Oral History Interview - Lisa Moscisker

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Oral History Interview - Lisa Moscisker

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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Lisa Moscisker, who was born in Vienna, Austria 1914, and and moved to Hackney 1939. She discusses 1.Jewish background - Poland, Austria. 2.Jewish refugee WW2. 3.German accent in WW2 London. 4.Stamford Hill.


[Transcript of Interview with Lisa Moscisker]

Q. Could you start by telling me where and when you were born?

LM. Well I was born in Vienna, in 1914, and I came to this country in thirty -nine, with my late mother, because we had to leave Vienna and I couldn’t finish my schooling, but I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and I find that there are compensations. I’ve become a much more mature person, I think, than had I gone to school. I wanted to go, I wanted to study and I wanted to become a, in German you would say a ‘professor’ I don’t know in English, the equivalent would be doctor, I don’t know.

Q. In Vienna what did your parents do? What were their jobs?

LM. My father had a shop, my parents actually came from Poland, and....

Q. How did they end up in Vienna?

LM. Well being Jewish you really didn’t have much of a chance in Poland and at that time, Vienna was more friendly towards Jews and therefore it was a place where lots of people came and we had an opportunity to go to grammar school which we wouldn’t have had, had I been born in Poland, or it would have been more difficult. Because they had such a thing as a numerous’ classes, which means there’s only a certain amount of Jews allowed into college, I don’t know really whether it’s college or university. I’m not sure but anyway, at that time it was more ‘Jew friendly’ if I can say that word.

Q. So did you live in a Jewish area of Vienna?

LM. Yes, yes. We did and of course when they started, the trouble started with Germany. Nobody really believed that it would come to such a, that it would come to Austria, that it would be to such an extent. Luckily my parents realised that there was no future, and my mother came here as a cook and I was the unpaid parlour maid.

Q. So you were 15?

LM. 16, yes.

Q. So how did you feel, did your parents tell you much about moving?

LM. I was quite aware of what was going on and find that this country is a very friendly country and I find it extremely it is very nice to live here.

Q. Can you remember any of the preparations your parents had to make for leaving?

LM. Well the thing is that you could only go and take 15 shillings with you, that was all.

Q. Really?

LM. And what I remember, and I’ve never forgotten that, you see we didn’t think; and when we were on the train, crossing the border, somebody offered my mother a sandwich, and I thought, that’s very friendly. He said ‘Well, don’t eat it now, eat it later.’ And do you know what, he had a ring hidden in the sandwich. Because if you were wearing it, you could easily have been deprived of it. And of course the clothes that you brought were sort of durable kind you know because you couldn’t really take much. To such an extent that, when I went for instance to the West End, the Cumberland Hotel, was a sort of meeting place on Oxford Street. I could tell by the clothes people were wearing, where they, that they were not British, or that they came from, that they were refugees. And its a sort of, you see we used to go to Bloomsbury House which took care of us when we came.

Q. Did you know anybody in England before you came?

LM. No, no. And the first job we had was on the Isle of Wight. And, we couldn’t really keep it. It was like, she asked me to chop wood, and to skin a rabbit. And that was more than I was prepared, I mean, mother couldn’t do it either. So we left the job, although they had given us the permit to come, and we went to London and Bloomsbury House was a sort of organisation that took care of refugees and people were extremely kind. They put us into bed and breakfast accommodation. And since that was the only meal that we would have for sure, we used to eat a great deal. And then there was, what I think you would call, a soup kitchen; organised by Marks and Spencer or some charitable person and for two pence you got sandwich, I think a cup of soup and a piece of fruit. So that was very kind, you could live on that. Plus a bar of chocolate for two pence, would be quite a decent nourishment.

Q. Keep you going.

LM. And then we found, there was also a sort of employment agency where people came, to see what was on offer and see who they would want to offer a job to. And....

Q. So you were not able to continue your education, you had to…

LM. No; no, no. That was out of the question. And I was lucky because I learnt Latin at school and I did know some English. I still have an accent, I had more of an accent then but I could talk.

Q. Could your mother speak English?

LM. No, no. We stuck together. She wouldn’t let go of me at all. As it happens she, one day, she wasn’t well, and I went to that, how do you say? where we could get a job.

Q. Labour exchange.

LM. And there was a lady and she said, ‘Oh I’ll bring your father over. You’ll have a nice job. I have a country home in ( ?) And I said fine. And my mother wasn’t quite pleased with my choice, but never the less, we did go. And it was quite alright in a way. They were the sort of people that would like to show off how kind they were, you know.

But strictly speaking, they were watching. I remember when I was given a pair of shoe to clear, she would turn them over to see if I had done the sole. You know, I don’t know whether that’s a fashion to do that. I wasn’t used to that. And she did help, she did bring father over, And that was... whatever the job would have been, it was really, really well worth it. He came with one of the last trains. And then there was in the East End a shelter, which was a place for people who had nowhere else to go. And my father stayed there.

Q. So how long had your father been in Vienna alone?

LM. I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t say more than 10 months, or 8 to 10 months because he came in August ‘39 and the war started, September, something like that.

Q. So it must have seemed a long 10 months, were you worried about him?

LM. Very much so, very much so. And I also worried, you know that lady said, ‘Can I have your father’s papers?’ And then I thought, maybe she changed her mind. And I’m not a very brave person, but, I said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t find them. I don’t know, whether I was unnecessarily suspicious or not, but considering that I was a very timid person, I think it was very brave of me, not to take a chance.

Q. So did your father manage to find work?

LM. Not really, no not in the beginning. Because the language barrier, because there was too many of us. And then there was the war and I remember I had a job in a factory, and what I thought was so kind. I can’t remember how much I earned, I don’t think I earnt very much. But once I got a demand for tax, And I went to the tax office and he said, ‘Well, yes that’s what’s you owe us, unless of course, do you live with your parents’, ‘Yes’, ‘Do they earn?’, No ‘, well he said ‘Well then you can put that down on your form’. And I thought that was very kind. I think people were really ; really kind. And when you were on the street and you asked somebody for a direction, they would almost take you by the hand and take you.

Q. So didn’t find, did you find any problems with your accent sounding German during the war. Did people view you with suspicion?

LM. Oh yes that was very difficult. I mean you were not allowed to sit on certain benches. You were treated to such demeaning, practices, like my mother was, they used to paint the pavement, and then ask Jews to come down, go on their knees and scrub the pavement. And that was pure sadism, I mean there was no point to it. I can understand, they came up and they said, ‘now take the television down’, ‘ no, no sorry, not radio’, we didn’t have a television that time, They said take the radio down, they didn’t even bother to take it themselves. They made you take it. And we were very lucky, they wanted to arrest my father. But there was somebody who lived in the house and we were, well he respected us, we were friendly with him. I remember I used to help his daughter with her homework. So he said, ‘Leave him’. And we didn’t realise how lucky we were. You know, we thought they are just going to check the papers to see that he is in fact an Austrian citizen or whatever. But it is really amazing what human being can go, through and as it so happens we didn’t realise how lucky we were.

Q. So was there much awareness of what was happening?

LM. No, no. To be honest with you, all during the war, I used to feel rather sorry for myself, in a way. And then I met people, who I meet now and am friendly with, who have spent part of their lives in a concentration camp. And ever since I consider myself extremely lucky. And I think people didn’t realise.

Q. Especially for your whole family to get out.

LM. Well we did lose a lot of relations. But close relations, no, I mean there was only myself and my brother. He emigrated. You could get, somehow he got into Switzerland because we had an aunt there. But then Swiss people are very correct and she told the authorities that was here without permit and he went to Palestine. I don’t quite know, I think yes, you could get to register with the university. Or some sort of a way of getting there and he did and he was lucky.

Q. So do you know how it was that you came to come to Britain rather than anywhere else?

LM. Well I tell you, how we there was, of course you wanted to know how to get out, there were several ways. There were like you could go illegally across a frontier and pay people and that was very people and some people went for it. And then there was the possibility of, if you had a job to go to, and if you had a work permit, you could either come with a work permit or have a guarantor who would give a promise that you won’t be a burden to the state so we advertised. I remember, my father put an advert in I think in the Daily Telegraph, I’m not sure. And we got lots of letters, offers of jobs you see. And I remember one, it was from up North. And what I remember about that letter, it said, People who live in the North of England are much friendlier than those who live in the South’. However, I don’t know what made us choose that particular, I don’t know, but it wasn’t a good choice. I’m sorry I’m jumping from one topic to the other.

Q. No, no, it doesn’t matter. When you arrived in England, before you arrived how much of England did you know?

LM. Nothing. We presumed that it was a country MI of fog and rain, and that’s about all we knew really. But as I said, I think people don’t appreciate England, I think if, even we used to I mean when we got settled, after the war and when we went on holidays abroad, I was pleased to come back here. And it always occurred to me that English people did not at that time travel a lot so they didn’t have much chance, how shall I say?, compare. And when you really compare, I remember one time we went to Spain, not so very long ago, and you see the policemen with the leather boots and the gun and standing as if they were your enemy. I mean you can’t compare a British policeman to anybody on the continent.
And that’s why I find it so amazing that people today complain about the bias of the police. I find them extremely courteous. I don’t understand I really mean it, and maybe I have never met anybody like that.

Q. It’s a different atmosphere to having an armed police.

LM. You see, for me especially at home I would have been frightened to talk to a policeman, I would have gone out of the way to avoid him, and I have one story, I don’t know whether it comes into it or not.

Q. When I first came to this country I worked somewhere in Bloomsbury and I got lost and I saw a policeman and I asked him for directions. And of course he could see that I wasn’t British, that English wasn’t my first language, and he answered me in Yiddish. And I cannot imagine, I don’t know how to, the surprise. And this was a sort of sign for me that I’m going to be airight here. Because if you can even find a policeman who speaks Yiddish, what more can you expect? And I still remember roughly the place where it happened. I wouldn’t remember his face or anything like that but I thought it was wonderful.

Q. So when you arrived the jobs you got initially were they domestic service?

LM. Oh yes, yes. They were domestic servants. Even later on, we had another job with a very nice lady an American lady, very posh. Off Baker street, there’s a mews, I don’t know, you know. And they were sort of high society, they used to have a Baroness come, you know. And I must say this, he was really, really nice. He used to get up from his chair when I came into the room, treat me with a great deal of respect.

Q. How did you find the work? Did you find it hard?

LM. The work, no, no. I mean I, on the continent, we were used to work. Even now I love working, I hate not doing anything. I come here now about 4 times a week, which is really crazy, but I like it. And I have the sort of attitude, I like eating and I am only entitled to eat when I have earned it. So I have to work.

Q. How did your mother cope with not knowing the language?

LM. My mother really, I must say that, relied a great deal on me. And to a very great extent, in fact you know like, she was an awfully good mother, I’m not saying. . But you see after the war I got from the labour exchange an offer and they were very persistent that would I, because of my language, would I be prepared to go as a censor to Germany or Austria. And I would have loved to go. I really, really But they wouldn’t - I mean I could have gone against their wishes but I didn’t. I often regret it because, to me, I like people, I like different situations. I find that keeps me very much alert. I like working here for instance because I meet people I would have never normally met and its a different atmosphere. I’ve made a great many friends and I really enjoy myself.

Q. During the war did you find it difficult with the Blitz and things like that?

LM. Yes, yes. I remember when there was the first air raid, and I went with my mother into the shelter and I spoke German to her because we always spoke German. And I still remember the looks I got. Well, how were they to know who I was? And then we sort of shut up and we used to spend during the Blitz in the underground which was very uncomfortable.

And then we had, we went to Northampton. We were evacuated to Northampton and I think it was quiet, but not for very long. The doodlebugs were the end of the war, weren’t they. At that time we were back here and I had a job in a factory that made uniforms. And, you know that was very interesting. In the morning, when you went to work, because of the bombs, you had to there weren’t so many buses - But there were lots of lorries that made it their business to stop at the bus stop let you get on and even had sort of bench seats. Very friendly and so we came.

The only thing was, when you came back from work, there was one time, and I can’t remember when it was; Hitler came over punctually either at 6 o’clock or at 7. So you were in a hurry to catch the bus that was difficult to get home. And also you see I remember we lived in Dusmore Road at the time, I remember you know, when a bomb had fallen you were not allowed to go through. And then you thought ‘Is it where my parents live?’ Or whatever, you know. But I don’t know, I find that we really were so appreciative of being here, that I didn’t find the war a difficult time. I mean apart from the fact that you had to hide under the table occasionally or maybe I wasn’t serious enough, I don’t know. But I didn’t find it that difficult.

It’s also, how shall I say, in proportion, you see I didn’t realise about the holocaust. We were not aware of it and especially these day, you get so much of it. And I make it a point of always attending. I mean there are lots of people who have a similar background and who do not want because they say, we know all about it. I feel if others had to go through with it, the least I can do is watch it. And it’s become difficult. I used to, I don’t know if you know about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and there is an annual remembrance. And I still remember the very first time I went, I had to hold myself onto the seat because I felt, I’m going out I’m not going to stay. That, you see, if you have a sensitive nature, you can’t avoid getting emotional about it and I must say I went this year, not so long ago was a commemoration of, I don’t know how you say, 50 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. And it was in the Logan hall and I don’t know how many people are, what capacity Logan hall has, but there were so many people, they had to open another room for it. And what I found very impressive, there were a lot of people came with the second generation or the third, and there were a lot of non-Jewish people who came. And I found it a very memorable occasion.

Q. I think that the further it goes back in time, the more important it is to remember and make that effort.

LM. Yes, and I find its important because if I have myself, I can see in myself, things that were unpleasant at the time, you shut them out you don’t remember. I mean, now talking to you, I think, how am I, giving you such a rosy picture? Maybe I have forgotten, I probably have. I also remember you know, when we first came, we were considered ‘enemy alien’ and my father was interned by the way.

Q. Really?

LM. On the Isle of Man was it? Yes. But when we came before something like a tribunal, I don’t know what you all it, in order to be classified, you see, being German, you were an enemy, and we didn’t have a stateless passport, we had an Austrian passport. So you needed a, how shall I say? A reference. And at that time, we just had left that lady, that couple in Baker Street and they gave us, or rather gave me, a letter of introduction to Lady Oxford. And I was that scared, I said, No thank you’. I have regretted it, I mean I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to be served by a butler. But she did give me a letter of recommendation. And I still possess that letter, it’s got a crown on it. I don’t know – what sort of, was it a famous lady, Bedford?

Q. Yes, yes she’s famous aristocrat.

LM. I found that aristocrats were very friendly sorts of people, you know. I found English people on the whole very friendly.

Q. Did you ever come across any prejudice because you were Jewish?

LM. Well I didn’t give it a chance, I only mixed with Jewish people and the only thing is, like where we were, I worked in the factory, they employed a lot of refugees. And of course we had a habit of speaking German and they didn’t like it. And the only friend, other than my other friends, was an Irish girl who also was considered an outsider - or we had a few Spanish ladies, refugees from the Spanish....

Q. Civil war?

LM. Civil war. And it was sort of half and half. You didn’t really belong but then you had a lot of other people you could belong to. So it didn’t seem to matter. And I don’t know, I find I have a friend who is very English and we get on very well. I don’t know.

Q. So your social life mainly geared around Jewish people? What kind of places would you go to?

LM. Well I don’t know. I used to, that was later on, not in the beginning, I used to, belong to the Fabian Society which I found were very, more intellectual and very interesting. We had talks. And I belonged to the Anglo - Palestine Club which had very famous people, like Ian Milcado, I can’t remember the names, but a lot of members of parliament. And it was very nice, it was sort of...Oh yes and before I became a member of that club, I worked there as a waitress. And I used to enjoy that because you mixed with a lot of famous people and a very friendly atmosphere and of course the money was welcome I’ll say that about myself, I’ve always worked hard, and I don’t think I’ve complained about it. At least I can’t remember having complained about it - I’m sure I have. But that’s life.

Q. So you lived with your parents?

LM. Yes I lived with my parents and even when we got married, we lived with my parents because it was convenient, but I think it was more for their benefit than for ours and I didn’t have, I mean, we could have emigrated to Israel because my husband has a Polish degree as veterinary surgeon. And while he couldn’t, he wasn’t allowed to practice here, he would have been allowed to practice in Israel and we were tempted. But it meant leaving my parents, it also meant emigrating again. And to be honest, we were also probably a bit scared.

Q Do you think your parents ever fully settled here?

LM. Yes, I think so, I think they did. As I said, I mean even the synagogue we went to had mostly German speaking members, So I wouldn’t say - I don’t know - come to think of it, we really only mixed with people that.. .Yes, we had a few people that, Jewish people that were not refugees. We did find them friendly and helpful, very helpful. Especially when you went to the East End, there were lots of charities that looked after us in the beginning. I think people on the whole were much kinder than they are now, perhaps, I don’t know. Maybe they are more selfish these days.

Q : Maybe its an emergency thing as well. I think people pull together more in an emergency.

LM. Maybe it was the feeling that it could have happened to us. I don’t ever think it could have happened here. But who am I? I don’t know. I think it has to do with the mentality of the people. I think on the continent there were two things that made it possible. First of all religious reasons and then there was a great deal of anti-Semitism. And it was used to their benefit. I mean why would you not cheer for a party that gives you your bosses flat, or your bosses shop? And makes you feel that you’re much better and that you don’t even rob anybody of it - its your own, you deserve it, they only stole it from you, sort of thing.

Q That’s envy.

LM. Envy, no. It’s an amazing phenomena and I can’t understand it . I’m sure people who are cleverer than me will be able to explain it. But I do not know how it succeeded with such speed and to such... I mean to say, my late mother used to have a Polish lady as a friend. She was a dressmaker, she was not Jewish. She lived very near to us, she mixed with Jewish people. And when Hitler came, she wouldn’t let us into the flat. And you know, the sad story about it is that in the end, she died of starvation. Because, being Polish, she depended on her husband’s ( he was an ex-army officer) and she depended on his pension and she didn’t get it. And I have, somehow we had a relation in Switzerland and she told us that when she went to Vienna, she found out that she perished - that she didn’t survive it. And she didn’t think it meant her, if you know what I mean.

And in a way, I can understand it. You wouldn’t befriend a Jew because it would put you into the wrong. It might do you a great deal of harm. I mean, not only did you benefit from it, but if you didn’t do it for the benefit of it, you did it to safeguard yourself so you can’t really blame people. But on the other hand, I can’t understand it. It’s something that, you know, I find the more they show it, it doesn’t explain it. I sometimes think you know, maybe as human beings, we haven’t progressed that much. Or rather the computer today is more sophisticated that people are I don’t know what it is, but basically, human nature hasn’t come all that far. I still remember you know...I talk too much don’t I?

Q. No, no, that’s the whole point.

LM. No, I still remember years ago, there was a film about, how do you say it - people who eat people...

Q. Cannibals.

LM. Cannibals, and I thought it was horrible. Then after a few years, when I saw it again, I thought it isn’t all that bad because people are still ferocious in a different way. I mean, you take a gun and you shoot somebody - so how do you justify that to yourself? I don’t know.

Q. Have you ever been back to Vienna to visit?

LM. Yes

Q. What was it like?

LM. I enjoyed that. When I worked here I thought I had learnt to listen, but not to talk but if you give me half a chance...

Q. That’s the whole point of this, not for me to talk.

LM. No, but if I go into too much detail or if its too much, you tell me. No, what I wanted to tell you about going back to Vienna. I used to belong to a group called Young Austria which was young people who came from Vienna and who were reffigees here. And we used to have a club and it was very nice. And a few years ago there was a special occasion, I cannot remember what it was, it was something to do with, with the war. It was a commemoration of, I don’t know. I remember we went to Vienna as a group and we were very well treated and welcomed. And we had a reception at the Rathaus, with quite a few. The mayor, in German you would say Burgermaster, shook hands with everybody.

Now I don’t know if you can understand it, but for me, he wasn’t the same man who threw me out, but nevertheless, he came from the same., and I got an enormous amount of satisfaction being treated like that. And there were people from the broadcasting organisation who asked for interviews. Like, I had one, I don’t know what they did with it. But it was very interesting. And I tell you the benefit I got from it. We went for instance to the P(?) which is a sort of fairground. And I sat down and spoke to a gentleman and I had the feeling that they were just as anti-Semitic as they used to be. I think so. And I also enjoyed myself because they couldn’t quite figure me out. When I went I intended to pretend to be British and not to speak German. But then I couldn’t help myself And my German was correct but it wasn’t colloquial enough for them to place me and I got a kick out of that. And we also went to the theatre.

It’s a nice country but it is, I think the people, in my opinion, although they think they’re very sophisticated and have a great deal of accent on culture; but I don’t know, I found that they still think they were the ‘once upon a time’ Austrian Hungarians. You know, they were important, but they still live in the past as far as glory is concerned.

Q. Did you manage to see the area you used to live?

LM. Yes

Q. Had it changed?

LM. Well actually, I wanted to.. it was rather traumatic. We went on a bus, and this is another thing I wanted to say to you is that, when I came back, I realised that what my brain had been doing is taking the whole episode out of it. I was almost lost, I didn’t know where I was and I got on a bus and they said, ‘Weinstamplatz’ (?) which is where I used to live and humped off the bus. And I really, how shall I say? I had to get into it in order to appreciate it more. I didn’t realise that for all these years that I had been away, I never thought of it. Which goes to prove what I said before. If something is unpleasant, you just shut it out.

Q. Did the memories come back as you walked around?

LM. Yes, yes. I wanted to go to the flat we used to live in and I wanted to knock on the door but my husband wouldn’t let me, I think I should have done. But I went to the school I used to go to. It was not far from where I lived. It was, I don’t know, a grammer school. And I met a few people who had returned, you know, after the war. They spent the war years here, they had returned to Vienna. And they were all so ill at ease, I think. They didn’t quite fit in with, like., one of the gentleman, it struck me, he was one of our group. And, you know, some of them joined the Pioneer Corps here, I think. Or were in the army - I don’t think it was the British Army. And he said to me, he said, ‘You see when I am sitting here in the, you don’t say pub, the equivalent of a pub, a man would say to me....
You know when it comes to it, I can’t say it in English. This is a funny thing, you see if I start getting back into my past, my English deserts me. I mean, I’m quite fluent as you can see... No, he said, ‘You were shooting me.’ In other words, you were on the other side of the fence. And I suppose from his point of view, he was quite right. It was true. I found, in other words, I considered myself to be lucky, for not having gone back. Although some of my friends did very well.

Q So did your family never consider going back?

LM. No, I never would. I think, if I may say so, if you go through that, and you are Jewish, you’ve only got two options. Either you become more Jewish or you go the other way. And we went more Jewish than we were. It’s important, you want to belong and you think of your roots and I really find, I know a lot of people who went the other way, who said, ‘Why should I risk having to go through that again?’ And either changed their religion or married out and forgot all about it. That is a personal choice. Whichever way you want to do it. I suppose you do it according to your feelings. I mean, I find nowadays I even remember the stories my mother used to tell me, which goes back a long time. And I find my sons both went to a Jewish school because there were lots of people who said, ‘Why do you do it?’ And I felt, because I wouldn’t have had a chance to go to a Jewish school, they went and it didn’t do them any harm. They both went to University they both had a good education. So you can do that as well.

Q Have you always lived in Hackney?

LM. If you call Stamford Hill... is Stamford Hill Hackney?

Q: Yes. How did you end up in Stamford Hill?

LM. It’s a good question, actually, I don’t remember. I think my parents must have lots of people they knew who lived in this district. And we lived in Fairholt Road, I’ve forgotten now, St. Kilda’s Road. All you know, round there. When you walked the street you could hear a lot of German as well.

Q : That must have been reassuring for your parents.

LM. Yes, yes. .. No, both my parents had the highest regard for England and they said, Well, I can’t imagine anyone complaining. People were very kind, they accepted us and they gave us a.... we didn’t even realise how much they gave us. Because... And I think it’s a nice country to live in.

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