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Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Edith Argy was born in October 1919 in Vienna to secular Jewish parents Gustav and Rosa (née Veith). Edith cannot remember her mother, who was killed in a car accident in 1925. Nevertheless, Edith had a happy childhood, being brought up by a loving stepmother, Claire (Clara née Lederer from Prague). Because Edith’s biological mother, who came from a merchant family, provided her own family with a source of income, Edith’s father struggled with the upkeep of the family after she was killed. He had wanted to be a poet and writer. Edith enjoyed school, especially languages at Gymnasium, but for unknown reasons left school at age 15. She started working in the office where her older brother, Leo, was a junior executive. When the company was “Aryanised” after the Anschluss and life in Vienna became unbearable for her family, Edith’s uncle helped her to find work as a domestic servant in the United Kingdom.
Edith left Vienna on 6 September 1938 and arrived (via Paris, where she had family) in the United Kingdom. She started her first job, as a domestic servant in Southsea, quite unprepared (“I hadn’t used a broom in my life!”), and soon her employers were disappointed with her and treated her badly (“sub-human”). This, combined with the trauma of separation from her family, led her to suffer a nervous breakdown. Her employers called the local rabbi, who helped her find work as a “mother’s help” with a family in Golders Green. This was the first of numerous jobs—so many that Edith cannot manage to remember all of them. Her life improved when she started working as a secretary in Exeter. She felt valued, free and treated like a “human” again. In Exeter, Edith also lived in a boarding house (run by a German refugee) with her maternal aunt Ida. Edith’s maternal family had managed to leave Austria in time and was scattered throughout the entire world—the United Kingdom, Australia and South America—and she stayed in touch with them following World War II.
Despite the bad experience with her first job in the United Kingdom, Edith had an overall good impression of the English, who never discriminated against her because of her Jewish and/or refugee background. After the war, Edith joined the US Army as a “civilian employee.” She then saw her father Gustav again, who had survived the war in France with his third wife, Jenny, and their son Leo. In 1945, Edith was sent by the US Army to Munich. She also visited Vienna for the first time since 1938, but she could not bear meeting Austrians who were in denial about the past and wading in self-pity. She returned to Vienna many years later as a tourist with her husband.
Edith left the US Army in 1946, and then worked for two years for “The Joint” in Paris, until a friend persuaded her to join her in Sydney. In Australia, Edith was homesick for European culture—particularly theatre and food—but when she was about to leave Sydney, she met Fernand, her future husband, who was a refugee from Egypt. She stayed in Sydney another year to be with him before they returned together, married, to Paris, where they lived until moving to London in 1952.
Vienna has always been a special place for Edith, because she spent her formative years there, and she has visited Vienna many times, but she felt it was the same city after World War II. She feels at home in London, which she loves, but she considers herself “a citizen of the world”. Edith’s only regret in life is that she was unable to help her stepmother Claire escape Austria, although Edith tried everything she could at the time. Claire was deported and killed in Izbica, Poland. Edith’s father, Gustav, moved from France to London upon becoming blind. He lived in the Leo Baeck House until he died in 1974.
Edith’s message to younger generations is to learn from history so that it won’t repeat itself, but Edith feels that refugees today are just as unwelcome around the world as she was in 1938.
All night long we could hear the chanting: “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil! [???Wir danken unserem Führer!” And it was I think the worst night of my life. It was terrible. And you know it’s so dreadful to wake up the next morning and find that you are an untermensch. You are a sub-human being.
I was trying to get Claire over. And I thought she would have made a wonderful domestic servant. And I tried, I pleaded with the people you know to find a sponsor for her. To find somebody who would employ here. And I assured her that she would be a treasure, unlike me. [half-laughs] And she did find somebody. But the Home Office wouldn’t have her because she was two years too old. She was fifty-seven, and they said the age limit was fifty-five. But although I know people who were older and got over. My aunt was older, and she got over, because the Quakers got her over. I suppose it depended on the sort of clout you have. And, and I couldn’t get- And I never got over that, you know, that I... I couldn’t save her.
I think the worst job was that terrible woman who hated me and I hated her. In Surrey. ‘The Master’ and ‘the Mistress’. I don’t think we could stand the sight of each other. And she was really- You know, people always felt they could say anything because, you know, domestic servants didn’t count. They weren’t human beings. They were just something.