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Hortense Gordon

1/19
Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Born:
May 1939
Experiences:

Interview Summary:

Hortense Marianne Heidenfeld was born on the 21 September 1920 in Breslau to a well off Jewish family: her father was a GP and her mother was a housewife. She describes her family as Liberal, Jewish, neither religious nor Zionist and very emancipated and rooted in their surroundings. 

She first encountered antisemitism during the 1933 boycott, when patients were banned from attending her father’s practice. The turning point for her occurred in 1934 when her best friend told her that her parents had forbidden her from speaking to, or having any contact with Jewish people. A year later, her father was accused of performing illegal abortions and imprisoned, an event that led to a marked deterioration in the family’s financial situation. 

When Kristallnacht took place she was working as an au pair for a Jewish family in Breslau and getting ready to immigrate. Hortense recalls the trauma of seeing synagogues being burned and shops looted. 

In May 1939 Hortense immigrated to England on a domestic permit and worked for three years as a Domestic cook General for an English family in Surrey. She describes her encounter with British life as being very strange and different at first, giving as an example the first time she was asked to bake a Shepherd’s pie and how unaccustomed she was to cooking meat and pastry together. The family treated her very well and even after leaving for London she was often invited to spend the weekend at their house. 

Mrs Gordon’s extensive career began in 1941 when she started her training as a children’s nurse at the Queen Mary Hospital in Carshalton. Her career reached its apogee in 1948 when she was presented with a gold medal award for Nurse of the Year. She describes vividly her night shifts during the Blitz, how she was the only nurse on duty attending to 31 children and how she had to wear a tin hat and gas mask for protection. Hortense also recalls the social segregation that was prevalent in hospitals, citing as an example the tendency for refugee nurses to always get the worst rooms in the ward. 

Until 1941 she received occasional letters from her family through the Red Cross. Later, she learned that her parents and sister had been killed at Auschwitz. 

Mrs Gordon tends to give a brief statement about her personal life: she married Rupert Gordon in 1950, had two children. 

They [her doctor father’s patients] were from all walks of life, from the labourer to the farm workers to the counts of the manor. There was this boycott day which I will always remember, when the Nazis stood in front of our house and forbade the patients from coming in.

We went to Lyon’s Corner House and had lunch, which was absolutely fantastic because we hadn’t, of course, been in a restaurant or anything like that in Germany for years.

In the Blitz I was in London. I started my nursing training in Queen Mary’s Hospital in Carshalton, for sick children. And they were there for literally years. With polio, bone TB, rheumatic fevers - really long term things. And they used to be visited once a fortnight for one hour by their parents. Can you imagine? And there was one nurse on the ward at night for twenty eight children.

When war was declared? It was a lovely sunny day. None of you know this, but it was a lovely sunny day. It was a Sunday, and I was cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and peas and was podding the peas. And Mrs Hunt came in the kitchen and said, ‘War, we are now at war with Germany’. And that of course was very traumatic because one knew that everything was, well, cut off then. But still work was so demanding one didn’t even have time to think about it.

Well strange was of course the food and me being cook. I found it very strange because a lot of the food, of course, I didn’t even know. For instance, one of the daughters got married just as the war broke out, and the reception was at home, and I was asked to make veal and ham pie. Well the ham didn’t worry me, the veal didn’t worry me, but the pie bit worried me, because that’s a totally not continental thing, to serve meat and pastry. Pastry is jam or cheese, or God knows what, but certainly not meat. And it was an absolute disaster that I produced there, and somehow we survived it, I don’t know, the pastry, so called, was that hard, they needed a chain saw to cut it. However, it was OK.

They [her employers] had the [youngest daughter's wedding] reception in the house and I prepared the reception which wasn’t actually a total success because I wasn’t familiar with English food.

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@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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