have asked myself the question he asks 1,000 times. If there was a god, who sees and knows everything, why did he not show his hand and let 6 million people, including my whole family, get murdered in so many concentration camps?
I believe in the Ten Commandments. That makes sense to me. Shabbat dinners are important to me to sit together with the family to share the events of the week over a good meal. The candles look festive. I don’t believe in praying. I believe in doing. Volunteering and helping people where there is a need – that is my understanding of being a good and decent Jewish person.
Sir - I agree that there should not be animosity in religious matters among ourselves, but this is due to many factors, including different attitudes to the Bible. The Orthodox believe that the Bible is a holy book - ‘as if’ written by God - and therefore we cannot question it by considering that the laws of kashruth etc are not relevant today. Mr Phillips’s quotation of the Akedah in Chapter 22 of Genesis is also incorrect: it is the Angel of the Lord who saved Abraham from sacrificing his son (v.11), not a ram. The ram Abraham sacrificed was an afterthought (v.13).
I also agree that the Chief Rabbi should have gone to the funeral of Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn. On the other hand, Reform Rabbi Tony Bayfield should not have ridden in the Lord Mayor’s procession on the Sabbath. He was a representative of the Jewish people. Many years ago, at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the late David Ben-Gurion, who certainly was not an Orthodox Jew, walked from the Savoy Hotel to St.Paul’s Cathedral on the Sabbath. He felt he was a representative of the Jewish people and did not want to ride in public on the Sabbath.
Mr Philips also thinks that if the different sects of Judaism are not more tolerant of each other, ‘we will not survive as Jews.’ Our survival depends on many things - but the greatest danger is the soaring rate of inter-marriage. The Orthodox Jewish schools have done much to stem this disaster and even the Reform have now belatedly set up Jewish schools. In Israel, the religious parties are fighting for our religion as they see it.
Sir – Recently, the story of Anne Frank was shown on TV. It is significant that this story should be shown at the same time as the bother in Gaza.
For more than 2,000 years the world has viewed Jews everywhere as small, weak and only too willing to roll onto their backs, to play dead. The same, prejudiced world is too thick to admit to itself that, as everywhere, attitudes have changed and things have moved on. Jews have evolved and moved on also.
Unfortunately, both Christians and Muslims are still only able to relate to the Jew – any Jew - as a feeble being wearing a long coat of silk and with a long beard smeared with his own blood. They are scared of this ‘new’ Jew, who is a young man wearing combat gear. Tucked under this man’s arm are not a few holy books or well-read scrolls but a deadly machine gun, ready to be used in defence of the smallest sovereign country in the Middle East.
This mercifully aggressive young soldier knows nothing of the small, bent man his ancestor used to be in centuries past. This young Jewish fighter is ready, willing and able to defend the tiny country of Israel – established through dire necessity after the Holocaust. Wake up, world – times have changed: kick a Jew in the face and you will get the same treatment back!
Sir – My attention was drawn to an article in Metro stating ‘Jewish MP says Israeli soldiers are like Nazis.’ As the sole victim-survivor of my family, I suffered Junior Forced Labour under fascism; afterwards I suffered Nazism and then Stalinist imprisonment and exile. I wonder what sort of Nazism Gerald Kaufman MP experienced in his comfortable home in England. I do wonder how much time he spent in Gaza with the Jewish soldiers whose ‘Nazi’ activities he knows so well. I wonder how much research the ‘Honourable Member’ did to assess the background of Nazism and the root of the ‘Nazi’ activities of Jewish soldiers. For the sake of my adopted country, I beg politicians not to follow the example Neville Chamberlain set at Munich.
Sir - What Rubin Katz (January) describes as my unwarranted strong reaction was essentially directed at two statements in his original letter. One expressed his ‘dismay at those who praise Austria for its laudable changes, while survivors are still around.’ The other suggested that ‘this willingness to promote everything Austrian lies between those happily ensconced in this country during the war and those unlucky enough to be trapped in Europe.’ This statement still sounds to me unfair, putting it mildly. Using the phrase ‘promote everything Austrian’ is unjustified because surely nobody does that. Nor does anybody suggest that those who survived the war trapped in Europe did so in happy circumstances. To imply this is absurd. In any case, Mr Katz has no reason - and certainly no evidence - that supports his theory.
As for the first statement, I am pleased to accept that he is not opposed to visiting Austria and apologise for my interpretation. But Wiesenthal did live in Vienna. The discussion is not about where people are buried. Fifteen thousand Jews do live in Vienna. I do not understand what Mr Rubin means when he writes ‘Not all of them are Jewish.’ Where they come from is irrelevant, but I do know that quite a few returned to Austria from this country, from the US and from Israel. And there is an Israeli embassy in Vienna.
According to the EU, both Germany and Austria show up badly in respect of anti-Semitism but I agree that the mayor of Berlin is a good man. So is Austria’s president.
I will not react to any further letters on this subject. I feel much more deeply about what is happening in Israel, especially about the biased, and even false, reports presented by a large part of the media in European countries.
SHYLOCK’S POUND OF FLESH
Sir - I found Netta Goldsmith’s recent letter surprising. How exactly does Shylock demonstrate that he is a man of principle or a just man? Shylock takes the bond seriously simply because he wants vicious revenge on Antonio. He is offered three times the amount of the loan and rejects it. This is nothing to do with being a man of principle or justice.
Portia cleverly turns the table on Shylock, saying that if you want your pound of flesh you shall have it - but only the flesh and no blood and only exactly one pound and no more, thus using his demand for the letter of the law to defeat him.
Portia’s magnificent ‘quality-of-mercy’ speech, which attempts to get Shylock to change his mind, speaks to us of the superiority of following the spirit of the law rather than the letter, and that justice should always be tempered with mercy.
Actually the ‘Merchant of Venice’ is not Shylock but Antonio - Shylock disappears from the play at the end of Act IV. Although Shakespeare generously gives him the wonderful speech about ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’, it is difficult in terms of what is actually written to have much sympathy for Shylock’s savage behaviour despite modern interpretations of the play. However, none of the characters in the play exits smelling that sweet.
Sir – I was particularly glad that Gerald Curzon mentions (November) Leone Modena. Modena (1571-1648) was the first Jew to write, in a book intended for Christian readers, an extensive account of Jewish rites, customs and everyday life, with particular reference to the Venetian ghetto. The book was at first forbidden by the Inquisition but, after revision, was published in Venice in 1638.
A German version, translated and edited by Professor Rafael Arnold, was published in Germany in 2007 under the title Jüdische Riten, Sitten und Gebräuche. Professor Arnold, a leading authority on the Jews of Venice, is the son of a friend of mine with whom I went to school in Stuttgart in the early 1930s.
SUPPING WITH THE DEVIL
Sir - Andrew Elek, Samu Stern’s grandson, writes (January) that Stern was 17 years old when the leaders of the Budapest community were faced with the stark choice of divulging the ultimate destination of the deportation trains. In the event, they withheld information that the deportations were going to anything but ‘humanitarian German labour camps’. He defends this act of disinformation to their Jewish brethren with, inter alia, the following: Divulging the true destination of these transports would, in any case, not have saved Jewish lives because in Poland, ‘where Jews had revolted when they learned about the death camps, their uprising merely triggered massive German reprisals and very few people survived.’
This defence is unjustified. Your esteemed correspondent forgot that smuggling oneself over to the Aryan side and living as a non-Jew had a far greater success rate than revolts such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He also forgot that Hungary did not have sealed-off ghettos like Poland and ‘disappearing’ was a little easier. Indeed, even in Poland, but more so in Hungary, many thousands survived in this way despite the danger of being betrayed. However, it required an immensely strong ‘push’ to take this dangerous route. Unfortunately, the vast majority who fell for the Nazis’ lies about being taken to ‘humanitarian labour camps’ did not see a need to do this.
It is tragic that the Budapest Judenrat co-operated with these lies, buckling under Eichmann’s death threats if they were to spread their ‘false horror stories’. A clear revelation that they were to be taken to concentration camps would have pushed many thousands more into the only direction which had a reasonable success rate: disappearing among the non-Jewish population. In the event, it was a trickle rather than a deluge that availed themselves of this route. Never were more Jews gassed in less time than the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz. We paid for the Judenrat’s co-operation with over 400,000 lives.
Had the Judenrat stood up to the pressure, they themselves might have lost their lives, but a significant minority would never have reached the Birkenau gas chambers. The head of the Warsaw Ghetto, Cerniakow, took his life at the first request to hand over his brethren. Perhaps we cannot be judgemental, but we cannot defend them on the basis of incorrect facts.
‘TO THE RIGHT OF GENGHIS KHAN’
Sir - The answer to Shir’s question ‘How could anyone kill children, women, men, indiscriminately, day after day, as if it was just the most natural thing in the world?’ (Letter from Israel, February) is that that’s how human beings tend to behave if they think (rightly or wrongly) that other people are out to kill or enslave their own people. They may be lovely people in other ways but, where the enemies of their people are concerned, they are, as Rubin Katz puts it in his letter in the same issue, to the right of Genghis Khan. And so it goes on.
Sir – The recent showing of the film Stolperstein at the Goethe Institute was a moving experience but it left me with some unease about the project it described. My unease is not only because of the refusal of the city of Munich to allow the stones to be placed but also because of the enthusiasm with which a small band of well-meaning people in Europe have embraced a controversial project.
To remember the Holocaust is, of course, essential and, as such, is well presented by events, literature and memorials. The German nation, more than any other, has shown its willingness to accept responsibility and try to make amends for the atrocities of the Nazi era. Those who are guilty are all but gone. The following generation wished not to speak of the involvement of family and friends. The third and fourth generations now show a new enthusiasm to know why and how it all happened but they, like our children, are too far removed to bear the grief or responsibility for what occurred nearly 70 years ago.
Stolpersteine are a personal memorial, with meaning only for those who knew the victims. They should not be a source for guilty feelings on the part of those who walk by them. Memorials have their place - but not to be walked over in many streets.
A few years ago I visited the little town of Idar-Oberstein in Germany. By chance, walking along the main street, I came across a small flowerbed in the centre of which was a stone engraved with the names of those who were deported and murdered. It was a beautiful, dignified memorial - a credit to a small German community.
Sir – To my surprise, I was recently invited by the mayor of Dachau as guest speaker at the 70th commemoration of their Kristallnacht service in the Rathaus. In the town of Dachau, I was also shown around the first German concentration camp, built on the site of a former munitions factory. While we were staying in the town, we were taken around by a group of specially trained teachers who run a youth hostel and classes for young Germans, visitors and students, teaching them about life under the Nazis and the devastation of the Holocaust.
And what about the grandparents of these young Germans? Between 1933 and 1945 they had mostly also been Nazi supporters of their Führer and Fatherland.
Sir - Graffiti on the wall of my grandmother’s house in Vienna, April 1938: ‘Wenn ich seh ein Hakenkreuz, dann wird mir zu brechen reiz.’ Somebody chalked underneath: ‘Glaub ich schon mein lieber Schloime.’
FAREWELL TO WOOLIES
Sir - The closure of Woolworths brings back memories of what the ‘3 and 6 penny store’ meant to refugees in 1938-39. With the extremely limited sums of money we had (in my case, what my parents had - I had none!), this was one of the very few shops one could afford. I remember that after the initial two weeks in a hotel, paid for by a friend of my father’s who was already established in London, we moved into two furnished rooms. So we had to buy minimal amounts of cooking equipment. A saucepan for 5d, with the lid an extra 2d, was one of the first purchases. It was one of our possessions for many years. We met friends who had a tin of pineapple – what luxury that would have been in Vienna! In London, it was among the cheapest tinned fruit Woolworths had on offer. Pineapples became a staple part of our diet for a while.