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Thursday, March 08, 2012

20,000 women escaped the Holocaust by working as maids in England

From the BBC:
As the Nazis tightened their grip on power in the late 1930s, Jews in Germany and Austria began to fear for their safety. Many fled abroad using well-documented methods such as the Kindertransport. But less well known is the story of thousands of Jewish women who fled to the UK by getting jobs as domestic servants.

When Natalie Huss-Smickler arrived in England in 1938 as a 26-year-old, she found her new job as a domestic servant something of a shock compared with her secretarial work back home in Vienna.

"My first job in England was very, very hard," she says. "I had to work from 8am to 11pm with an hour's break, cleaning and scrubbing and looking after the house, with half a day off a week.

"After a few weeks I complained, saying it's a bit too hard. The lady of the house said, 'If it's too much for you, I'll send you back to Hitler.'"

Natalie was one of an estimated 20,000 Germans and Austrians, mostly women, to take advantage of the domestic service visas being issued by the British government in the late 1930s. The woman, predominantly Jewish, took the work to escape from the Nazis.

This number means domestic service visas were hugely significant in saving Jews, about double the number saved by the celebrated Kindertransport - but their story has largely been forgotten.

The holder of a domestic service visa had a priceless ticket to get out of the Nazis's reach - even if it did mean that many middle class women, who may even have had servants in their own households, were cooking, cleaning, making beds and scrubbing floors for the first time in their lives.

Anthony Grenville, of the Association of Jewish Refugees, says the women who came over using the domestic service visas were mostly from well-to-do Viennese families and "completely unprepared psychologically" for their new lives.

"The British government brought in a visa requirement for refugees seeking entry from Germany and Austria after the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich in March 1938.

"This was a way of the government controlling the sheer weight of numbers of applicants flooding over from the continent, particularly Austrian Jews for whom the situation had become desperate.

"Although they took them in great numbers, there was a very clear motive for the British having Jews over - not to save them, but to provide labour for middle and upper middle class households. A small number of Jewish men also came as butlers or gardeners."
There are a couple of interviews with now 90+ year old women whose lives were saved by this loophole.

(h/t John W.)