Blog and News, Women's History

Female Jewish Refugees and British Welfare from 1939, by Abi Exelby

Approximately 70,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Britain fleeing Nazi persecution from 1933 until the outbreak of the Second World War. 20,000 of those refugees were women who were allowed entry under domestic permits: there were also an unknown amount who gained entry through other means and differing circumstances. The vast majority of refugees were allowed entry under temporary visas, seen as an interim solution to the problem of escape and refuge for European Jews. Britain became a transit destination, offering shelter and protection for a month before many, in theory, would move on to permanent homes in the United States, Palestine, or Canada. With the outbreak of war, emigration to alternative destinations became almost impossible. Equally, many countries did not want an influx of migrants, so many remained within Britain, and a large proportion became naturalised post war.

There are few in depth studies regarding female refugees’ lives in Britain. Research predominantly focuses upon the male elite, comprised of entrepreneurs and wealthy businessmen, philosophers, and academics who enriched British society commercially, economically and scholastically.[1] The experiences of the largely male élite émigrés have been emphasised at the expense of female refugees.[2] Some also led deeply enriching lives within Britain, but others desperately struggled. There are a small amount of academic chapters and articles in regard to Jewish women who assumed domestic service roles, but in comparison to the elite émigré this is an insignificant amount. Very little study has been centred upon those women who arrived with no permit, no job, and no accommodation. What strategies helped them avoid becoming destitute? How did their lives differ in London in comparison to their comfortable and conventional middle class surroundings in Germany, Austria, or Eastern Europe?  How did they survive, and how did they perceive their life within Britain?

The women were comprised of a wide demographic, and from varying social stratums. The majority arrived alone but some arrived with husbands, children, and ageing parents. The children and parents were deemed as dependants. They were not able to work due to age, so therefore the female refugees were solely responsible for their maintenance financially, and their general wellbeing and care. This was a difficult task when working. These women that would have fallen through the cracks of society, without aid and financial backing throug refugee organisations and the British Government.

Refugees were able to claim Unemployment Assistance through the Unemployment Assistance Board, (UAB), an area of policy which has not, so far, received scholarly attention. This was achieved through a maintenance grant of £2,000,000,000 loaned to refugee organisations, the Jewish Refugee Council and the Central Committee for Refugees to prevent them filing for bankruptcy due to the unexpected demand placed upon them.[3]  The UAB policy, which was modified to include migrants, had a notable impact on Jewish refugees, and women in particular. The financial aid granted kept many out of destitution, allowing these women to remain independent and support their dependants, and in some cases actually enabled them to start small enterprises for themselves. The Home Office handed a considerable amount of immigration operations over to the Jewish Refugee organisations due to demand and time constraints. The government felt that if voluntary organisations were overseeing the administration, they would be able to assist and aid them to a greater extent as they understood the needs and requirements of Jewish refugees.  They would also have the time to keep track on the refugees whereabouts and wellbeing over a period of time. These organisations were responsible for ensuring that the many thousands of émigrés that required aid and support financially, mentally, and in regard to locating jobs were accommodated and provided for. 

Many of the Jewish women found locating work difficult. Voluntary organisations and the UAB played a key role in facilitating them to be granted home working permits, enabling them to become self-employed. Many of the women had been involved in family businesses prior to World War Two. These included leather bag, belt and glove manufacturers, wool and cotton traders, millinery, dressmaking, and artificial flower manufacturing. This allowed a significant number of women to transfer their skills from these trades over to piece work for companies, which they were able to do from home. The piece work in some cases either supported them completely, or in the majority of cases supplemented the financial assistance they received from the UAB.  For the younger female who arrived on her own, too old to qualify for the Kindertransport, and too young for full time work, the refugee organisations along with the Quakers, and many other benevolent agencies found work placements for them to learn, for instance within nursing, or enrolled them within schools that were suitable.[4]

Through my PhD, I am endeavouring to not only uncover a section of British Government policy which has been overlooked,  but to offer a new perspective on recent scholarship which argues that Britain did not do enough to aid and rescue Jewish women. Equally, I aim to tell the stories of Jewish women that have been sidelined and forgotten. My research to date includes gaining access to the World Jewish Relief archive which holds the Bloomsbury House immigration files, files which have never been accessed for academic purposes previously.  I have also been studying the Unemployment Assistance Board case files, and being able to analyse the rationale behind granting a signifiant amount of financial aid through the maintenance grant, which amounted to roughly £4,000,000,000 sustained over ten years.[5] This was not only implemented to prevent the refugees becoming a charge on public funds, but to aid them and allow the refugee agencies to continue with their humanitarian work. This is especially pertinent, as it gave aid and help to so many Jewish women.

Abi Exelby, PhD student at the University of Chichester, West Sussex.

My areas of interest and research are Anglo/Jewish history 1930s onwards, Jewish gender history, Holocaust studies, and 20th Century British Government policy.

Image credit: Author’s own, from The National Archives, Ref: AST 1/24, Jewish Refugees, The Assistance Board

[1] J Seabrook, The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny, (Basingstoke, UK, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 5-12

[2] T Kushner, K Lunn, (eds) The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain, (London, Savage: Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1990) p. 49

[3] The National Archives, Refugees, Grant Finical Assistance. Agreement with the Jewish Council, HO 213/298, pp.1-4

[4] TNA, Jewish Refugees, Unemployment Assistance Board, AST 1/24,(1940-1948)

[5] N Bentwich, They Found Refuge, An Account of British Jewry’s Work for Victims of Nazi Oppression, (London: The Cresset Press, 1956) p.120