Alice describes what happened to her mother once she arrived in Britain. She goes on to talk about her own journey to this country and some of her early experiences here.
INT: Right, so tell me… so the two next things then are, if you can bear it, what became of your grandmother and then your journey to Britain.
AM: Well my mother went to an office in London. She was…when she first came to London, into domestic service, into the post that was arranged for her to have; the only way that she could get an entrance permit because it was quotas; Britain took in people by quota number. And she eventually got permission from the office, which was called the Inter-Aid Jewish Office for Children.
INT: The what? The Inter…?
INT: Inter-Aid, all right.
AM: Jewish Office for Children. She eventually managed to get a permit for me to come.
AM: But before that…during that time, sometime, the people she was working for turned out to be British Nazis.
AM: And she had a very, very bad time there. On the point of collapse she went/had the good sense to go, but she didn’t speak English, to go into an agent and ask for another job. She was sent to Northwood in Middlesex to Scottish people, which was wonderful.
The gentleman was not Scottish but the lady was. So I eventually got a permit in 1938 at the end of my school year and packed a small trunk, mistakenly with books from school. And my grandmother gave me a cushion to sit in the corridor train, which was third class.
AM: And a bottle of water because the Viennese water was rated very high, and a little beret, crocheted beret, for my mother. That’s all I had, that we could afford to bring. So Mummy was working for the people in Northwood and I arrived…My uncle, my mother’s brother, took me to the station [in Vienna]. That was the [last I saw of him, for decades], with an SS man on either side of him.
It was an ordinary civilian train; Nazis were on it in uniform, civilians were on it – you didn’t know who was who but you could tell the refugees somehow, because other people were coming on domestic services as well. I was very happy to think I was going to see my mother and I had taken my curlers with me. I thought ahead and the hat I was wearing I had taped so that I could keep the curlers in and keep the hat on top. When we got to the border of Austria and Germany the train was stopped and any Jewish, every Jewish person was hauled out. They came in and took you out and a lot of people had permits but a lot of people didn’t. Those with permits, I think most of them, were allowed back on the train. It depended, I suppose, on what they considered, but when everybody was hauled out I stayed put. When they said “Aus!” I was deaf. And I supposed I looked a little bit mad.
INT: With your curlers!
AM: And very small, insignificant. That I was not taken out, so I stayed put. Wherever the train was going I was in it.
AM: Those who came back were going the same way as me but I didn’t really know that. It was night time, time [to put in] your curlers and go to sleep. Sleep evaded me, as it had for me for a long time. There were various ships; I didn’t know which one was shouting, “We’re leaving!”…in French. I had a smattering of French. When I finally decided I couldn’t shut the case, I’ll go onto a ship. I went on the ship…what do you call that man that stands like…?
INT: Like a purser or something?
AM: Yeah, he saw my permit and said “We are just leaving, get off quick! You are on the wrong ship!” .“Which way shall I go?” I was able to say that in French, and he pointed me back, not where I’d walked on, but back. And I was on the English ship. I didn’t know anybody; I didn’t know whether I should stay where I was standing, you know. They shut the gates and shoved me in. The ship was full to capacity and off we went. I was expecting and hoping that my mother would meet me in Dover. It was not a long sail; it was a very short sail. But when the ship stopped it was Dover and people were shouting; they were coming, they were going, they were getting off the ship and somebody was shouting – “Alice Levi! Alice Levi!, Levi Alice!” But my grandmother had told me “You don’t speak to anyone. And even when you are eventually settled in your new home never discuss politics, never say what happened. ”
AM: So I stayed schtum [silent]. They called me but I didn’t [answer] I am Alice, I am Alice. I didn’t know I was Levi. I was Levi. So everybody got off except me! When I eventually got off and there…at the port was my mother with the same friend who had been calling me, but I didn’t know! She was consoling her that I will be there somewhere. But she was afraid that I hadn’t arrived and she was consoling her. And then when I got off and she was there with her friend who was my… whom I always knew her as ‘Auntie [Monica]. It was her friend; my mother got her out on one of the occasions when she came home. Again, on the domestic permit.
INT: OK, here’s a question. How on earth in those days, because I’m so used to mobile phones and the internet, how on earth could your mother have possibly known which train you were going to be able to get?
AM: [Through] my grandmother, I found out afterwards.
AM: My mother was so upset that she sent a telegram to my grandmother, who sent a telegram back (poor soul, count the pennies she spent on a telegram) to say I had left.
INT: Right, right.
AM: More than that she didn’t know.
INT: So she was just waiting for each boat? Wow. OK, so from Dover to Scotland? That’s a long story. Dover to London first?
AM: I was… yes my mother was allowed to bring me to her new employers who was, the lady was from Glasgow and the gentleman was English. Now I was allowed to stay with her.
INT: The North West…?
AM: Western Polytechnic.
INT: North Western Polytechnic in Kentish Town, yes.
AM: In Kentish Town. But I was to live in digs in Kensal Rise.
AM: That lady was doing/taking in refugee children and the Committee paid for us. It was eking out her livelihood in London.
AM: She was from Manchester. So this was [the beginning of ] me hearing different [British] accents.
AM: But I was sent to her from my mother’s employer with a carload of roses from their garden.
AM: And when my mother introduced me to that Scottish lady I kept shaking her hand because I didn’t know it wasn’t custom to kiss a lady’s hand. The lady was laughing. Until my mother said to me in German: “That’s enough”.