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Refugees at the Margins: Jewish Domestics in Britain "1938-1945.

Jennifer Craig-Norton


Then suddenly the British Home Office was issuing so-called domestic permits whereby females could go to England and do nothing else but domestic work. It wasn't--perhaps this doesn't sound very grateful--it wasn't entirely altruistic of the English to do that. They had great problems to have servants because at that time they really exploited their maids--there was always that class distinction--and they really took terrible advantage of them as a rule and underpaid them so that slowly their own people didn't want to do domestic work anymore and so this was a marvelous opportunity for them to import some servants. And meanwhile, of course, it saved my life. (1)

This quotation, from the videotaped testimony of a Lisa Hoffman, a former German Jewish refugee who arrived in Britain in August 1939 at the age of twenty, captures many themes that recur in the life-narrations of those who escaped from the threat of fascism by becoming domestic servants in British homes. She was one of about twenty thousand such emigres who came to the United Kingdom from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and places of temporary refuge throughout Western and Central Europe between 1938 and the beginning of the Second World War--the largest single bloc of refugees who were admitted to settle and work in Great Britain, but a group whose stories have been largely ignored in the scholarship of the period and almost entirely forgotten in public memories of those times.

Lisa Hoffman's explanation for the British immigration policy that allowed her to come to the United Kingdom is a highly personalized one derived from her own pre- and post-emigration experiences, but it also highlights common threads that run through the testimonies of former Jewish refugee domestics: tensions between gratitude and bitterness, questions about the altruism of the British, comments on the treatment of servants, and observations about class in Great Britain. This paper, drawing upon the recorded interviews of more than 250 such women, examines how they have remembered and framed their experiences as refugees and servants in British homes and explores their marginalization both in their work as domestics and later in their erasure from histories of interwar and wartime Britain. These testimonies derive mainly from those gathered internationally by the USC Shoah Foundation, but also include some from Israel's Yad Vashem, several British compilations, and a number of American collections including the Leo Baeck Archives, the San Francisco Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, the Yale Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust History, and testimonies available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The earliest of these testimonies were recorded in 1977 and the most recent in 2013, but the vast majority were collected in the 1990s, and most were conducted in the United States and Great Britain, though others were recorded in Australia, South Africa, Israel, and Canada.

Within each testimony collection, institutional rationales established the purpose, direction, and emphasis of the interviews, and interviewers' skill, interests, and knowledge guide the interview process. These variables proved crucial in the collection of testimony from former refugee domestics, since institutions' and individual interviewers' interest in and understanding of both the refugee experience and domestic service varied enormously. Many testimony gatherers, notably those institutions and interviewers within the United Kingdom--the Association for Jewish Refugees, the Exile Studies Centre, the British Library, and the Imperial War Museum--delved deeply and sensitively into their subjects' lives as refugees and domestic servants, producing testimonies with a wealth of information and insight. However, in many other collections, institutions' and interviewers' unfamiliarity with or disinterest in these topics had a profoundly suppressive effect on narrations of refugee experience generally, and domestic service specifically, and this has been a contributing factor to the refugee domestics' marginalization. (2)

This body of testimony provides both a quantitative basis for broader conclusions about the lives and experiences of Jewish refugee domestics and a selection of particularly compelling accounts that are representative of a variety of experiences and modes of narration. Lisa Hoffman, quoted above, who recorded her testimony for both the Yale Fortunoff archive (1985) and the Shoah Foundation (1998) exemplifies this subgroup. Like her, a large number of Jewish refugee domestics had lived middle-class pre-emigration lives in families who had employed servants of their own, and this background significantly framed their narrations of refugee experience, a subject that is explored in the first part of this paper. This analysis will demonstrate that the tendency to idealize childhood, including memories of the German maids their families employed, bore significantly upon the way that former refugee domestics remembered their reception in Great Britain. Pre-emigration experiences as socially and economically privileged German and Austrian Jews also deeply influenced the way in which many of these former refugees reacted to and narrated their experiences as maids, in both British and Anglo-Jewish households.

Lisa Hoffman's hesitation to criticize the British immigration policies that allowed her to escape the Reich was also shared by many. In suggesting that British immigration policies were coldly pragmatic rather than humanitarian, she acknowledged transgressing the professions of gratitude that were--and continue to be--expected of refugees; yet she also affirmed that her domestic service visa, whether motivated by altruism or not, had saved her life. Hoffman's observations reveal the tension between Britain's frankly opportunistic effort to provide the middle classes with more servants and its consequences in saving thousands of lives, and reflect a larger argument over the generosity of British refugee policy in the 1930s--a debate that is far from settled. Within that debate, two groups of refugees--the 1500 or so intellectuals and scientists who were offered asylum and the ten thousand unaccompanied mostly Jewish children who came on the Kindertransport--have for decades been widely celebrated as symbols of British humanity and benevolence, though some recent scholarship has challenged the congratulatory narratives of the latter. (3) The remainder of the seventy thousand or more Jewish refugees who came to the United Kingdom in that period are not as easily categorized as beneficiaries of British largesse and have thus remained largely unacknowledged in both scholarship and public memory. Of this unheralded mass, the twenty thousand refugee domestics make up the largest single bloc, and their absence from British historical consciousness can in part be attributed to some ambivalence about the terms that the government imposed as a condition of their asylum in Great Britain.

As Lisa Hoffman accurately noted, Jewish refugees were granted domestic visas because of a shortage of servants in the United Kingdom, though she attributed this shortfall solely to class-based exploitation and the underpayment of maids. While these certainly contributed, there were also long-term structural reasons for "the servant crisis" of the interwar period. The expanded opportunities that arose in the First World War changed working-class women's attitudes to domestic service and contributed to a significant drop in the number of women employed in that field, though some were forced to re-enter service in the economic downturn of the 1930s. However, a growing middle class, which looked upon servant-keeping as a mark of their rising social status, kept demand higher than supply throughout the interwar period. (4) The "servant crisis" prompted Parliament and social reformers to investigate the unwillingness of working class girls to enter domestic service. Parliament launched inquiries in 1919, 1923, and 1944, and middle-class women such as Violet Firth, Monica Dickens, Celia Fremlin and Elaine Burton conducted their own research into the problem. (5) They all concluded that live-in servants' primary complaints were not about wages, or even about the difficulty of the work, but about the lowly status of domestic service, the social isolation, absence of regular working hours, and lack of free time. (6) While generally accepting the rigid class distinctions noted by Lisa Hoffman, British maids did not expect to be treated as social equals by their employers, but were especially upset when their mistresses and masters failed to regard them as fellow human beings. (7)

The working classes made it clear that they objected to working conditions that kept them on the margins of labor and society, but even the chronic shortage of servants did not induce employers to significantly alter their treatment of servants, for the same complaints appeared in every investigation. Instead, the servant-keeping classes pressured lawmakers to deny "the dole," (unemployment insurance) to young women who had lost their jobs in other fields in order to force them back in domestic service, and employers increasingly looked to the Continent for their cooks, nannies, parlor maids, and au pairs. (8) As Tony Kushner, the leading scholar on the subject of Jewish refugee domestics has noted, throughout the 1920s there were no restrictions on the employment of foreign domestics, and at least eleven thousand German and Austrian (non-Jewish) domestics were working in British homes by the end of that decade. (9) However, the economic distress of the Depression prompted the Ministry of Labour to institute regulations restricting the supply of "cheap foreign labour" in 1931, and these were still in place when thousands of desperate German Jewish women began to look at domestic service as a way to escape the ever-increasing threat of Nazi oppression.

From 1933 onward, German Jewish women had applied to enter the United Kingdom as domestics, but what had begun as a trickle of refugees had grown into a steady stream by 1937. (10) The Anschluss of March 1938 added Austrian women to the growing demand for domestic permits, and Kristallnacht transformed the flow into a torrent. In late 1938, the Ministry of Labour was relieved of the responsibility for issuing domestic service permits and the Home Office handed the task to a voluntary agency--the Central Office for Refugees (Bloomsbury House), and its subcommittee, the Domestic Bureau. This constituted a tacit admission by the government that the Jewish women applying for entry into Britain as servants were definitively refugees and not economic migrants, removing the ambiguities about their status that had existed under the Ministry of Labour. (11) The government also eased the 1931 regulations by expanding eligibility and allowing block grants for domestic servants to Jewish organizations in the threatened countries, allowing up to four hundred applicants a week enter the United Kingdom--an indication that their policies were moderated at least somewhat by humanitarian impulses. In the eight months before the war, between twelve thousand and fourteen thousand Jewish refugees managed to flee from Nazi repression by accepting jobs as servants in British homes. (12)

The beneficiaries of this compromise between "asylum and servitude," to paraphrase Tony Kushner, thus encountered British society at a time when its middle and upper classes still clung to their traditional models of servant-keeping. (13) Twenty thousand Jewish (predominantly women) refugees were thus poised to escape the increasing marginalization of Jews in the German Reich by taking up work at the very margins of British life. In examining how these women memorialized their experiences, this paper explores the intersection of two overarching themes: narration and marginality. These former refugees overwhelmingly used the frame of their pre-emigration lives in narrating their encounters with British household culture, their reception by Anglo-Jews and others, their reactions to an altered status and their adaptions to new lives. The imperatives of gratitude, interviewers' ignorance of residential domestic service, and institutional disinterest in the refugee experience all contributed to the mediation of refugees' life-narratives to the extent that the very act of transmitting their memories has contributed to their marginalization and virtual absence in British historical memory. Additionally, the inability to easily situate their stories within the unambiguous narratives of altruism and rescue that have grown up around other refugee groups in Great Britain has contributed to the neglect of their history. Although Jewish refugee domestics occupy a unique narrative space in British Jewish culture, they have occupied the margins of that space, both then and now.

I was spoiled... cherished, protected... and had an idyllic childhood
... No one could have had a better childhood. (14)

We had a rich good home--I didn't need to bother about nothing. I was
spoiled and it was beautiful... We had maids and we kids didn't need to
do anything and [ray mother] neither. (15)

It is impossible to understand how Jewish refugee domestics narrate their experiences as servants without taking into account their memories of childhood and growing up in pre-fascist Europe, and the reminiscences of Susi Linton and Gertrude Rowelsky quoted above are typical for this group of refugees. Susi, who arrived from Berlin at eighteen, was the self-described pampered only-child of a middle-class couple, while Gertrude, who was twenty when she arrived in the United Kingdom in 1939, was raised with one brother in a wealthy family from Graz, Austria. Although women aged eighteen to forty-five could apply for domestic permits, for a variety of reasons--the ease of securing jobs, fewer material, professional and economic ties, greater adaptability, and the encouragement of parents, to name a few--the majority of refugee domestics were similar to Susi and Gertrude: single women from Germany and Austria born between 1913 and 1921. (16)

These Jewish women came from a variety of backgrounds, both rural and urban, and spanned the spectrum from religiously observant to completely secular, but by a wide margin, they came from middle-class (or higher) assimilated professional and business families who had, until Nazi policies forbade such things, employed live-in servants themselves. Although a significant number came from less affluent backgrounds, at least 75 percent of the former refugee domestics whose testimonies or other ego documentation has been consulted for this research noted that they had grown up with residential maids, many in households that employed more than one servant. Quite a few of these women had enjoyed regular vacations to the seaside and mountains; they skated and skied in the winter and swam and played tennis in the summer. They routinely remarked on their piano lessons, French governesses, theater and opera-going, fashionable clothing, and professional educational aspirations. That the make-up of this group of refugees skewed so strongly to the daughters of the middle classes reflects the social-economic status of many German and Austrian Jews and the resources and contacts that such status conferred upon them when the time came to arrange for emigration and visas. Although a number of refugee domestics came from poorer families of Polish origin--especially in Vienna--it is clear that most of these women could not have been less suited for the jobs that awaited them, or less prepared to assume the positions of diminished status that domestic sen-ice required. They were painfully aware that they were often better educated, better travelled, better dressed, more sophisticated, and more genteelly brought up than their British employers, throwing the disparity between their former lives and their lives as servants into high relief.

The majority of former refugees spoke fondly and at length about their own families' domestic staffs in Germany and Austria. Many were raised by governesses and nannies, and recalled them affectionately by name. Eva Gorner, an only child born in Berlin in 1920 spoke for many when she said, "I loved my Emma and later my Frieda--they were like family members... I miss [them] to this day." (17) Like Eva, most of those interviewed emphasized the loyalty of their servants and their integration in the family's life. Marione Silverman, born in Austria in 1921, recalled that her mother "never did very much work" because they "had a lady in the house--but she was not named a maid--she was like a member of the family. She stood with us for all the years until she had to leave." (18) Many also spoke of the accommodations their families made to incorporate their servants into the household. Inge Adler, who was born in 1918 and grew up on a large estate in the German countryside with a full complement of staff including maids, manservant, and chauffeur, recalled "We had the most loveliest Christmases, with a Christmas tree, with the servants with us in the same room, with the grandparents, with present giving." (19) Dozens of women recalled similar scenes, and while those from assimilated families often recalled sharing in the Christmas festivities, for most, as Lisa Hoffman explained, the tree and presents were "mostly because we had maids and we certainly wanted them to have Christmas." (20)

A strong theme in these recollections is the positioning of domestic staff within the circle of the family. While there is less scholarship on domestic service in Germany than in England, it does seem as if there were significant differences in the relationships between employers and servants in the two countries. These derived from a number of factors including differing rigidities of class stratification, differences in housing and domestic spaces, and dissimilarities in the status that servant-keeping conferred. Many former refugee domestics made a point of explaining that employing a maid in Germany did not mean a family was wealthy or of high-status, and that it was an overwhelmingly common practice, even among modest households. German maids generally came from the countryside as young girls and took domestic jobs for a discrete period of time before marriage. Most German urbanites lived in flats, and their servants shared their living spaces, often eating with the family--conditions that were virtually unheard of in British homes. (21)

German servant-keeping customs provided a frame through which refugee domestics interpreted and evaluated their own experiences as maids, but their testimonies were also influenced by their later experiences of separation, trauma, and loss and mediated by idealized and even romanticized memories. These recollections of childhood and the place of serving staff in their households established the positionality that was critical to their interpretation of their own experiences as domestic servants and their treatment in British households. The succinct assessment of Herta Grove, who arrived in England from Hamburg aged twenty-three, represented the perceptions of many: "I was a real maid. Not how our maids were in Germany. But I was a real maid." (22) Herta's clear distinction between "real maids" and "German maids" was conditioned by memories of her "absolutely wonderful" Kinderfraulein [governess] who remained loyal to Herta's widowed mother "to the bitter end," and it implicitly signifies Herta's repositioning of herself from the center to the periphery of family life--an acknowledgement of the marginality that she felt working for British families.

The loss of status associated with treatment as a "real maid" came as a shock to most refugee domestics, many of whom were neither physically nor practically trained for the jobs that awaited them or psychologically prepared for the attitudes of their employers. Carola Domar, who was by her own account "a spoiled brat" brought up by a beloved nanny/cook who stayed with the family for sixteen years, came to Britain from Germany as a twenty-year-old and recalled that she had to "clean toilets, make beds, serve at the table, and here I was, the daughter of a lawyer growing up the way I did--as a maid... that was extremely painful to me. I cried and cried and cried." (23) Hildegard Hoffman, barely eighteen when she arrived as a self-described "spoiled Jewish princess" was hired as a nanny/au pair by a Jewish doctor's family and naively thought "isn't it wonderful... I'm going to meet everybody and that's going to be like my adopted family... and all I did was serve ... I wasn't included in anything." Even worse, she recalled, was having to do "the rough," as scrubbing the front steps with chalk stone was called, and she confessed that "in those early morning hours with this menial horrible task to do... I cried my eyes out every morning lying on my knees doing this job." (24) These testimonies speak not only to the demeaning work and marginalization attendant upon a servant's role in Britain, but the complete break from their previous lives. Having been forced out of their homes into a new country and language and separated from families whose fates hung in the balance, they had to make the transition from indulged daughters accustomed to living at the center of their families to lowly maids whose existence was barely acknowledged. When allowed to speak fully of these experiences, it is clear from their testimonies that this trauma still resonated painfully with these women many decades later.

Testimony shows that the transition was no easier for older women, many of whom had enjoyed autonomy, financial independence, and satisfying careers in their pre-emigration lives. Ann Callman and her identical twin Lilo had left business careers in Berlin to become maids at twenty-nine and Ann felt the change in the status acutely: "Most nights... but also during the day time, I was continuously in tears. And of course, when they came home and then they said, 'What, have you been crying again?' I had to kind of wash my eyes and contain myself, steel myself... not to let them see how you feel inside because they felt: 'look what we've done for her, she should be eternally grateful.'" (25) Ann's resentment was palpable as she described her Jewish employers "showing me off as a refugee. I don't think it was kindness. It was more like 'Here-I'm doing something for the poor refugee from Germany.'" She felt that she was expected "to say 'thank you for letting mc come to England to be alive.'" Many former refugees recalled being paraded by employers who expected public approbation for helping refugees--another kind of marginalization that emphasized their foreignness and indebtedness--and like Ann, resented the expectation of gratitude. Edith Kubie, whose wealthy Jewish mistress, "prided herself on taking in refugee servants" recounted her employers' agreement to guarantee Edith's parents, but only after demanding "every penny" that she had saved. About this episode, Edith, an only child who came to Britain as a teenager, remarked bitterly, "I guess this is another thing she could brag about." (26)

The hard work, loss of station, social isolation, expectations of gratitude, and copious tears described in these accounts recur throughout the testimonies of former refugee domestics. With few exceptions, they recalled that the physically taxing work of a maid, cook, or nanny in a British home was made more difficult by traditional attitudes toward housekeeping, the determination of mistresses to keep servants "in their place," and a concomitant lack of domestic modernization, long felt unnecessary in a country with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of domestic servants. Hanna Fischl, a young Czech with a PhD in education, one of many who chose domestic service in Britain while awaiting emigration to America, spent about three months as a maid in England, and wrote with a wry detachment about her experiences, secure in the knowledge that her servitude would be brief. Like many prospective domestics, Hanna had taken a short course in domestic science, both in anticipation of her future duties and to help her pass the "domestic exam" required by many British consuls in order to weed out those who were patently unsuitable for domestic work. She became skilled in ironing men's shirts, and in setting, serving, and clearing tables, but nothing prepared her for the backbreaking work expected by her demanding employer. On her first day in the Anderson household, their British maid awoke Hanna at 6:45, and after a cup of tea, "Together we 'dusted' downstairs; that is to say, we tidied up and wiped furniture and floor, the whole vast expanse. I wondered whether they knew about mops and was told, yes, they realized mops and brooms existed, but wanted us to do it the way it had always been done, on our hands and knees." (27) Hanna's experiences are corroborated by the memoirs and oral histories of former British domestic servants, who generally believed that the failure to furnish maids with long handled cleaning tools and other labor-saving devices communicated an emphatic desire to remind servants of their place by keeping them literally on their knees. (28)

Jewish refugee domestics relate numerous other ways in which their lives were made more difficult by the working conditions in British homes, and their employers' determination to treat them with the same class-based imperatives that governed their treatment of British maids. Inge Adler, who had been raised in exceptional privilege told of her first job in a Jewish household in Manchester: "Another Jewish girl came two weeks after I was there... she was used to working and we two always laughed about it. But when I was alone I did not laugh. I didn't know chamber pots existed. We all used a toilet [in Germany]." (29) Again, it is clear that the refugees' prior lives played a large role in the way that they narrated their experiences in British homes, especially in contrasting their modern German and Austrian households with the backwardness they perceived in British homes and domestic practices. Acceding to what they considered barbaric British traditions exacerbated the disdain they felt for the jobs they were required to do. Alice Fraser, whom I interviewed in 2017 when she was ninety-four, recalled with disgust and resentment that her employers, a wealthy retired stockbroker and his wife, had a spacious modern bathroom near their bedroom, but that "the old woman," as Alice referred to her, insisted on using a chamber pot, which Alice had to collect, empty and clean every morning--a debasement that Alice firmly believed, based upon the whole of her treatment in the household, was meant to keep her "in her place." (30)

Among the many anachronisms that former domestics recalled having encountered in British homes, perhaps nothing bedeviled them more than the British devotion to open coal-burning fireplaces and the great coal-fired kitchen-basement boilers that had to be kept going for hot water. One of these was Marion Smith's mother, whose permit for work in a nearby estate had been arranged by Marion's employers. Quickly realizing that the older woman "couldn't manage at all," Marion took to cycling over to her mother's place every day to help her: "She was lost in this house where she was supposed to light a fire. Never lit a fire. In those days that was all you had to do, really, light fires and a boiler and she had never seen anything like that in her life. We had central heating in Germany and she was completely lost." (31) The recitation of comparisons between their "superior" European customs and those they encountered in British homes was a constant in these testimonies. By consistently framing their experiences as maids through the lens of their former lives, they were able to separate themselves to some extent from the demeaning work they were required to perform, and to retain a semblance of their former identities, preserving the distinction between themselves and their adopted role as common maids. Marion, who also had her own work as upper housemaid in the large estate where she was employed, admitted that having grown up in a wealthy household employing a staff of six, "I wasn't much good either." There was a certain pride in this refrain, echoed in scores of testimonies, that emphasized these refugee domestics' belief in their unsuitability for the role of servant and their inability (or refusal) to become a "good maid."

Despite the laborious work and primitive conditions that appear in the narrations of refugee domestics, it was the treatment they received from their employers that features most prominently in their testimonies. Harsh words and unfeeling indifference were vividly recalled by Susi Linton, who characterized her first job as "a nightmare from day one":
"Clean the steps, get the breakfast ready and start the washing"...
That's the way they talked to me, there was no personal contact, no
sympathy, nothing, nothing.... I found out that two or three girls were
in the same area, refugee girls... and we were all in the same boat.
They all complained the same as I did how badly treated they were. We
got together on our day off. We used to go to Lyon's Corner House and
stay all after noon with a cup of coffee, crying... I wasn't frightened
of work, I was healthy, I was young. I didn't mind the work but I did
mind--I objected to the way I was treated. (32)

Like her British counterparts, Susi's complaints about domestic service centered not on the work but on her employer's attitude toward her. A British maid, however, habituated to class conventions, would likely not have been greatly offended by the manner in which Susi Linton described being spoken to. But Susi's job was "a nightmare" because she did not receive the sympathy, kindness, and personal interest that she had been conditioned by her prior life to expect, and her disgruntlement was reinforced by the other refugee girls with whom she commiserated. As Lisa Hoffman indicated in the quotation at the beginning of this paper, refugee domestics were well aware of the way in which British maids were treated, but this did not lead them to forgive similar treatment when later narrating their life experiences. In a similar testimony, Helga Lemer, another self-confessed pampered only child, who was thrust at nineteen into a job as the sole child minder, cook and housemaid including "the rough," described being routinely humiliated by her mistress, who accused her of stealing, underfed her, and required her to use an outside toilet rather than the one in the house. (This type of "sanitary" exclusion was not uncommon for maids in British homes, and some former refugee domestics also reported that they were forbidden to touch the family's bedding). Helga quit after three months, despite her employers' threat to send her back to Germany. She admitted that she was not the best employee, "but if they had treated me nicely, I might have been more ambitious to be a good maid." (33)

Not all refugee domestics felt ill-used, and some reported that their employers who, while not warm and friendly, treated them well enough--for a servant. For these women, loneliness and social isolation were remembered most acutely. One of these was Marion Friedlaender, another only child who was twenty-one when she arrived. Like many, she perceived her first job as a disaster, and she made her escape after only a month. She described her second position with a Quaker family who lived in a huge two-story home where she was the only servant, looking after four children, doing all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry: "They were very nice people BUT--a servant is a servant. A maid is a maid. The food that was leftover at the table, I and the dog--Tinker was his name--was for us in the kitchen. My place was the kitchen... I sat in the kitchen crying, crying, crying and the dog was next to me putting his paws on me and licking my tears... he was my best friend, that dog. (34) Similarly, Trude Bibring, who was eighteen when she went to work for a vicar and his wife, noted "there was no social interaction--I sat in the kitchen, they sat in the lounge. I had my meals in the kitchen, they had their meals in the lounge." When she visited the kitchen, Trude's employer "was very friendly, very nice, but never would she say, 'Join us'." (35) The physical marginalization of being relegated to the kitchen for meals, which was the norm in British servant-keeping households, was reported with extraordinary frequency by former refugee domestics. Once again, prior memories of growing up with maids who shared family meals and a tenaciously held identity as middle class--and thus the social equals of their employers--meant that such exclusions rankled more than the hard work they had to perform when they recalled their lives years later. Well aware of the exceptionality of such a gesture in a British household, the minority who were invited to eat with their employers emphasized this point in their testimonies and often noted their good fortune in finding employers who treated them more or less as equals.

Their employers' social distance and their disinterest in the circumstances that had driven the foreign maids in their midst to become domestic servants was frequently, and often disparagingly, noted in testimonies. Rita Winterton, who was in her mid-twenties when she arrived in the United Kingdom, recalled that her employer, who treated her nicely, nevertheless commented that her refugee servants "behaved so differently than English maids and cooks," noting their good handwriting, lovely clothing and interest in reading books. As Rita remarked irritably, "She often asked us stupid questions" and "either didn't know or didn't want to know" that "we were pushed into these jobs." (36) Most of the young refugee domestics found it possible to eventually accommodate themselves to the drudgery of their work, but being banished and cut off from meaningful human contact with employers who seemed uninterested in them or the persecutions that had forced them to become maids compounded their feelings of loss and underscored the price they had paid for their safety.

Refugee domestics were free to change jobs, but many recall that their employers took advantage of their vulnerability as aliens to intimidate them into staying, or shame them for leaving. Several former refugees recounted the threats they received from employers who were also tribunal judges. These judges were responsible for designating foreigners as "friendly" or "enemy" aliens--designations that were critical to internment decisions. Lisa Hoffman said of the judge who was her employer: "he held my fate." His constant threats to have her interned discouraged her from leaving or even asking for a raise. However, after the war she realized "how lucky I would have been to go to an internment camp... they never heard the sound of an air raid signal or a bomb coming down ... but I never was that fortunate because he exempted me from that." (37) Relatively few refugee domestics were interned, but their testimonies generally confirm Lisa's appraisal. Not only were they far from the bombing, but for most, internment was a release from hated domestic work. They were fed and housed reasonably comfortably in requisitioned hotels on the Isle of Man, and they gained the unexpected, if somewhat ironic privilege of communicating more freely with their families in occupied Europe, since they were classified as prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention. (38) However, despite its relative comforts, the physical isolation of internment was an emphatic social marginalization of Jewish refugees, who had been scooped up with other foreigners in an undifferentiated alien mass without regard to their status as refugees from fascism.

Threats of internment or deportation were not the only ways that employers intimidated refugee domestics. Some employers took advantage of their foreign maids by underpaying or docking wages or used the threat of a poor recommendation, or none at all, to keep them at their jobs. Refugees' belongings, too, became bargaining chips in these clashes. Those who were fortunate enough to have brought trunks packed with clothes, linens, and other household items often asked their employers' permission to store them in their rooms or attics where they could then be held hostage by employers when their maids gave notice, as Nelly Kuttner, a thirty-four-year-old refugee from Vienna, discovered to her dismay. When war broke out, her well-to-do employer decamped to the countryside with her children and asked Nelly to stay on and look after her husband and the house--for no pay. Nelly refused, but soon discovered she could not get another job without a reference, and when she returned to ask for one and pick up her luggage, the mistress, who had by then returned, flew into a rage on discovering, that, as Nelly put it, "the slave had left!" She refused to give a reference and told Nelly that if she wanted her luggage, she would have to work for it: "In that moment I was thinking 'from the Nazis I have escaped from lying down to wash the pavement and here I have to wash the floor.' I took off my lovely silk stockings. I took off my silk dress, went up into the room and did the floor. (39) Equating their treatment in England with the humiliations imposed on Jews by the Nazis was another frame through which prior experiences impacted upon later narrations of life as refugee maids. Soon after this episode, Nelly Kuttner said she had a complete nervous breakdown, and was supported for several months by Bloomsbury House until she felt well enough to resume work.

Compounding Nelly's distress was the fact her employers were Jewish, and like many former refugee domestics, she struggled to narrate the bitterness she felt over such treatment at the hands of co-religionists. About 40 percent of my research cohort worked in at least one AngloJewish household, and over two-thirds of these placements were described in strikingly negative terms. Domestics who had bad experiences in Jewish homes uniformly expressed feelings of betrayal, though some were reluctant to commit these stories to tape for posterity. Susi Linton felt exploited in three different Jewish households in Manchester, but refused to identify her employers by name "because these people are still around." (40) Elizabeth Bernheim, who came from Germany at nineteen, had the same hesitancy: "Maybe I shouldn't say anything. I mean ... I was with two Christian families who were very nice and treated me like part of the family and the Jewish family treated me like a maid, full stop." (41) Natalie Huss-Smickler was so overworked cleaning the twenty-three room Kensington mansion of a wealthy Jewish doctor that she called her brother, also a refugee in London, for help: "And I'm sorry to say, I don't know if I should say it, I'm sorry to say my brother phones my employer to say that it's such hard long hours and so on and she said, 'Well, if it's too much for her I send her back to Hitler.' True. And I left." (42) Despite their disinclination to "name and shame" their Jewish employers, these women all expressed disappointment at being disregarded in the very homes in which they had expected to be received sympathetically. Giving their interviews to the London-based Association of Jewish Refugees was likely a factor in their disinclination to express negative feelings about British Jews--a reluctance that was, however, not shared by all.

Many former domestics ascribed their ill-treatment in Anglo-Jewish households to long-standing Ostjuden/Westjuden animosities provoked by the Russian/Polish origins of the majority of British Jews. Though employers rarely articulated these feelings explicitly, some, like Hildegard Hoffman, the naive refugee who expected her employers to treat her as a family member, believed that she was subjected to such enmity. She related that in every conversation she had with her mistress, the woman told Hildegard how mistreated her family had been in Germany, where they had come as immigrants from Russia in the early 1900s: "And little by little it finally dawned on me that the feeling that they had for anybody who was German-Jewish was... almost wrathful, and the reason they had let me come over was to show me that a German Jew could be a very menial servant and being treated like maybe some of the Russian Jews had been treated... it was a kind of vengeance thing that had made them sign the paper. And when I realized that it added to my homesickness and my depression." (43) Significantly, Hildegard expounded at length in her testimony about the divisions between Ostjuden and German Jews, discussing her complete separation from them in Leipzig while she was growing up and noting regretfully, "there was no closeness, and looking back, I think it was a loss." Regrets about her family's disdain for the Jews that lived on the margins of Jewish culture in Germany had likely been heightened by her own experience of marginalization in Britain among Anglo-Jews--an experience that had recalibrated her memories of pre-emigration life and influenced the way in which she narrated both her childhood and her life as a refugee.

The minority who did not testify negatively about their Anglo-Jewish employers rarely spoke about them in glowing terms either. Many reported working for "very nice" families, to whom they owed gratitude, while also noting that they were still required to do all the work expected of a maid. Herta Gertler's was typical of many of these experiences. Although, she testified, she "felt terrible" about being a servant, "on the other hand I felt it was saving my life": "I did something I never did in my life because I never even worked at home.... But the people were pretty nice and I could eat at the table with them. I was like a member of the family and I loved the children so it wasn't really that hard--I got accustomed to it." (44) A very few, like Felicitas Werschker, unequivocally praised their Jewish employers. The twenty-three-year-old, an only child raised in comfortable circumstances in Germany, was sponsored by a middle-class Anglo-Jewish family, the Golds, whom, she testified, "were sent from the heavens." She claimed that she actually enjoyed the work and that the family were her "nearest and dearest friends." She said she avoided associating with fellow refugees who just talked about their "terrible stories" because the Golds were "so wonderful I didn't want to be miserable around them." (45)

However, Felicitas Werschker was the exception, both in extolling her Anglo-Jewish employers and in socializing only with her "comforting English circle." Most former refugee domestics, in contrast, reported minimal social interaction with the British, and especially British Jews, for which they offered a variety of reasons. Lily Pollock, who was in her early twenties when she arrived from Vienna with her older sister, also a refugee domestic, noted that although she had "really very nice experiences from non-Jews, not one Jewish person really welcomed us at all here, all the years we were here." (46) Anna Liberal, another Viennese refugee, worked for a Jewish family in Gerrard's Cross, which had a large population of observant Jews, but "Nobody said to me, 'Come, you're Jewish, why don't you come to the service.' I was just the maid." (47) Ruth Webster, who came from Germany at the age of twenty said, "Even the Anglo-Jews rejected us. They were Polish and the way the German Jews treated the Poles they remembered and took out on us. We were rejected by one country and not accepted by another." (48) And Gerda Tintner, an orthodox girl from Vienna, noted that when she and her refugee friends attended services in England: "The English young women were a little afraid of the European girls--we looked different and behaved different--there was a certain jealousy there when we went to temple.... The English [Jews] didn't befriend us, not at all. We refugees stuck together." (49) The vast majority echoed Gerda Tintner and testified that they socialized only with fellow refugees. As refugees and German speakers, many of these women felt rejected by Anglo-Jewry and initially encountering them within the unequal power relationship of master and servant only exacerbated the distance between them. Many Jewish refugees experienced similar cultural distancing in Great Britain, but domestic service, with its extreme social isolation, exacerbated the experience of living on the very margins of British Jewish life and culture. One of the most potent markers of this social distance is the fact that among this research group of refugee domestics who married after emigration, about two-thirds wed fellow refugees, showing that even after leaving domestic service, they were unable/unwilling to bridge the cultural, religious, and class differences that had initially kept them apart from Anglo-Jewry and indeed British society at large. (50)

Not all refugee domestics found the native Jewish society unwelcoming, however, and for some it was a vital support as they negotiated their own religious lives. Heidi Goldfarb and another maid named Grete were among the first refugees to take up employment in Wolverhampton, where they found the local Jewish community very warm and welcoming, and the Leeds Jewish community was a source of great support to Trude Bibring as she tried to maintain her observant, orthodox faith while working in a vicar's household. (51) Although Trude had been terrified at the thought of working for "Gentiles," the vicar's wife bought her an inexpensive set of dishes and cookware to use as her own and they allowed her Friday evening and Saturday off (though they refused her request to visit a young cousin on Sundays, their "day of rest"). Trude, who was careful to note in her testimony that the work "wasn't oppressive" and that the Packenhams, her employers, had been "very, very correct" with her, was surprised that when she gave notice after only six months, the vicar's wife did not try to convince her to stay, but instead expressed her disappointment that the young refugee had not converted to Christianity, since she and the vicar had been so kind and accommodating to her. (52) Trude, among the least likely of those who might have considered converting, was exceptional in maintaining her orthodoxy in a non-Jewish setting. Much more commonly, refugees adapted to their new lives, as Gerda Tintner explained: "You know, I didn't sew or write on the Shabbos 'til I came to England. I never ate a piece of pork until then. I had to do it because I lived with Gentile people; I couldn't be different, I had to adjust myself, otherwise I wouldn't have survived. And I wanted to survive. I wanted to live." (53) It is difficult to overstate the significance of this admission. The totality of the break with her former life when she became a refugee domestic is represented by her violation of lifelong Jewish dietary and Sabbath proscriptions, which she characterized as a necessity. This pragmatism marked many of the responses of Jewish refugee domestics as they grasped the reality of their subservient positions and prioritized survival in their new environment, and their later testimonies often include important reflections on the choices they made in order to survive.


Throughout their interviews and memoirs, former refugee domestics communicate, both implicitly and explicitly, their feelings about having been forced to become domestic servants in order to escape Nazi rule, often revealing their emotional and psychological responses to living in exile. Many of the former refugees' testimonies are strikingly and critically self-aware--the product of decades of reflection and attempts to make sense of their experiences. For example, Ann Uiberal, who stayed in domestic service throughout the entire war despite her disenchantment with her employers and the Jewish community of Gerrard's Cross, explained in a somewhat apologetic tone: "Other refugees had more guts than I. They worked as waiters in Lyons Corner House and had little apartments but I didn't have this energy or the guts to get out of there." (54) Even more doleful was Carol Kutner, an only child who was barely eighteen when she went to work for a woman who was "not nice. It has to be said. I was not treated nice. I was treated as 'I found somebody I can wash the floor with'--like that because I was utterly in her power--utterly." Describing herself as "the most alone young lady you ever met," she hinted darkly, "I was a very unhappy girl--more than unhappy. I wanted to forget the whole thing." (55) A similarly embittered reflection was made by Ann Callman, who described how difficult it was "to come out of Germany and go as a domestic to England as we did where you had to swallow your pride quite a bit to do work which you at home had people who did it for you," concluding "it would take books to describe what pride I personally had to swallow." (56) These testimonies provide vital insights into the ways vulnerable women dealt with the shock of leaving home, and adapted to or buckled under the stresses and traumas that their persecution and being pushed to the peripheries in exile had forced upon them.

Others were more pragmatic when asked about how it felt to become a maid in the United Kingdom, emphasizing their agency and resilience. Eva Feist, who had come from Germany as an eighteen-year-old was philosophical: "I was young. It had to be done. There wasn't a big choice of jobs to be had. There was no other way to get out. So go. I do it." (57) Herta Grove, who came over at twenty-two, felt mistreated and overworked in a Jewish household in Manchester but proclaimed proudly: "I was a real maid. And tried to get out of it. And I got out of it. I thought I never would but I got out of it. Gradually, step by step I got out of it." (58) Selma Wilson, who had just turned nineteen when she arrived, was, like many others, unprepared for the demands of domestic service, but her employers "treated me like their own child, really," and she said, "I managed okay, they were very nice and I managed, I learned. I knew I had to do it." She "tried very hard" and "couldn't do enough for them" because "I was grateful that they brought me over.... I was very happy that I was alive." (59)

Selma Wilson remained with the same family until 1942 when the arrival of a military base forced her to leave the area, but those whose employers were less congenial often learned from their experiences. Armed with a better command of English and a clearer understanding of the institution of domestic service, they secured less onerous, and in some cases, even happy placements. For example, after Nelly Kuttner left the Jewish mistress who had made her scrub the floor in order to reclaim her luggage, she took a job caring for the household of a non-Jewish elderly-man and his spinster daughter. There, she was treated as an equal, valued member of the household, which restored her equilibrium and confidence, and she stayed with them for nearly four years, long after she could have left domestic service and taken up war work. (60) Marion Fiedlaender, whose only friend in her first job was the dog Tinker, eventually found work with a kindly German Jewish family where she "felt like a daughter." And Else Lindner, who cried herself to sleep every night at her first job where she was underfed, overworked, and "felt treated like a slave," later found a job in which she was taught to play bridge, allowed to avail herself of the huge library and beautiful home, and felt treated as one of the family. She stayed with them until she married her refugee fiance in 1943. (61) What is notable about these testimonies are the implicit descriptions of being pulled from the margins and into the center of family life, demonstrating the immense significance of their employers' treatment in their attitudes toward domestic service and decision to remain servants, even after they were allowed to take other work.

When Else Lindner testified that the employers with whom she found such a warm reception "took me in as a person," she was making a profoundly important statement about her experience as a refugee domestic--one that was echoed in many other accounts. After months or years of dehumanizing treatment under Nazi rule, followed by the shock of being treated as social inferiors, it made a deep impression on these women when their employers communicated to them: "I recognize you as a fellow human being, a social equal, and as someone who has suffered." Some, like Gertrude Black, were fortunate to receive this kind of reception immediately. After enduring a number of traumas including the arrest of her husband and serious illness of her baby, Gertrude, her husband, and child arrived in Edinburgh feeling "like the last dirt on earth. You have no money, your language is very bad, and you have nobody... in a strange city." But their sponsor, Mrs. Moncrieff, the wife of a minister, laid a breakfast table for the refugee family in the dining room, while she, her husband, and their son ate in the kitchen, an act of deference that Gertrude described as "Wonderful! You know, it makes you feel like a mensch again." (62) Likewise, Lily Crewe, who, like many refugee domestics, had been forced out of a satisfying job by the anti-alien restrictions placed on coastal areas in early 1940, was unhappy in her second job, but found comfort in visiting a fellow refugee domestic on her days off: "She was part of the family... she was one of them. To go there, to me, oh, it was lovely, you really felt you were a mensch again." (63) One of the most unguarded of such testimonies is that of Carol Kutner, the refugee who had hinted at suicidal thoughts while unhappily placed as a domestic in England. After she immigrated to the United States in 1940, she was once again forced to take on domestic work. But after her marriage in 1942, "I worked no more in people's houses... I was out of people's houses, I was a human being again." (64)

Carol Kutner, like many of the former domestics, was quite forthcoming in her interview, and was given the opportunity to explore and express complex feelings about her refugee experiences, but in common with many others, her narration suggested that much remained unspoken and that issues in her past remained unresolved. Before she became "a human being again," she had endured a lengthy and lonely existence in New York--years that she was reluctant to discuss in detail: "I really still had nobody--I was TOTALLY alone and people will take advantage of other people when they are totally alone. There's things here that none of my family know... so I don't know if I will ever tell. It was sad, okay? There were people I met that now I look back, I say to myself how could I have been so gullible? I was being used left and right, but I was just happy for anybody who could give me some comfort." Carol never elaborated on the ways in which she was "used," but it is not difficult to intuit her meaning. The passage of time had afforded her some insight into behavior she now regretted, but it was clear she still carried such a heavy load of shame and guilt that she could neither completely forgive her refugee-self nor bear to delve more deeply into that period in her life.

The sexual exploitation implicit in Carol's testimony is mentioned with surprising frequency in the testimonies of refugee domestics, but because of the shame that it carried for women who never experienced the "#metoo" movement, it was often minimized or made light of. Sexual harassment and assaults by both masters and grown sons highlight the gross imbalances of power between the domestic and the employer, which were heightened in the case of foreign maids whose position in wartime Britain was insecure and marginal. Lisa Hoffman endured an attempted rape by the husband of one of her mistresses, but she told no one about it when she gave notice, and told her mistress only that the work was too hard. (65) Herta Graham, barely nineteen when she arrived, was also sexually assaulted by her employer when the mistress was away, but she stayed in the job because it was a kosher home, and she was afraid she would not find another position that would allow her to keep her religion intact. (66) Margot Forbes made light of her employer's sexual advances saying "He thought he had droit de seigneur but... when I made it clear to him that nothing was going he desisted," and she too stayed in the job. (67) When her employer's sons made advances to Herta Jacoby, the twenty-seven-year-old "slapped their faces," but she was told it was her own fault when she complained about their behavior. She continued to work for the unsympathetic Jewish family because she felt "trapped," remarking cryptically "there was only one way to get away." (68) When the same thing happened to eighteen-year-old Gisela Fayers, she left the job, but admitted to a suicide attempt shortly thereafter--a disclosure that punctuates how devastating such violations were to vulnerable young refugees. She was among several refugee domestics who confessed to thinking about or even attempting suicide, so desperate did they feel about their situations. (69) Considering their marginality as refugees, domestics, and women, it is unsurprising that none of these women reported their sexual assault to anyone in authority, and only in old age did they break their silences about these transgressions.

Some interviewees admitted dealing with their painful pasts by deliberately forgetting much about their refugee experiences, while others withheld important episodes from their testimonies--or found no opening in their structured interviews to reveal the deepest parts of their past. Liselotte Berghausen was one of the latter, and her story--of falling in love with her refugee employer and becoming the de facto mother to his two young sons after their mother was trapped on the Continent during the war--was a dramatic and moving one. Holding out little hope that the wife would survive the maelstrom, Liselotte and her lover planned to marry after the war, but fate intervened and the wife survived, leaving Liselotte heartbroken and alone. She immigrated to the United States, married and had two children, but the story of her tragic romance does not surface in her recorded testimony, and I only learned it from one of her daughters, whom I met quite by chance. She had never listened to her mother's testimony, and was surprised to learn that the two-hour interview contained no hint of this traumatic episode, but vaguely recalled her mother being very unhappy afterward because the interviewer "did not ask her the right questions." (70) This episode highlights both the problematics of interviewing and the institutional imperatives of testimonycollecting that affected Liselotte's ability to tell her entire story, and these were substantive and critical issues throughout the entire range of interviews consulted for this study.

When they encountered interviewers with little conception of their lives as refugee and domestics (which was often), these interviewees employed a number of strategies to facilitate the narration of their stories. A common approach was to employ popular culture touchstones to help their interviewers and later listeners visualize their lives, a tactic utilized by Hortense Gordon, who described her life on the huge estate where she had come to work at eighteen: "I was cook general and then in the next room was the house parlor maid--also came from Germany a few weeks after me--and then there was a kitchen maid and there was, you name it, it was a bit like Upstairs, Downstairs, only not quite so posh." References to the hit 1970s British drama about master-servant relations in early twentieth-century London--the precursor to the more recent Downton Abbey--abounded in these testimonies, and it was clear to see that the dramatization of life "below stairs" had become an important reference point for the former domestics as they tried to convey their experiences to audiences that were generally ignorant about live-in domestic service in Britain.

Interviewers' unfamiliarity with the institution of domestic service in the United Kingdom was most pronounced in testimonies collected outside Great Britain, which comprise about 75 percent of the interviews used in this study. This widespread lack of understanding highlights one of the main difficulties in transmitting the stories of these women as a distinct refugee cohort. Around the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, public memories and myth-making about the Holocaust and responses to the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s gained momentum, spurred on by the effort to collect oral histories and testimony. It was during this period that refugees such as the Kindertransportees were "discovered," and subsequently celebrated as an example of valorous humanitarianism on the part of the British government and people. Refugee domestics could not be as easily characterized in sympathetic terms as vulnerable children sent "into the arms of strangers," and thus experienced no concomitant "discovery." This can partly be attributed to ignorance about the realities of British residential domestic service (as opposed to its romanticized renderings on film), which by that time had faded into memory as a quaint and sentimentalized anachronism.

Former refugee domestics who attempted to convey their experiences to testimony-gathering organizations eager to record "Holocaust testimonies" faced not only ignorance about domestic service, but interviewers who placed little value upon either the refugee or the domestic-service experience. Most commonly, this was communicated to them when they were cut off by their interviewers once the narrative reached the period of domestic service in Britain. A striking example of this interrogatory suppression occurred in one of Lisa Hoffman's testimonies with an interviewer who frequently interrupted and redirected her. When Lisa reached the moment of her arrival in Britain, she declaimed dramatically: "the chauffeur drove me to a god-forsaken place--it looked like a ruin--and that's when my troubles really started." Providing an opening that fairly-begged the interviewer to inquire "What happened next?," Lisa was instead asked to return to describing her feelings about leaving Germany and discuss the family she left behind. (71) These intrusive and all too common interruptions in the flow of the refugee's life-story powerfully signal interviewers' preferences for stories of persecution and trauma and communicate to the former refugee domestics that their own stories are less valuable than the stories of those who suffered and perished on the Continent. (72) In one collection of testimonies, questioning commenced in 1933, depriving the interviewees the opportunity to discuss their childhoods and pre-fascist era lives. None of the interviewers from this same institution evinced the slightest interest in the former refugees' experiences once they reached Britain, and the interviewees were in some cases bullied into limiting their testimonies to a description of the lives of family members who perished. In too many interviews, women were denied the opportunity to fully narrate their own stories, and this implicit devaluing of the refugee domestic experience has perpetuated the marginalization that marked their lives under Nazi rule and as refugee domestics in the United Kingdom.

Testimony collectors' ignorance about and unresponsiveness to refugee domestics' life stories parallels their nearly complete absence in wider British prewar and wartime narratives of the 1930s and 1940s, and this has had a profound impact on the way they think about and understand their own experiences and the ways in which they tell their own stories of persecution, flight, adaptation, and resilience. Their unique position as refugees who were permitted to earn a living obscured their vulnerability both then and now, and blunted their ability to unequivocally possess their own very real trauma and suffering. There is no clearer evidence of their ambiguous place in narratives of survival than the Yad Vashem "Page of Testimony" that Eva Feist filled out for her mother, who was murdered in the Holocaust. Below the box asking if the submitter is a survivor of the Shoah, Eva wrote: "April 1939, I escaped to England as a maid. Do you consider me a Shoah survivor?" (73)


The Jewish women who came to Britain as domestic servants were refugees on the margins in every possible sense. Coming from lives of relative privilege in which they existed at the center of their families made the contrast with the physical, social, emotional, and cultural marginalization they experienced in Great Britain even more acute. After experiencing intensifying persecution in their homelands, they grabbed at any opportunity to escape, but from the moment they entered Great Britain, they were subsumed into private homes, socially isolated, and often treated inhumanely while performing physically exhausting labor in the lowest-status jobs in British society. They were expected to feel gratitude for their salvation, and they were grateful to have survived, but most felt unwelcomed by the Anglo-Jewish community and many testified that they were forever "the bloody foreigner" to the average British citizen. Thus, many remained on the margins of British and Anglo-Jewish life, socializing and marrying within the exile community.

The large number of testimonies from former refugee domestics that I was able to locate--surely not the only ones in existence--attests to their interest in telling their stories within the context of persecution and survival during the fascist era, begging the question why they are unrecognized and unremembered as a distinct refugee and survivor cohort. Though coming from a range of ages and pre-emigration experiences, this study has demonstrated that their differences in both background and as domestic servants in Great Britain are not so great as to make it impossible to quantify them as a unique refugee group. Their stories add a rich and important chapter to the history of the interwar and wartime period and deserve to be told. One of the things that comes through most powerfully in these testimonies is how young, vulnerable, and traumatized many of these women were, yet ironically, it has been the inability to characterize refugee domestics in this way that has hindered their "discovery" and commemoration along with other refugee groups who found asylum in the United Kingdom. Among the many impediments to such a portrayal are the fact that they came on a quid pro quo basis, denying them the myth-making power of an altruistic, humanitarian narrative such as the Kindertransportees have enjoyed.

In addition, unlike groups of dazed children with tags hanging from their necks arriving en masse on boats and trains to great fanfare over a short few months, the domestics came singly, anonymously and continuously for many months, and were immediately absorbed and submerged in British households all across the land. No nationwide public appeals were made for them, no money raised for their upkeep, for they were allowed--required--to work for their chance at escape. Denied widespread recognition at the time, they volunteered in large numbers to tell their stories later, at a time when the public was receptive to narratives of survival, but even this critical mass of testimony failed to provide the necessary traction for the history of the refugee domestics to emerge. Even in their acts of testimony-giving, they were often thwarted by the ignorance of interviewers and institutional disinterest in the lives and experiences of refugee maids. Nevertheless, they have narrated their stories in hundreds of testimonies and memoirs, recording for posterity not only the shock, alienation, and drudgery of their lives as servants and foreigners, but their agency, mastery, and reintegration as they got "out of people's houses" and "became human again."


(1.) Lisa Hoffman, HVT-598 (1985), Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library (hereafter FVA) and interview 44709 (1999), Visual History Archive, University of Southern California Shoah Foundation (hereafter VHA).

(2.) See Refugee Voices, AJR, EXILE, Jewish Voices of the Holocaust, British Library and Imperial War Museum.

(3.) See Craig-Norton, "Contesting the Kindertransport" and The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory, for a more critical scholarship on their experiences, and an acknowledgment of the tragedy of their parents, who were not allowed to join them.

(4.) McBride, The Domestic Revolution, 45,112-13; Davidoff, "Mastered for Life," 410; and Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, 25. The decade ending in 1921 saw an 8 percent decline in the number employed in domestic service in the UK. By 1931, the domestic service workforce had increased again by 17 percent due to economic factors including the Depression, but still, fewer than 25 percent of working women were in service in 1931.

(5.) See Bibliography for their contributions.

(6.) Ministry of Labour, Report into the Present Conditions as to the Supply of Female Domestic Servants, 14--16.

(7.) See for example Margaret Powell, Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid (Basingstoke: Pan, 2011); Winifred Foley, The Forest Trilogy (Oxford: Oxford University, 1992), and Jean Rennie, Every Other Sunday (London: Arthur Baker, 1955) among many memoirs from former British domestics.

(8.) Report into the Present Conditions as to the Supply of Female Domestic Servants, Appendix D, 42-53.

(9.) Kushner, "An Alien Occupation," 557; The Holocaust and the "Liberal Imagination, 92-93; and Journeys from the Abyss, 69.

(10.) Kushner, The Holocaust and the "Liberal Imagination, 96. The Home Office did not differentiate between Jewish and non-Jewish aliens seeking work permits, but perhaps half of the fourteen thousand domestic service visas issued in 1938 were given to Jewish refugees.

(11.) Mr. E. Brown, House of Commons Debate "Refugees," February 24, 1939, Hansard House of Commons, vol. 344, 786W articulated this ambiguity, noting that since the Anschluss, "6,156 permits have been issued by the Ministry of Labour for the employment of German and Austrian women in private residential domestic service here and, although in these cases the applications were dealt with on ordinary employment grounds, it is probable that many of the foreigners concerned must now be regarded as refugees."

(12.) Kushner, The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination, 98-100.

(13.) Kushner, "Asylum or servitude?," 19.

(14.) Susi Linton, interview 78 (2004), Refugee Voices, Association of Jewish Refugees (hereafter RV).

(15.) Gertrude Rowelsky, interview 19204 (1996), VHA.

(16.) The age was lowered to sixteen in mid-1945, but few domestics under eighteen actually received permits.

(17.) Eva Corner, interview HVT-4392 (2007), FVA.

(18.) Marione Silverman, interview 11859 (1996), VHA.

(19.) Inge Adler, interview 18 (2003), RV

(20.) Lisa Hoffman, FVA.

(21.) See Wierling, "Women Domestic Servants."

(22.) Herta Grove, interview VT/31524025911 (2001), Yad Vashem (hereafter YV).

(23.) Carola Domar, interview 42125 (1998), VHA.

(24.) Hildegard Hoffman, interview 23246 (1996), VHA.

(25.) Ann and Lilo Callmann, interview RG-50.150*0002 (1977-8), Rosalyn Manowitz/Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation Collection, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Hereafter RMHT/USHMM).

(26.) Edith Kubie, interview 47184 (1998), VHA. See also Blanka Moscisker, interview 44606 (1998), VHA.

(27.) Spencer, Hanna's Diary, 77, 86.

(28.) See memoirs cited in note 7 and Lucy Delap, Ben Griffin and Abigail Wills, eds., The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain since 1800 (Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009); Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Judy Giles, The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

(29.) Adler, VHA.

(30.) Alice Fraser interview with author, London, February 21, 2017.

(31.) Marion Smith, interview 102 (2005), RV.

(32.) Linton, RV.

(33.) Helga Lemer, interview 27010 (1997), VHA and interview with author, London, November 9, 2017.

(34.) Marion Friedlaender, interview 9904 (1996), VHA.

(35.) Trude Bibnng, interview 41526 (1998), VHA.

(36.) Rita Winterton, interview 35277 (1997), VHA.

(37.) Lisa Hoffman, FVA and VHA.

(38.) See Elsie Gumprich, interview 40444 (1998), Gisela Hirschberger, interview 21975 (1996), Ruth Webster, interview 31729 (1997), Ursula Bachrach-Lisbona, interview 27442 (1997), and Marianne Rosson, interview 47967 (1998), all VHA for just a few positive accounts of internment.

(39.) Nelly Kuttner, EXS.1.RCGAES.3.KUT (1995), Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, (hereafter EXILE) University of London.

(40.) Linton, RV and interview 41824 (1998), VHA.

(41.) Elizabeth Bernheim, interview 27 (2003), RV.

(42.) Natalie Huss-Smickler, testimony 5 (2003), RV.

(43.) Hildegard Hoffmann, VHA.

(44.) Herta Gertler interview 19952 (1996), VHA.

(45.) Felicitas Werschker, interview 35092 (1997), VHA.

(46.) Lily Pollock, interview 11(2003), RV.

(47.) Anna Uiberal, interview 33246 (1997), VHA.

(48.) Ruth Webster, interview 31729 (1997), VHA.

(49.) Gerda Tintner, interview 904 (1986), VFA and 34344 (1997), VHA.

(50.) See Marion Berghahn, Continental Britons: German-Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany, revised edition (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007) for the experiences of both domestics and other German Jewish refugees.

(51.) Heidi Goldfarb, interview 19331 (1996), VHA. Heidi married a British Jewish playwright and theatre director she met in Wolverhampton.

(52.) Bibring, VHA. Trude Bibring also fell in love with a British Jewish man, but was forced to break off the romance by the boy's mother who objected to her son marrying a penniless refugee girl. She ended up marrying a fellow-Austrian refugee.

(53.) Tintner, VFA.

(54.) Uiberall, VHA.

(55.) Carol Kutner, interview 29005 (1997), VHA.

(56.) Ann and Lilo Callman, RMHT/USHMM.

(57.) Eva Feist, interview RG-50.150*0005 (1978), RMHT/USHMM.

(58.) Grove, VHA.

(59.) Selma Wilson, interview 35089 (1997), VHA.

(60.) Kutner, VHA.

(61.) Else Lindner, interview 28132 (1997), VHA.

(62.) Gertrude Black, interview 76 (2004), RV.

(63.) Lily Crewe, interview 7 (2003), RV.

(64.) Kutner, VHA.

(65.) Lisa Hoffman, FVA.

(66.) Herta Graham, interview 38411 (1997), VHA.

(67.) Margot Forbes, interview 41833 (1998), VHA.

(68.) Herta Jacoby, interview 50.150*0020 (1977), RHHT/USHMM.

(69.) Gisela Fayers, interview 24556 (1996), VHA. See also Carol Kutner (VHA) and Carol Wallace, interview 13003 (1996), VHA.

(70.) Elaine Berghausen interview, Sacramento, California, January 12, 2017.

(71.) Lisa Hoffman, FVA. See also Miriam Kipper, interview HVT-1631 (1990), FVA and Freida Halberstadt, interview 9205 3563501 (1996), YV.

(72.) See Shenker, Reframing Holocaust Testimony for the most comprehensive discussion of these issues.

(73.) Feist, Page of Testimony for Clara Sittemann, YV, 2006.


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Jennifer Craig-Norton is an honorary fellow of the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton, UK. She undertook this research with the generous support of the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Her publications include the forthcoming book The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory (Indiana University Press, 2019) and Migrant Histories and Historiographies: Essays in Honour of Colin Holmes (Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics, 2018), coedited with Christhard Hoffman and Tony Kushner.
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Date:Dec 22, 2019
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