Anna in 1938
Edited by Trevor Williams
As time went on, more and more Jews were hauled off to concentration camps.
I racked my brains to find a way out of my dilemma. Then I decided to insert an advert in an English newspaper, the then Manchester Guardian. The advert was for domestic help in exchange for a permit to work in England. It went in on the last day English papers were allowed in Austria. I received several replies, some decidedly suspect, from men living on their own requiring housekeepers. Eventually, a very nice letter arrived from a Mr and Mrs Griffin. They were in their late thirties or early forties. They expressed their willingness to get a work permit for me. My friend Gertie Teitler, who already held an entry visa for the USA, but which was not valid for over a year, asked whether she could approach my benefactors to help her too. She did and they agreed to get a work permit for her too. Our good luck story reached the ears of one of our schoolmates, Rita Hutter. She suddenly began to pay me frequent visits, which rather surprised me, as we had never been very close. A few weeks later the Griffins wrote to me, agreeing to shelter Rita too. I was completely baffled by the letter. I found out much later that Rita had appropriated the Griffins' address on one of her visits to me and also made out that I had given her their details. Nevertheless, she too was made welcome by this wonderful couple. Kath Griffin's brother Bert and his wife Winnie were returning from Hong Kong in the spring of 1939 and called to see us, to make sure we were respectable and bona fide people. They were a delightful couple and we all 'passed' the test.
The time of departure grew nearer. I was very loath to leave my parents, but knew I had to make the break. After a lengthy struggle to obtain all my exit papers and my hated passport with the swastika printed on the front of it, the day of departure arrived. My very dear parents saw me off at the railway station. I can still see them standing on the platform, my mother's eyes streaming with tears, my father a little more composed. I never saw them again.
Gertie and I travelled together. It was a long journey. We were not sure, even then, whether we would escape our evil masters. The train stopped several times in the middle of nowhere. At one of the stops, German officials fetched some of the passengers ostensibly to search them for valuables. I was left alone. Gertie was not so lucky. She was searched but nothing was found. She had some precious stones hidden in the heels of her shoes and returned very relieved, although she must have been very nervous indeed. I did not know about the gems until later.
We arrived at Brussels in the rain. There, Gertie and I parted. She went straight to London and I carried on to Antwerp, to spend a week with Max. Antwerp seemed a dreary little town to me, but I was happy to be with Max. There were quite a few refugees around, all waiting for better times. Max's brother and his friends thought him very lucky because I had made a detour to see him. We made plans for the future. I was going to try and get a work permit for him and then we could be together again. We were not officially engaged though.
The week flew by and then another goodbye and I was crossing the Channel. It was a very rough crossing and I was feeling very ill. I had a bad sore throat and was going to a strange country not knowing what to expect. I felt miserable and homesick.
On April 27th 1939, I arrived in London with exactly five shillings in my purse and a few clothes. I stayed in a hostel for refugees for a few days. There were people of all ages and types there. One of them was a young man, newly parted from his wife. It did not take him long to look round for a temporary substitute for her - me - but I was not keen to play that role.
Although I had studied the English language for several years at school, the spoken word was far more baffling than I expected. Colloquialisms represented difficulties. Gertie had studied French, so she was relying on me to make ourselves understood. It took a while to get used to the local idiom. I remember the embarrassment I felt when I tried to purchase a tube of glue. I could not think of the appropriate word and asked for 'stick means'. The puzzled faces of the shop assistants still haunt me today. I got my glue eventually.
The time came when Gertie and I boarded the train to Birmingham (May 2nd 1939), where we were to be met by our benefactors, Kath and Tom Griffin. When we arrived at New Street Station, they were waiting for us with their car. We piled our cases into their old jalopy and were taken to their very nice house in Monkspath at Hay Lane. Rita had arrived before us and was already settled in. It was the beginning of May and the weather had begun to warm up. After a few days, we helped Kath with the housework and also started to look round for a job. Rita and Gertie left first. I suddenly began to lose weight rapidly and Kath was worried about my health. She took me to the local hospital for a check-up. There, the doctor diagnosed that I was suffering from a reaction to all the upset I had been through. Only rest and quiet were necessary. Kath was very kind and generous and insisted that I stayed for a time until I recovered. After a few weeks I felt much better and was able to start my first job on June 6th. I looked after a small boy and helped in the house too. The Plotneks also had an older son, about 12 years old. My weekly wage was fifteen shillings and I lived in and had my own room. My employers quite often 'forgot' to pay me and I was reduced to asking for my pay, which I found very embarrassing. It was a very strange time for me, having to adjust to a completely new lifestyle. My hopes and plans for the future had been utterly destroyed. Leaving my parents to an uncertain future and also being parted from them for the first time in my life tore at my heart. Being parted from my first love too, was a very painful experience.
At that time I was still in touch with all my dear ones, but I was not happy. I was arranging for a work permit for Max but was at a loss about how to help my parents. Money was needed for that and I had very little indeed. I knew that they were not in a good financial position and used to send them ten shillings from my weekly pay. I talked to Kath and Tom about my parents and they agreed to sponsor them, as long as they did not become a burden to them, once they were in England. I promised faithfully that I would be responsible for them, as long as they could get away from Austria.
But it was not to be. The political clouds were gathering in the hot summer of 1939. On September 1st, Germany attacked Poland and on Sept 3rd Britain declared war on Germany. The news absolutely stunned everybody. Now I was cut off from all my loved ones. Max's permit had just come through and it was now not worth the paper it was written on. My parents were beyond reach too. I was desolate. War and all its implications suddenly crowded in on me. I had to register as an alien with the authorities. Luckily, the Griffins vouched for me and I was classed as a friendly alien. The police only wanted to know about a change of address. Gertie too was in the same category. Other refugees, although completely opposed to the German regime, were detained in a camp. Gertie's aunt was one of them. We were shocked that Jewish people could be so misunderstood.
I left the Plotneks on December 7th 1939 and went to live with Kath's mother, Mrs Cox. She lived on her own and was glad of some company in the house. I had applied for a position as a shop assistant at Lewis's and was accepted. My week's training began on December 8th and I was making good progress and enjoying the change from domestic work. Then the blow fell. The police stepped in and I could not obtain a work permit as a shop assistant.
Gertie and I had to look for another job. There were no social security payments in those days. If you did not work, you did not eat. We found a job at Bryants, manufacturers of ladies' dresses. This was only a stopgap, as we had decided to train as nurses. Our applications were accepted and Gertie and I started as probationer nurses on January 8th 1940 at the Skin Hospital in George Road, Birmingham. We had our own room and the uniforms were supplied too. It was a very worthwhile occupation and in my case very near the medical career I was interested in.
We were woken every morning about 7.00 am, and after a quick breakfast, we were on duty on the ward we were assigned to. I was on the children's ward, Gertie on the women's. It was a completely different world again. The hours were long and the work was hard but rewarding. We had some leisure time too, but nothing very exciting that I can remember.
Now I could only communicate with my parents through the Red Cross. An occasional small form arrived with twenty words written on it. They had been moved from their flat to a room at 1 Wessinger Strasse 12. I still managed to send them some money through the Society of Friends in Belgium. One day the police called and warned me that I was breaking the law, and if I did not stop sending money, I could be arrested. My parents were having a bad time and even this small help from me would have to stop now.
One of the children on my ward developed diphtheria and all the staff were obliged to have throat swabs in case they were either carriers of the disease or actually suffering from it. I was the only nurse whose swab was returned positive from the laboratory. On February 2nd 1940, I was taken to Little Bromwich, the Fever Hospital, as it was then called, in an ambulance with sirens blaring. It was snowy and freezing cold. The irony was that I did not even have a sore throat. I had been injected with a protective serum a few days before and luckily did not develop the disease, but was a carrier of it, which could be dangerous to other people. The child had died and this was the first death I had come across in the hospital. In Little Bromwich I was placed in a cubicle on my own and barrier nursed for five weeks until my throat swabs proved negative. My dear friend Gertie visited me during her off-duty times.
One morning I awoke with snow on my counterpane. The winter had not let up and this 'open air' nursing was carried out in all weathers. When I was released, I had one week's convalescence at the Blackwell Convalescence Home and was back on duty on March 17th 1940. Three days later, Gertie and I were told, that although we were classed as friendly aliens, we would not be allowed to continue with our training. This came as a terrible blow to us. Not only were we losing the opportunity of a career but we were also losing the roof over our heads.
We tramped around looking for a suitable room to share. We could not afford single accommodation. Also, we needed jobs desperately. Our old firm Bryants could not help. Eventually, we found a room in Balsall Heath at the end of March. Then we also found a job. Gertie was sewing tucks in ladies' dresses and I was pressing dresses in another department. Our working day began at 8.30 am with half an hour for lunch and finished at 5.45 pm. We bought our own food, managed to support ourselves and even saved a little.
I received the odd letter or two during this time from Max....
This account is based on part of my mother's (Anna Kings nee Lamensdorf) notes for her autobiography. She continued to keep these notes up to 2004.
I have edited the account to make it consistent and coherent but not changed the events, writing style or phraseology.
Anna's first husband died in 1970 and she then married John Kings, a widower. He predeceased her by a few months. Anna died the day after her 90th birthday in September 2010.
Trevor Williams 2013
from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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