The refugee nurses who laid the foundations for the NHS

In the years leading up to the foundation of the NHS, hundreds of young Jewish women won their freedom from the Nazis by working as nurses. Jane Brooks has gathered their stories.


"I started nursing in March 1943 and that was the same year my parents were deported to Auschwitz. So basically, I was on my own.

“I was never a teenager. I grew up very fast. And I loved becoming a nurse and I enjoyed it… and I call myself a nurse before penicillin because we had no IVs [intravenous drips] during the war, nothing. And whenever we pulled a patient through, it was our work, what we did for them, and that made me feel good, that I was helpful to other people; because my parents always told us to be helpful to others and share our life with other people, to be helpful."

These are the words of Lee Fischer (nee Einstein) one of the hundreds of Jewish refugee women who worked as nurses in Britain in the 1930s, during the war and in the newly born NHS. In 2017 I asked the JC to post an advert for me. I wanted to interview women who had fled Nazi Europe and entered the nursing profession here in Britain. I had no idea if anyone would still be living and able or willing to be interviewed.

I was amazed. So far, I have interviewed eight women and the children of a further three and many other family members have sent me photographs and copies of passports, letters and testimonials. Of the women I have interviewed, one lives in Canada, one in the United States, one in Australia and the rest in England. There are also a number of pre-existing oral history recordings which have enabled me to widen my research.

The stories are filled with great and unimaginable sadness, but also much joy. I learned of their escapes to Britain and how some of the British homes in which they were placed were kind and supportive, with families who have remained close ever since. I also heard stories of neglect and unkindness; personal, political and organisational.

Cilly Haar (nee Bauer), Eva Fuchs (not her real name) and Kitty Schafer had always wanted to be nurses. Cilly told me “I proved to myself I loved nursing. I was most happy when the staff nurse would say, ‘Oh Nurse Bauer you can clear my dressing trolley’. I was literally in my glory”.

Kitty’s desire to nurse stemmed from the romantic image of being a Florence Nightingale and working alongside her doctor brother. Eva Fuchs knew she wanted to nurse from the age of 14, “I suppose it just came naturally to me… I just liked looking after people and making them comfortable”.

The matron at Eva Flatow’s training hospital clearly had little or no appreciation of the lives of these young women. During one hospital Sunday service, having not heard from her parents whom she had left in Germany for several months, Eva, overcome, started to cry. The matron told her, "in this country we do not display our emotions, now return to your duties".

Whilst few refugee nurses, if any, were interned, many were dismissed from their hospital training schools in 1940, only to be asked to re-join the profession in 1941 as the scarcity of nursing personnel became increasingly critical.

Possibly the most remarkable aspect of their lives is their phenomenal resilience. I have also been humbled by the place the nursing profession held for them as they built a new life in this country, despite the considerable difficulties many experienced during their training. All of the stories demonstrated their dedication and fortitude.

For young single women and girls fleeing Nazi Europe there were three possibilities of escape; the Kindertransport, domestic service and nursing visas. There has been a reasonable amount of research into the hardships that young Jewish girls and women suffered at the hands of their British employers. Lee Fischer who worked as a domestic from the age of 14 years old, told me that she was fired from one job because she arranged a nursing interview.


This was not the experience for all. Hortense Gordon worked for a very supportive Christian family, who cared for her as a young woman and maintain their relationship with her even till now. But as Gordon said, ‘I didn’t want to be a cook general all my life and I applied to do my training as a nurse’.

In late 1938 the Nursing and Midwifery Department of the Central Co-Ordinating Committee for Refugees, or Bloomsbury House, as it was commonly called, was established. Nursing historian, John Stewart maintains this was at the request of the Home Office, which suggests that the government were taking seriously the needs of Jewish women refugees and their opportunities to work as nurses.

It is arguable that such an opportunity was both a saving grace for these young women but also a cynical move by the government to increase the nursing workforce, given the lack of interest from British girls. According to the historian Paul Weindling, somewhere between 668 and 1,000 refugees entered the nursing profession in some capacity over the war years and into the early post-war period.

Nursing was not the profession of choice for many of the women I interviewed. Several told me of their desire as young woman to be a concert pianist, a teacher, a journalist and in several cases, doctors, but having fled Germany and Austria in the late 1930s for Britain, these choices were no longer an option. Lee Fischer and Hortense Gordon had both hoped to train as doctors .

One participant admitted that she had never wanted to be a nurse but realising that it was a better option than domestic service, eventually came to find the work interesting and rewarding. She was however deeply critical of the professional hierarchy in Britain, a system she believed that did not promote women who were not British to higher positions and she therefore chose to emigrate, though she continued to nurse.

Lisbeth Hockey, whose oral history is in the Royal College of Nursing Archive, had always wanted to be a doctor. But having escaped Austria in 1938, this was no longer possible. People told her that nursing was like medicine, so she applied, though she was never sure that nursing and medicine were that similar. Nevertheless, despite her reservations of the profession as a young student nurse, Hockey remained in nursing and became one of the most influential nurses of the late twentieth century.

Despite numerous difficulties and a system that could be harsh towards these young women who had lost so much, nursing provided many of female refugees with a profession and a position in British society. According to two participants for my study, one particular matron, Miss Lang of Staines Hospital realised that many of the refugee nurses had had their education cut short by the Nazis, but what education they had received was excellent and they were keen to learn.

Lang took about 30 refugee nurses into her training school. Because it was not unusual for these women refugees to have come from highly educated families, many achieved senior and influential positions in nursing and many worked in the important field of public health, a vital aspect of health care in the newly emerging National Health Service.

I hope my research will reveal the important contribution that these women refugees made to the nursing profession and through their work, the health of the British public both during the war and in the early days of the NHS, which celebrated its 70th birthday yesterday. My great thanks go to all of the participants for their interviews and the interest they and their families have shown in my work.


Jane Brooks is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Manchester.


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