Readers may remember a blog post some time ago featuring a manual for Czech servicemen simultaneously fighting alongside their British comrades to repel the threat of invasion and struggling with the English language. They were not, however, the only ones forced by history to grapple with a new language and bewildering customs.
The British Library holds a copy of a curious little book published at the modest price of three shillings and sixpence and âspecially compiled to help the mistress and her German-speaking maidâ by Elsa Olga Hollis. Nothing is known about the author, who claims in the preface that she was encouraged to publish her work by friends and their foreign maids who had used her as an interpreter. She acknowledges the help of âMiss Lorna Yarde Bunyardâ, who typed the manuscript and revised the English, and was presumably responsible for some of the oddly unidiomatic expressions and misprints, as when the maid is directed to close, not the FlĂŒgeltĂŒr (French window), but the FlĂŒgeltier, a strange winged creature.
Deutsche und englische Haushalt Phrasen und WoÌrter first appeared in May 1937 and by November of that year had already gone into a third edition. Clearly it was in great demand â but why?
Cover of Elsa Olga Hollis, Deutsche und englische Haushalt Phrasen und WoÌrter = German and English household phrases and words. (Mistress and MaÌdchen. A comprehensive German and English domestic phrase-book) (London, 1937) British Library 12964.bb.54.
Hollisâs book was published some months before the British government introduced a visa requirement for refugees seeking entry from Germany and Austria following Hitlerâs annexation of Austria in March 1938. Many of the women who arrived as domestic help came from wealthy and cultured families which employed servants, and had never had to make a bed or lay a table in their lives, let alone âthrow the ashes and hard clinkers into the dustbinâ, âempty slops and wipe utensils dryâ or tackle the âlight work âŠ getting tea, cleaning silver, ironing, mending clothes, cleaning out cupboards and so onâ between three oâ clock and the preparation of the evening meal. Marion Berghahnâs Continental Britons: German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (revised ed., Oxford, 2007; YC.2007.a.9766) notes the psychological adjustments needed and the frequent insensitivity of employers who âlacked any clear ideas of their domesticsâ backgroundsâ and exploited them mercilessly as cheap labour.
In fiction, characters who arrived in England in this way appear in Natasha Solomonsâs The Novel in the Viola ([Bath], 2011; LT.2012.x.1871) and Eva Ibbotsonâs The Morning Gift (London, 1994; H.95/761). Both authors recalled the experiences of relatives who escaped from Austria in the 1930s on domestic service visas, like Solomonsâs Elise Landau, who confidently advertises âViennese Jewess, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your gooseâ, or Ibbotsonâs heroine Ruth Bergerâs Aunt Hilda, an eminent anthropologist but inept housemaid who is repeatedly bitten by her employer's pug and gets the sack when she brings a glass-fronted bookcase crashing down on her while attempting to dust.
The adventure begins with âMeeting the Boatâ (âthe crossing was (very, not) good, bad. I have (not) been seasickâ), the Customs, and a train journey, culminating in âArrival at the Houseâ (âthe chauffeur will bring in the rest of your luggageâ) and âA Little Talk over Teaâ, where the mistress of the house presses jam, cake, rolls and pastries on Marie, the new housemaid. She is informed that she will have to undertake the housework and all the cooking, though a charwoman comes for the rough work (âgrobe Arbeitenâ), and assured âSometimes we will try your native cookeryâ. Weekly and daily plans for housework are included, beginning with washing day on Monday (âHere is the wash-tub, washing machine, soap, soda, soap-powder, Lux, copper stick, Blue and starch, mangleâ) leading to the puzzled enquiry, âWe do not âairâ clothes at home. Why is it done?â), whereupon it is explained that âin England the air is so moist that everything gets dampâ. Weights, measures and âreally economicalâ recipes are provided, together with precise instructions about how to make tea and âToast machenâ. One can picture poor Marieâs perplexity when requested to prepare âReis Puddingâ, âTalg-Puddingsâ (the unappetizing translation of âsuet puddingsâ), and âMinzmeat Pastetenâ for Christmas, not to mention âRĂŒhrei auf Toostâ.
Not surprisingly, the heavy work, unfamiliar food and peremptory demands of her mistress (âYou will have to wait at table. See what Baby wants. You must finish your work soonerâ) take their toll on Marieâs health, spirits and digestion. âWhat is wrong with you?â barks Madam, to be met with a catalogue of ailments: â[I have head-, eye-, ear-, tooth-, stomach ache. âŠI have a cold in the head, a nosebleed, a cough, indigestionâ (it must be all those tallow puddings). The plaintive query âDo I give satisfaction?â receives only the chilly reply, âI have no reason to complainâ, and the domestic tyrant continues âBe more careful with the breakable thingsâŠ. If that happens again I shall have to give you notice! âŠ I must send you back homeâ. Finally, the worm turns: âI wish to give notice,â announces Marie. Triumphantly, her mistress brandishes the permit: âThis permit is valid only for the particular employment for which it is issued âŠ If you wish to leave now, I am afraid you will have to go homeâ.
It would be pleasant to think that Jan NovĂĄk, the Czech airman from VojaÌci, ucÌte se anglicky!, was invited to tea in the household and captivated by the sight of Marie, trim in her afternoon uniform (âblack, brown or wine-coloured dress (wool), small cap, and âafternoonâ apronâ); their eyes meet over the tea-tray, and they arrange a tryst in her meagre leisure time (âone afternoon and evening a week and every other Sunday afternoon and evening freeâ), shyly exchanging phrases from their respective handbooksâŠ One fears not. The German preface, unlike the English one, emphasizes the need to rise early, work quickly, and suppress any homesickness, âtaking a great interest in everything newâ instead. But despite the unhappiness which many a MĂ€dchen (of whatever age) endured, the domestic service visa was, all too often, a life-saver.
Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement