Hortense Gordon

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. 

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@ Refugee Voices 2019