Jane Brooks, Deputy Director of the UK Centre for the History of Nursing, explains how nursing provided a new start for Jewish women fleeing Nazi Europe
When 16-year-old Mia Ross (nee Maria Fuchs) escaped Austria in March 1939, she couldn’t have known that she’d never see her parents again. Her elder sister, already in Britain, met her off the train. She was taken in by a kindly, though emotionally distant, family, and attended Tottenham High School for Girls.
The following summer, Mia left school and found work as a domestic help. But not long after, her former headmistress helped her secure a more desirable position as a nurse, training at Keighley and District Victoria Hospital in Yorkshire.
For single Jewish women like Mia, domestic service and nursing visas were the two ways to secure escape from Nazi occupied territories. Jewish and non-Aryan Germans had begun leaving for Britain, America and Palestine when Hitler rose to power in 1933. With the takeover of Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938 and the Kristallnacht pogrom on 9 November, people departed in ever greater numbers.
I was pleased to finish my work as a domestic but had mixed feelings about my future as a nurse
Now, 80 years since Kristallnacht, many of the women who fled Nazi Europe and became nurses in Britain are no longer with us. However, I have managed to interview eight former refugees, while family members have generously shared information about mothers and aunts. Oral histories, including the RCN oral history archive in Edinburgh, and contemporary issues of Nursing Times and Nursing Mirror in the RCN archive have helped me uncover the complex attitude of the profession to the plight of these women.
“I started training as a nurse at Keighley and District Victoria Hospital in March 1941,” says Mia. “I was pleased to finish my work as a domestic, but I had quite mixed feelings about my future as a hospital nurse.”
By spring 1940, 914 refugee nurses and midwives were employed in British hospitals. Nursing offered a professional qualification and somewhere to live. But there was opportunism on the part of the British Government, and the nursing profession did not always make its refugee recruits welcome.
Nursing was not a popular career choice for British girls and a shortage of nurses caused concern as war loomed. Even when hospital training schools recruited sufficient young women, they struggled to retain them. As Jewish refugees arrived, the Government saw a chance to gain more permanent recruits. But the profession, public and even parts of government were split on the issue.
The British press had begun to stoke fears of “floods of refugees”. Historian John Stewart notes the College of Nursing wrote to the Ministry of Labour in 1933 complaining about refugee nurses. By December 1938, a letter to Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal by “Anglo-Scott” referred to an “alien invasion” and the fear that Jewish women would be given the “highest posts” over British
Many refugee nurses were forced to leave at least one hospital position in 1940 when fears of enemy infiltration was at its height, only to then be asked back into nursing in 1941.
Some of Britain’s most senior nurses called for sympathy and action. Miss Hillyers, Matron of St Thomas’s Hospital and Chairman [sic] of the nursing sub-committee of the Co-ordinating Committee for Refugees, wrote to Nursing Times in December 1938 outlining nursing opportunities for refugee women and how to apply.
Two of my research participants shared memories of Miss Lang, Matron of Staines Hospital, who trained about 30 refugees as nurses. She recognised their excellent primary education and great potential. Ruth Shire and Hanna Cooper both recalled how Miss Lang even supported refugee nurses in celebrating Jewish holy days.
Lee Fischer found support during her nurse training from a British girl called Mildred, who became her best friend. And while another participant remembered how some antisemitic nurses “made my life absolute hell”, several recalled the genuine kindness and sympathy of matrons and colleagues.
Refugee nurse G.F. wrote to Nursing Mirror in 1941 to say that while on duty in a hospital: “I do not feel myself a foreigner… we are all servants working for the cause of humanity.” In the following issue, nurse Ingeborg Halm wrote: “I am indeed grateful for the great interest and goodwill you always have shown to refugee nurses.”
The gratitude of these young women may have been genuine, but we must remember most had fled almost certain death. Many would never see their family or loved ones again. Nearly all had been required to leave at least one hospital position in 1940 when fears of infiltration by "enemy aliens" was at its height, only to then be asked back into nursing work in 1941.
Yet, despite this, countless women maintain that nursing offered a real opportunity to create a life in Britain. Of those who stayed in the profession, many carved out significant and influential careers.
I do not feel myself a foreigner...we are all servants working for the cause of humanity
Influential Jewish refugee nurses
Born in Vienna in 1919, Annie Altschul was at university studying maths and physics when she was forced to flee to England. She briefly worked as a mother’s help before entering nursing. But her training at Ealing Hospital was cut short by the “enemy alien” restrictions.
Annie managed to restart general nurse training at Epsom Hospital. Afterwards, she went on to train as a mental health nurse at Mill Hill Emergency Hospital, which treated military personnel and civilians, and was a pioneering centre for innovative clinical work and research into the emotional trauma of war.
Annie later joined the Socialist Medical Association and stepped back into academia, completing a degree in psychology at Birkbeck College, London. She pursued her interest in mental health nursing with study tours of Boston, California and Edinburgh, and completion of an MPhil.
Lisbeth Hockey was studying medicine in Austria when the Nazis took power there in March 1938. She escaped to England, but found barriers to continued study – not only was she a woman but, as a refugee, she had no money. Nursing was seen as a reasonable alternative.
She began training at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, which was soon evacuated to Essex. In 1940, she was forced to leave the post – “enemy aliens” were not allowed to work in coastal towns.
Lisbeth completed her nurse training in Watford. She became a Queen’s Nurse, then a health visitor and tutor. Always inquisitive, she involved herself in the early nurse research movement. After studying economics at LSE, she moved to Edinburgh, where she became the first Director of Nursing Research in a British university.
Find out more
Hear Jane Brooks speak further on these inspirational nurses and their experiences on 13 November at RCN headquarters in London. For more information and to book, visit the event page.
This feature was originally published in Nursing History Now, which can be downloaded in full here.
This is a publication by the RCN History of Nursing Society. To find out more about the society and to join, visit their webpages.