Refugees who escaped to ‘Downton’

New book details how Jews who fled the Nazis found safety as servants in the UK


V When 18-year-old Hortense arrived in Surrey to work as a domestic cook, she suffered a huge culture shock. The educated daughter of a Jewish doctor in Breslau, Germany, she was used to having servants, not being one.

But for Hortense, this employment was a matter of life and death. She was one of thousands of Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Europe to work in British households. Eighty years ago, the British government lifted visa restrictions, granting temporary asylum for Jewish refugees who were to be employed as domestics. As war drew nearer, it was for many the only means of escape.

Between 1933 and 1939, they found jobs by answering advertisements in newspapers, including the JC. It is thought that at least 15,000 visas were issued, most to women aged between 15 and 45.

Their experiences, in non-Jewish and Jewish homes, are described in a new book by historian Lucy Lethbridge. The stories are reminiscent of below-stairs life as depicted in TV’s Downton Abbey.

Hortense, now Mrs Hortense Gordon says her time in domestic service was “quite difficult at first. My mother gave me a small cookery book and here I came, to a very English house, where I was cooking foods I had never eaten. It was quite strange — for example, meat in pastry was totally unknown in Germany.”

Like Mrs Gordon, most of the refugees had not previously worked as servants, and came from privileged backgrounds. “They certainly weren’t typical domestics,” says Ms Lethbridge.

The Jewish servants found themselves in a strange position — the accountant’s daughter working as a maid for an accountant, the celebrated German actor who explained he had learnt his skills as a butler at the grand hotels he had stayed at all his life.

The reception from other staff was a further problem. “It wasn’t exactly jealousy but there was a sort of chippiness from the other servants about these highly educated foreigners,” explains Ms Lethbridge. “The refugees felt terribly in-between — it was very difficult.”

Mrs Gordon, who now has a role with the Association of Jewish Refugees, remembers the family she worked for as friendly but quite reserved, and recalls that she was “very much in the kitchen.

“It was hard work but I didn’t query anything, I just did as I was told. I was not unhappy but I wasn’t very happy. I was totally alone but I got on with it.”

Some refugee servants encountered hostility because they were German, or met with overt antisemitism. According to refugees Edith Argy, who was 18 when she arrived in Britain from Germany, such hostility made domestic service “a miserable chapter” in their lives.

“I found it very hard to adjust,” says Mrs Argy. She worked as a servant for 16 months, in nine different homes. “I had never done any housework before. In fact, I was so unhappy and so lonely in my first job that I no longer wanted to live.”

By the time war broke out in 1939, many refugees had been employed in British households for several years. Nonetheless, many were interned on suspicion of being enemy agents. “The Daily Mail led the campaign, warning: ‘We are nicely honeycombed with little cells of potential betrayal’.”

After 1939, it became very difficult for anyone to keep a domestic at all because of war work, and indeed, the refugees “were greatly in demand because they were educated and spoke languages,” says Ms Lethbridge.

Hortense left her employer in Surrey in 1941 and trained as a nurse. The lady of the house came to her wedding, and she remembers on a return visit being introduced as “Hortense, who used to be our lady-cook”.

“Once I changed my status, the whole attitude changed,” she laughed. “Overall, I was lucky. I counted my blessings.”

‘Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain’, by Lucy Lethbridge is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99

Last updated: 10:45am, May 3 2013