Elise G’s story

Imagine being intelligent enough and working hard enough to achieve a doctorate in mathematics, in an era where women were only just allowed to earn them, and then being denied the title by some foreign men because you were a) from a different country and they weren’t sure they recognised the institution you earned your qualification in, and b) a married woman. This happened to Elise – a well deserving holder of a PhD, but referred to as Mrs (despite a divorce) when she found work as a maths teacher.

The second daughter of a Czechoslovakian lawyer, Elise was born at the turn of the 20th century in Most, a Bohemian city in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic. The region was German-speaking – Most’s German name is Brüx – and Elise grew up speaking that language. Her family was Jewish, well-educated and quite well-to-do.

During the first world war, when the situation for Jews in that area was good, she and her sister Kathe attended high school in their home town, with Elise showing a particular aptitude for mathematics. She went on to study at the local college at 16, graduating in 1923, and then went on to the University of Vienna for four further years – gaining a distinction in maths – and achieving a doctorate in 1928. At the time, women were only admitted to doctorates in certain subjects at the University of Vienna. Somewhere along the way she’d met and married Ernst, a junior lawyer in her father’s office, in about 1924 and gave birth to a daughter around 1928. However, the marriage did not work out and ended in divorce.

After qualifying for her doctorate, and gaining the first part of a teaching diploma, she spent eight years as visiting lecturer at the University of Prague, and then moved to be the Statistical Expert at the Institute of Market Research in Vienna. Her father died in 1931, but her mother continued to live in Most. By this point, the situation for Jews in this part of Europe was getting dangerous. Her daughter, then around 10, was excluded from her school in Vienna on the basis of her Jewish background, so she and Elise returned to Prague. Her daughter managed to escape in January 1939 as part of the Kindertransport with the help of the Barbican Mission to the Jews, based in London’s East End, who saved around 100 children in the nine months up to the outbreak of World War II. The idea of the mission was that the Jewish children should convert to Christianity, which did not particularly bother Elise or her ex-husband as – though Jewish by birth – they were agnostic. Elise was able to follow her two months later, on a domestic permit – presumably with the idea of being able to care for her – but left her mother and ex-husband behind. Her sister had married and moved to Chile with her husband, which may have been considered as another avenue of escape, but ultimately the domestic permit provide Elise with the means to leave.

England at the time was not a particularly cosmopolitan place. Many people had not been abroad – the country was decades away from package holidays – and much of the news from the area that Elise came from centred on Hitler and the activities of the Nazi party, so even rescued Czech Jews could be viewed with suspicion. In addition, Elise’s doctorate came from a non-British university, so many might doubt the rigour of that education as it was “different” to that which they had experienced.

Therefore, Elise had to find work in England as and where she could. With the help of people within the Barbican Mission for the Jews she began working as a chamber maid, then a cook and a governess, and the 1939 register – taken a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War – has her performing domestic duties for a female accountant in London, though the register acknowledges that she is a statistics expert, and she probably helped the accountant as well as doing the cleaning. But on this form her doctorate is not acknowledged. Her daughter lived separately, with the mission in a home in the Brockley area, and Elise’s access to her was restricted.

In January of 1940, with many of the male teachers starting to be taken into the forces as the war got underway, there were starting to be shortages in teaching staff in many schools. She managed to gain a position as temporary science mistress at Thorn Bank school in Malvern-Wells, Worcestershire. This was a small private school for girls, which did not have a great deal of funds for equipment. Elise taught here on her wits and vast knowledge, as her only scientific equipment was pieces of litmus paper. However, the stability of this job meant that her daughter was returned to her care, and they lived together in Malvern-Wells and later in Carlisle where Elise held a mathematics teaching position for a year from September of 1940 that was slightly better than the previous post but not by much.

From here, she had an interview with the head of a town grammar school in Wiltshire on the railway station platform at Derby with a view to replacing his head of maths who was serving in the RAF, and got the job. Whereas the governors of that school were not particularly worldly at that time, the head teacher was young and a Quaker, part of the Rowntree chocolate manufacturing family of York, and as part of the company business had even been abroad. He recognised that a doctorate from the University of Vienna was equal to one from a British university, and persuaded the governors to take on Elise – though in a nod to their reservations she was still referred to as Mrs and not as Doctor. They may also have had reservations as the previous replacement was also a German Jewish refugee and had been interned in an Enemy Alien camp for a few months in 1940, and they may have feared losing Elise to this fate too – although it was only the men who were interred in the end.

Elise became the senior maths teacher of the school, in Bradford on Avon, and her daughter enrolled too. She was well liked by staff and pupils alike, and respected by all. Her heavy accent apparently was difficult to understand at first, but many students found her lessons inspirational. She was paid on the standard scale, with slight deductions for being in a temporary position and technically an alien, but was awarded a special payment for her exceptional qualifications – which they still weren’t formally recognising – in 1943.

During this period, both her mother and ex-husband – who had not been able to escape the Nazi regime – were placed by the Third Reich. Communication would have been non-existent, so she probably would not have known of their fate until after the war. Her mother was sent to the Theresienstadt Jewish ghetto, with other Czech Jews, which eventually became a labour camp. She was then sent on to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers sometime in either 1943 or 1944. Ernst, Elise’s ex-husband, was sent to the ghetto at Łódź, Poland, where he died of starvation in 1943. Her teaching position, and life in the UK, must have included hope that her family and friends had somehow survived.

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Elise, left, with other grammar school staff in 1944

Elise remained at the grammar school in Bradford on Avon until the end of the school year in 1945, when – the war having ended in May, at least in Europe – it was expected that the head of maths would return from RAF duty and take his place again at the school. In practice, this did not happen until 1946, and another German refugee was employed until then. The job did belong to the original head of maths, but it is fair to say that Elise was far better qualified for the role than he was.

She moved to be maths teacher at the Greenford County School, in Middlesex, and her daughter moved with her. After a few years here she was able to make the switch back into working in higher education in London, although an exact institution remains elusive. She was active in both the English and German language fields of maths, and here reclaimed the title of Dr again as it was finally recognised.

Elise 1961

Her daughter lived with her in Wembley until her marriage in the late 1950s, after which she appears to have lived alone. She visited her sister Kathe in Chile in the late 1950s and early 60s. After Kathe’s husband’s death in the early 1970s Kathe went back to Germany and lived in Munich, so Elise had a ready made base there when she travelled for work. She eventually had two grandsons.

elise edinburgh

She also continued her research while working in higher education. There is a picture of her attending the Edinburgh Mathematical Society Colloquium in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1976. She is also mentioned as a member of the Austrian Mathematics Association by the International Mathematical News published in Vienna in 1977. By this point she was living in Latymer Court in Hammersmith, built in 1934 and described at that time as the largest single luxury block of flats in Europe.

latymer court

In 1978 she was awarded a Golden Doctorate from the University of Vienna, an accolade given to those who have reached 50 years since their original doctorate and are still continuing to research and push the boundaries of their subject. She still did not stop there – in 1983, at the age of 80, she delivered a paper in Germany on “The practical treatment of stress concentrations and singularities within the finite element displacement algorithms”, and there is mention of her having delivered lectures for the Open University.

She died in 1991, aged 88, and was buried close to home in London.

Amy A’s story

Music ran in Amy A’s blood, body and soul. So much so that her musician father actually named her after his favourite piano manufacturer.

The youngest of seven, and the fourth daughter, she experienced an extremely musical childhood in South Wiltshire in the 1850s. Her father made a living teaching piano and selling music, excelling at playing the flute and operating as a church organist and bandsman. All of Amy’s siblings took up music, and are referred to as “professor of music” from an early age, indicating that talent was rife within the family.

The family were well to do, with servants in the household, and her father employed an organ tuner on his staff. This comfortable background enabled Amy and her siblings to have the space and time to excel in their musical talent, as they did not have to work to survive.

Amy herself specialised in singing. She possessed a high soprano voice, which became a distinguishing feature. Like her next oldest sister, she travelled to Germany in early adulthood to study at the Stuttgart Conservatoire, and then afterwards at the Royal Academy of Music in London – where she became an Associate.

She had a performing career, often appearing in public, but suffered periods of ill-health which forced her to retire from the stage.

Instead, she made her living by teaching. By the early 1890s she was well established as a singing teacher and a professor of music in London, living alongside another unmarried sister who also describes herself as a professor of music on the 1891 census return.

Later on, this sister moved back to the family home to teach alongside her father, so Amy went to live with her next oldest sister. This sister, it was claimed, was the most musically talented of them all – but had had to retire from the profession when she married a doctor, as women of her station in life did not make their own living, however prodigiously talented they were. Amy herself never married, so was able to keep her talent and teaching career.

Amy lived until the early 1920s, leaving her assets to her by-now-widowed sister. Her namesake niece, the daughter of one of her brothers, had her own singing and teaching career.

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To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Joan T’s story

Joan T faced down nazi war criminals, and then was at the forefront of changing attitudes towards disability.

Born to a shop’s head buyer and his second wife at the turn of the roaring twenties, Joan T grew up as the elder of two daughters in suburban London.

Her mother had trained as a shorthand typist in the boom of that profession in the early years of the twentieth century, before her marriage, and as Joan came to adulthood during the Second World War she was encouraged into a similar profession. She attained the role of secretary during this time, working for the North West Civil Defence Authority. Her boss was Hartley Shawcross, who was made Attorney General in 1945.

She wrote to congratulate him on this appointment, and to see if there were any employment opportunities, and he suggested that she was posted to the Nuremberg Trials.

Joan became secretary to Airey Neave as he served with the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. She travelled to the city, and lived there for the duration of the trials, writing home to her parents regularly.

One such letter, from October 1945, said:

“…The Court House is a cosmopolitan place as you can guess… Americans – both Army and civilians predominate but we see plenty of French and Russians – all services – Army Navy and Air Force. The Russian Army wear brown uniforms and they would look perfectly at home standing outside the Odeon Cinema!

Nuremburg is practically flat – London is nothing to it – and the striking thing about it is that no attempt seems to have been made to clear away the rubble. The German Civilians must be in an awful plight; there is nothing for them to do in Nuremburg at any rate unless they are working for the Allies. As we waited outside the Opera House last night there were grown ups and children waiting to pounce on the cigarette stubs thrown away.”

Neave’s role in the trials was to investigate the firm Krupp, who had been involved in the Third Reich, and Joan provided him with secretarial support in this, often attending court house sessions and seeing prominent Third Reich members at close quarters.

In November 1945 she writes:

“It was worth going just to get a look at the Criminals. Unfortunately I had gone without my chart of where the Criminals were sitting so I could only pick out the obvious ones. Goering, of course, was quite unmistakable; he looked very interested in the proceedings and at the end, after the adjournment, was laughing and chatting with three American Guards as though they were the best of buddies. (Actually I thought it was very slack on the part of the guards the way they were ‘fratting’ with him.) Hess really looks quite potty and sits with his nose in a book most of the time. Streicher looked very well turned out in a navy blue suit.”

The trials concluded in the early autumn of 1946, and Joan returned to life in England.

She remarked:

“I feel I have made up a bit for the dreariness of the war years… You learn a lot about human nature living in a cosmopolitan atmosphere like this and you come out of it all with a tremendous respect for British people and the British way of life; I have realized what a tremendous advantage it is to be born an Englishman.”

She had several other secretarial jobs in the years that followed, but none as high profile as Nuremberg. In the late 1950s, at the age of 37, Joan married a man who worked for the Ferodo brakes firm, and settled in the north Midlands. Like much of society at the time, his family regarded her previous work as “just secretarial”.

Their first child followed in the summer of 1958. He was born with spina bifida, and until around this time most babies born with a disability were considered not to have a good quality of life and were killed soon after birth. However, her son’s birth occurring in the summer meant that she was attended by a younger locum rather than the family doctor – who was on holiday at the time – and traditional attitudes towards disability were starting to change. The locum did not hold these traditional views, and alongside Joan determined that her son would live.

Whereas now people born with spina bifida or any number of other differences are fully part of society, in the late 1950s and early 1960s most disability would have been as a result of injury – and Joan and her son were at the forefront of gradual changing attitudes, both positive and negative.

Despite having waited to start a family, a daughter followed less than 18 months later, and her husband was involved in setting up the Ferodo factory at Port Dinorwic near Caernarfon, so the family moved to the coast of North Wales.

Later on, Joan and her husband ran a shop together. She was known for her diplomatic skills in the family.

Widowed at the beginning of the 1990s, she enjoyed a long retirement, and was deeply involved in the community. She died in the early 2000s, in her eighties.

 

To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.