Jewish Holocaust refugees who went below stairs

By Jennifer Lipman, October 11, 2012

The daily life of a Jewish Holocaust refugee who escaped the Nazis by working as a servant in a British home will be discussed in a BBC documentary tomorrow.

Edith Argy's story will be told in the third part of the BBC2 series Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs.

Mrs Argy, who was just 18 when she arrived in Britain in 1938, was one of thousands of young Jews from Austria and German who escaped the Nazis on domestic service visas after the British government brought in a visa requirement for refugees in March 1938. The exact number who worked as servants to middle or upper class homes in the late 1930s is unknown.

But according to Michael Newman of the Association of Jewish Refugees, it thought that at least 15,000 visas were issued in total before the outbreak of war, outnumbering the numbers of children who acme over on the Kindertransport. Most were woman aged between 14 and 45, gaining visas after placing or answering adverts in British newspapers or with the help of an Austrian organisation set up before the Anschluss to arrange for domestics to go overseas.

Mrs Argy, who spent 16 months as a domestic servant and worked in nine different places in that time - including for three Jewish families - arrived with little experience of housework, having "not so much as held a broom" before she secured her first job working for a headmaster. "I found it very hard to adjust to being a servant," she said, adding that she spoke little English when she arrived. "In fact, I was so unhappy and so lonely in my first job that I no longer wanted to live".

She was interviewed by Dr Pamela Cox, presenter of the series, about her experiences.

"Her team really wanted to film me in Southsea where I started my career as a domestic servant, but for the life of me I could remember neither the name of my employers nor their address," she said. "The only name I could remember was that of Sadie Minsky, for whom I worked as a mother's help in Stamford Hill."

Last updated: 2:39pm, October 11 2012