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Unlikely domestic servants

Marie Brod (née Tritsch), a Jewish woman from Vienna, spent the early part of World War Two in Yoxford, East Suffolk.  Like at least 7,000 other Jewish women, she had escaped Nazi rule by finding work in England as a domestic servant.  Some of these women had come to England specifically on domestic work visas and a number had even attended workshops in Vienna to learn practical housekeeping skills to prepare themselves for their new employment.  It is not yet known how Marie got to this country or if she did any preparation for her new sphere of work.  As her husband, Carl, was a professional engineer, it is more than likely that at home in Vienna she was more used to giving instructions to staff rather than receiving orders.

In 1939/1940, there were about 50 Jewish refugees across Suffolk working as live-in domestic servants, mostly originally from Germany or, like Marie, from Austria.  Marie, though, was unusual in several ways. 

First of all, she was not alone.  Her husband, Carl, was with her.  They lived and worked together at Yoxford Vicarage.  Carl is described in the records as a ‘houseman’ and she simply as a ‘domestic servant’.  Most of the others employed as domestics in Suffolk were lone women, single, divorced or widowed.  Many must have felt isolated and lonely, finding themselves the only refugee for miles.  At this time, the resident Jewish community across Suffolk was miniscule.  No kosher shops or synagogues in the county, and it is unclear whether any of the refugees knew or associated with each other.  For the Brods, their nearest fellow refugees were at Summerhill School in Leiston and at Thorpeness, ten miles away.

Marie was older than most of the other Suffolk refugee domestics.  Born in 1885, she was in her mid 50s when she lived in Yoxford, and husband was a few years older at 60.  The other refugee domestics were typically their 20s, 30s and 40s. 

Very little is known so far about the Brod’s life in Vienna.  Marie was known there as Mizzi.  Her father was a merchant (a kaufmann), as was her father-in-law.  Carl had a brother who was, like himself,  a successful professional engineer (later killed at Auschwitz).  They had a daughter, Herta, born in Vienna in 1909, who was a professional dancer and teacher.  She had moved to Java in the mid 1930s to open a school specialising in her particular style of avant-garde dance. 

So, it seems that the Brods in Vienna were comfortably-off, middle class, assimilated Jews.  Some of the other refugee domestics in Suffolk had similar backgrounds, but by no means all - including clerks, shop assistants, and domestic servants.  In general, though, it has been hard to find the background stories of these more working-class people.

It is not known how the Brods found work at the vicarage in Yoxford.  Perhaps there was a diocesan appeal for placements.  The Brods were among at least twelve refugee domestics employed by clergy families across rural Suffolk.  Householders could apply for permits to employ up to two foreign domestics and undertook to pay them no less than £36 yearly so as to avoid undercutting British workers. 

Marie and Carl’s employers were the Rev. and Mrs Matthews.  According to one very elderly resident I recently spoke to, neither were particularly warmly thought of in the village.  (Unfortunately, my source does not remember Marie or Carl.) The vicarage is grand and still standing in the main street.  It is certainly big enough to accommodate extra staff and to need plenty of upkeep.  Inevitably, it is now a holiday let.

There would have been a great deal for refugee domestics to get used to.  As well as the physical loss of home and worry about friends and family, there was for many of them the loss of their social standing.  It seems that many employers, although by no means all, were indifferent to these people’s sadness and loss.  Householders often lacked interest in what their new arrivals had escaped from, treating them, above all, as servants not guests.  For example, domestics often had to eat in the kitchen and not with the family.  Many homes, such as the Yoxford vicarage, were big old draughty places and it would be unusual for them to be equipped with the sorts of labour-saving devices commonly found in middle class apartments in Austria and Germany.

We can only wonder how Jewish refugees – however assimilated back home - felt about working for Christian clergy, and how the clergy felt about their new employees, finding themselves different from each other in both ethnicity and religion. 

And there was always the possibility of refugees being suspected of being a Nazi spy by someone in the household or in the village.  As the Daily Mail wrote in 1939 ‘ the paltriest kitchen-maid with German connections … is a menace to the safety of the country’.  They were, after all, legally categorised by the government as ‘enemy aliens’.

The Brod’s experiences of these issues is completely unknown.

Marie and Carl’s time in Yoxford was short-lived.  In the summer of 1940, like most male refugees, Carl was interned for several months.  By the time of his release, Marie had moved away to Bethune Road, Stoke Newington in London – a street in a Jewish neighbourhood.

Carl was released from internment (location unknown) in September 1940 to be supervised by the Metropolitan Police in north London.  He was categorised as ‘infirm’.  Their Suffolk days were over.  Two weeks later, however, in a terrible twist of fate, Marie was killed in an enemy air raid over Stoke Newington. Her street suffered a direct hit.  She died alongside her next-door neighbours, the Sulzbacher family.  They were all buried at the East London Cemetery and Crematorium in Newham.   Marie is remembered on the memorial to the civilian dead in Hackney, recorded as Mary Brod.

At this point, Carl more or less disappears from the records.  More is known about Herta, the daughter.  She had been interned in Java by the invading Japanese Army.  Her new husband, a Dutch police inspector,  was captured and disappeared, presumed dead, in a POW camp in Sumatra.  After the war, Herta returned to the Netherlands.  She died in 1950 in a bizarre and tragic accident.  A street gas pipe ruptured one night outside her bedroom.  Gas seeped up the cavity wall and she was gassed as she slept.

Carl died in 1953 in Surrey.  He was in his mid 70s, having lived through some desperately sad times.