At the beginning of the 1930s, most Jews in Berlin and Munich had never heard of Burnham or Maidenhead, yet within a few years these Berkshire towns and villages were to become the homes of many of them.
It has been well documented, not least on the pages of the AJR Journal, how Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe dispersed throughout Britain in search of sanctuary, but now particular light has been shone on the large number who spent time in the Royal County.
Royal Jews: A Thousand Years of Jewish Life in and around the Royal County of Berkshire* records the surprising amount of Jewish life there since the 12th century. However, with the exception of those fleeing London to escape the Zeppelin raids in 1917, the numbers were relatively small. This changed dramatically in the approach to the Second World War, with the Continental Jews being a significant presence.
Many of the refugee children came through the Kindertransport or via the ‘Winton trains’ and went straight to their adoptive families in the Home Counties. They faced the shock not only of a new country, a strange language and being without their parents, but also tasting country life for the first time. Cows and chickens were no longer confined to books but were in the backyard and part of household life.
When ten-year-old Ulrich Oppenheim settled in Pinkneys Green, for instance, he was alarmed to be asked one morning to bring in one of the geese so that it could be got ready for dinner that evening.
Other children were allocated homes in London but faced further disruption during the general evacuation of Londoners to the countryside once war was declared. Attendance at a succession of schools was one of the characteristics of their lives as well as the suspicion of classmates who – as children do even in normal circumstances – immediately pick on those who are different in some way.
By the time Marion Vanderwart arrived in Warfield after living in London for several months, she had exchanged her Continental plaits and clothes for a much more English look – ‘but there was nothing I could do about my foreign accent and I had to endure the quizzical look of anyone to whom I spoke for the first time.’
But if they suffered from xenophobia, few reported anti-Semitism. Nine-year-old Henry Kuttner in Eaton Hastings was typical of many when he found that his new family tried to locate books on Judaism so that he could learn about his heritage while he received tuition on the Old Testament specifically provided by the local vicar.
Other refugees came as adults. For some this was because of their job, such as Berlin-born sisters Gertrude and Eva Evans, who were both trained nurses and worked at Borocourt Hospital in Peppard. Despite being classified as ‘enemy aliens’, they had escaped internment because their skills were needed. However, they were restricted from travelling more than five miles away, while Gertrude recalls several occasions when she was accused of being a spy by locals because she didn’t close her black-out curtains tightly enough.
The situation was typified by a newspaper advert in 1942 which, under ‘Situations Vacant’, offered a position running a family home in Maidenhead and added ‘refugee not objected to’. That employer may have been welcoming, but the implication was that this did not apply to everyone else.
A typical occupation for the refugees was that of domestic servant, though often without knowing what it involved. This was the situation of W. W. Brown and his wife, who exchanged office life in Vienna to serve as a butler and cook in a large estate in Berkshire without any prior experience. After a short while, they were gently asked to leave as the ‘season’ was beginning, guests were expected and it was essential that the staff knew how to, for instance, put out their riding clothes properly and lay the breakfast table correctly.
The couple were fortunate enough to secure another position shortly afterwards with a retired Indian army colonel in Crowthorne; the position was more successful and they gradually mastered the art of English etiquette. Looking back, they recorded fondly: ‘The Ohs in various intonations and the It’s not done were early introductions into the English way of life. We laughed to ourselves when we first encountered them. Over the years we have learned to appreciate, respect and admire much of what seemed ridiculous at first.’
Whilst many refugees arrived without any money the Diener family was in the unusual position of receiving royal help as the Duke of Windsor (the uncrowned Edward VIII) frequented their Vienna restaurant the Three Hussars. After the Anschluss, he acted as a guarantor for them to come to England, while the Duchess brought their jewellery out of Austria and deposited it for them at Barclays Bank, Knightsbridge. The family settled in Wargrave, opened another restaurant, The Green Monkey, and remained in the area for the rest of their lives.
There were others who came to the area as part of their preparation for military duties. Peter Arany did some initial training in Hurley before becoming part of one of eight commando units that landed at Normandy on D-Day. The journey from Viennese citizen to British soldier had involved major changes, including jettisoning his previous pacifism.
As he crossed the English Channel in preparation for the attack, he wrote: ‘At twenty-two I had already had a rich, full life, and therefore could not complain if it were to end there and then. But before that I, who had been harassed by the Nazis, intimidated and targeted for extermination, would at long last have the opportunity to strike back.’
Fighting a very different kind of war was Fritz Lustig, who was based at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield, where he was eavesdropping on the conversations of high-ranking German prisoners of war in their cells so as to pick up intelligence they inadvertently revealed. Not far away, in High Wycombe, was Alice Gross, at RAF Bomber Command. She worked in photographic reconnaissance and was part of the process responsible for locating the launchpad of the V1 flying bombs in northern France that terrorised London towards the end of the war.
For those who settled locally, some became involved in life around them; others mixed primarily with fellow refugees, with whom they felt more comfortable. This was the case with Ilse Fuehrenberg of Prague after she met her Vienna-born husband, Paul Illoway, in London in 1940 and they then moved to Slough. As she put it, ‘We refugees were family for each other and we stuck together.’
Some of the refugees arrived after the war. They included 25 Jewish teenagers from Buchenwald and Theresienstadt who came to Woodcote, a large country house in Ascot, for rehabilitation under the auspices of the Central British Fund. They presented a challenge for the staff, as the warden, Manny Silver, reported: ‘In the camps, survival meant breaking the rules. Boarding school discipline could not apply. After the Nazis, what punishment could there be for someone who stole food or did not come to class? We devised a co-operative way of life, based on mutual respect … and how best we could prepare them for the future.’
The haven Berkshire offered them and many others was not forgotten and the Royal County features in the lives of countless refugees. Some left the area; others settled permanently; some stayed apart from Jewish life; others became mainstays of the local synagogues (in Reading and Maidenhead). They form a microcosm of the experiences – both enriching and traumatic – of the refugees in general.