Mrs. Ilona “Helen” Martin
Recorded on 24th November, 1999
I was born on 10th June 1912 in Presov. My father had a grocery business selling everything, a grocery, and then a petrol pump and what else, something else. We all worked in the business. I mean, I was young, they kept me always because the market place was on Monday and Friday so they kept me at home to help.
We were two sisters and one brother. My sister’s name was Marvin but when she came here they changed her name because Marvin they said is a boy’s name, so they put down Mary. So she remained Mary, that was her name. She was my only sister and my brother. Ja. Zolli was younger. I was the middle one. My sister was the oldest and he was the youngest. And he came here out. He was working with the partisans, you know, and his wife. And then I brought them out, you know. So they came here and they lived here round the corner. She is still here and they have a beautiful daughter, a doll, a real doll. And there it is anyhow. I am ever so lonely.
And as I say my father was a businessman and my mother too, all by me. I used to do – what did I used to do? – corsetry at home there in Presov. And I followed here as well. And then I came here and I worked in South Molton Street, you know, a nice little shop. It was nice, yes.
My grandparents, I can’t tell you much. I only know they lived in a village called Ilekovic and they had a pub. They had like a pub, yes. My mother’s parents, yes. So we used to go there sometimes in the summer for a little holiday with my grandparents. It was nice.
And then Hitler came. Then I had an uncle in Belgium and he asked if I would come as a nanny to England (sigh). It seems he had connections in England. So I came to England in 1937 to that family and then sadly my parents said ‘Please don’t come back. The situation is very bad’. You know, because Hitler started to put the Jews in concentration camps. And for why, tell me, tell me why. What have we done? What have we done? So I never went back, you know.
And then funnily there was a gentleman, he was a lawyer, and he was waiting for his wife coming from Czechoslovakia. Not in the family where I was working. He was only a friend. And he was waiting for his wife to come and emigrate to America. And then he says ‘Somebody is interested in you’ And that was my husband. I met him through the lawyer. What was his name? I can’t remember his name. Anyhow we met and we clicked and we married.
But he went to the army quite a long time, how many years? In the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, you know. And I was here alone but I was working, you know. But I had a terrible landlady, a really terrible landlady. I didn’t know what to do. She was really harmful. She didn’t let me do nothing. When I used to come home from work she took the children to have a bath and I had no water in my kitchen. I told myself, how can she be so wicked. She just wanted me out, you know, she wanted the room for somebody else or what do I know. And that’s terrible. You know, so unkind. And I remember she had some peppers in the garden and she said – her name was Mrs. Boreham – she lived upstairs, and she said she would rather have them rotten before she gives it to her. So I told myself ‘How can a churchgoer and away she went to church, I don’t know, mornings, lunch times – she went quite often – and be so wicked.
Was this when you were first married?
How did your husband come to England?
Also through Emigration, some sort of – Bourne & Hollingworth. I remember they were working those refugees so they took refugees. And here was a very nice lady – what was her name? – and she took children in, Jewish children, refugees, you know, and she looked after them.
Was this before the war broke out?
Before? No, during the war already.
When you were a little girl what sort of holidays did you have?
We always, as I said, we mostly went to my grandmother to the village. But so holidays like here people take we didn’t take. It’s funny, we went like to relatives always but nothing to a hotel or something like that, never. But I had a very – how shall I say – happy childhood. Lovely parents, my father and mother were wonderful. And I remember, I never forget it, my Daddy came home and somehow he acted so strangely and my mother said ’You had better call a doctor’. So then he said he had a reunion and he wasn’t used to it to drink and he had a few drinks and that was the result. I had a very happy childhood. But he never liked make-up or anything like that so we always done it in secret.
I had really – I can’t say – it was a real happy home, a very very happy home.
The house was the house and in the back was the living accommodation. I think the kitchen was first and then the bedrooms, you know, and we didn’t have – how shall I say – many flats. We had small, all mostly shops and connected with a business, with work. Yes. It was a small but we had a Catholic church and we had a Protestant church and we had monks, you know, in brown, and we had.. It was a small but cultured little town. Concert halls, theatres, you know. Oh yes, we went often. And coffee houses, you sat down for a coffee in the afternoon with a nice cream slice or something like that. Everybody knew each other. You went on the street and people said Hi!
So I took as I said, I took my son there and I visited everybody and it was funny they all recognized me. I mean in a small place they know each other. And we had a college just down the road, I mean just walk down, and if my brother was late he climbed the fence.
Did you play lots of games together as children?
Oh yes, we used to, I mean first of all we went ice skating with the ice rink. Then we went – how do you call it – sledging. Oh no, I didn’t go skiing or that but ice skating, I loved ice skating. And we went to Brixton when I came here. There is an ice rink.
So now I do nothing, my darling, nothing, nothing, nothing. I feel so – how shall I say – I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you. And I think why do I ever get a depression when thank God everything is going right, you know. My my son has a good job. The children are – and he went to the best school really, I don’t know why I get those depressions. It’s loneliness people say and I used to go to a club and somehow I stopped going. But I say always somebody pops in. I’ve very nice friends, you know. I can’t complain.
My grandchildren you know they are very good. She phoned me. She said “I’m coming to see you on Sunday”. I said “Good. I’m looking forward to it”. That’s the pleasure I have.
Did you enjoy your time at school in Presov?
Yes I did. It was nice, as I say, we had all sorts of schools at home. As I say there was a small place but cultured place and there was always something going on. Always good, something going on.
Did you play music?
No I didn’t. My husband played the violin and the guitar. He was very musical and the children started piano. You know how it is. Then they gave up. Now what I would like to see is my grandchildren get married. One is 22 and one is 25. They have friends, but they are going and they are breaking up. They have to find the right one. Exactly. That’s no good to hurry or rushing or, you know. Have to wait. Let’s see what’s coming.
When you first came to England did you have to get a visa?
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.
And then when you wanted to work?
Yes, but I only could come as domestic. I couldn’t do anything else. After, many years after, they allowed me. What did I do? Oh I used to make like baby doll, doll little suits, you know, doll clothes I used to make. And then eventually I got into the corsetry. That was nice because I loved my work. It was nice work and you meet nice people. There’s no snobbishness or something like that. It was very very nice. You met very nice people. Even now they phone me, and there’s Christmas cards, you know. Very nice.
And this was after my son was born that you went back to do the corsetry?
Oh yes, oh yes. I loved the corsetry. Because as I say you meet nice people. And it’s very skilled, isn’t it, and beautiful fabrics. Oh lovely. And you know there was as I say one lady, Countess de Lisle, she said – she has a cottage where she lives – when my husband died I should come down with friends or stay there. But I didn’t go. You know you can’t leave the home in a state, in a case like that, even if something like that were to happen and people came to the house. And I remember the night the boss came here when my husband died, my husband’s boss, so he said, “It’s a big house? Are you going to stay?” Where shall I go? Well, it’s not a big house. It’s a lovely house. And the way the sun comes in, it’s very nice. As I say I would love to take somebody in with no payment, with no nothing, only somebody to be here, but… Like I had a boy, a young man, he was with me a few years, from Teheran. And he came with his girlfriend to introduce her. And somehow he was sitting and sitting and then he started to cry. Ya, I think the memories, you know. Yes he was very nice. I wouldn’t mind a boy like that or a girl or anybody, but you just don’t know who you’re taking in, you know. That’s a shame really. What can I do? I have to put up with it.
When you came to England at first was there a club or place where you could meet other Czech people?
Yes, there was such a club in St John’s Wood, a Czech club and I used to go there. Oh yes, yes. But I don’t know of course, that’s nothing now. There is nothing now. But I tell you, somehow I’m not a club goer. You know, people go a lot into clubs. I am not that person. I like my home. I don’t like to go out, you know. If somebody takes me, I’m not quite steady on my legs, you know. And that’s life, my dear, and that’s life.
Do you think if there hadn’t been the war and Hitler, your life in Presov would have been very different?
Of course, I would have gone back and finish. Of course. Only you know I would have wanted to learn the language, I wanted to see England, you know, but I would have gone back and would have been everything all right. But what he done, and really what he done, and nobody know. I tell you something. If Israel would have existed, you know, I don’t think they would have done something. You know. But still, I mean, as I say, I am happy, you know. As I say I have a lovely son, lovely daughter-in-law, lovely family, but why I get those depressions I don’t know. I just don’t know. I mean you know you have the television, you have the radio. Before we had nothing. I mean we had radio but it’s nice to have a television. Sometimes it’s very depressing television as well, you know. I mean you see so many so many tragedies, you know.
So you had radio at home?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Did you all listen to the radio together or was the radio in a separate room? (meaning in Presov)
Oh no, no, we didn’t listen together (meaning London). We listened, just listened. Like my daughter-in-law, she has a small television in the kitchen, she has a radio. They have everything, touch wood. She has a lovely home. She doesn’t work. So I’m very proud of him. You know, he provided a lovely home. I have a good son, a very good son. I mean they go away and they phone, you know. They’re not, they don’t neglect me, you know. Very good. And she’s also a lovely girl, you know, very very nice, and caring.
Does your son look like you or your husband?
No, like my husband exactly, nothing like me, nothing like me.
And do the girls look like you?
Not really, I wouldn’t say that. One is dark, one is blonde. The blonde maybe a little bit, you know.
Do they look at all like your parents?
No. No. Such a difference in two sisters. My sister had also beautiful blonde hair. You know, never needed to go to the hairdresser – all her own curls. Nice, very nice hair.
It must have been nice when you went to England and she was here already.
No, she wasn’t here. I brought her after. I came first. Yes. And then, then I found her a job. You know I gave her – ooh – so many answers, put in a paper, you know. I don’t know how I put it in but it was put in and I got a lot of letters from a nice job. It was near the Heath, I remember, Hampstead Heath, a big house, you know. Like the thing, you know, one side stairs and down the other side stairs. A big house, yes. But of course my mother for instance she wrote that I must work hard because I always wear gloves.
Did you get letters from your parents?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Did you have to send them through Switzerland?
No, no, they came straight. Sometimes they came through Red Cross, through Red Cross. No, no, not Switzerland, through Red Cross, yes.
And did you and your husband become British citizens at some point?
Oh yes. I mean he was in the army so he becomes straight, straight .. you know. No, not when he came over. First he was in the army. During that time he got British citizenship. I mean you have to belong to something. I didn’t want to do anything else, you know. What I do was very sad when he went in the army. I was here all alone and (sigh). I was in Stratton, Balham actually, you know. I say she was not very nice, the landlady. Oh she was terrible. I was crying so much. And you know as soon as I – the little girl would always lay a sweet on the stairs and say “I’m waiting for Mrs Martin”. Always so sweet, lovely children. And she was just a – and you don’t want to – I don’t why she was so against me. And he said, the man said, do you know what he said? “Hitler should have done the same to you as to the rest”. I’ll never, never forgive him for that, never forgive him for that. Strict Catholic going to church, everything, you know. And not anything to – to – to support you a little. And also as I say when I came home from work she, she went into the bathroom with the children – no water, you know. And then my boss where I worked and she always say, you know, “You look so sad. You know, you come in and you don’t look happy”. So she said ”What’s worrying you?” I told her. So she said “Look for a place and I’ll lend you the money”. And this is how I got the house. It was wonderful. And here a friend of mine was living and at that time her husband wanted the garage where she lives in Fleetwood Road and I took over this house, we took over with my husband. He was so very happy that he has his home, own home, you know. When you have your own door, like who comes there – the lady who gives me a bath, she is buying a house, oh she says, all that money. I said listen, Ingrid, nothing than your own key, nothing than your own key.
People can be so wicked and on the other hand they can be so nice. I’ll never forget – Mrs Smith, was her name, Mrs Smith, and she was as I say it, she took in children and looked after them. What’s become after, you know, I don’t know. She moved away. Very nice.
In Ellesmere Road a lot of people have been here for many years.
Oh yes. But actually I tell you I don’t know many people. I don’t know because you know I used to work, all right, but somehow they don’t mix, they don’t mix. They don’t – I mean as I say like the Social Worker “pop in” – just to say to say Hi. I don’t expect nobody to sit with me here for hours because I know they are all busy, you know. But nobody, nobody. It never would have happened at home, if…. I always think of my mother when somebody had a child, she was the first one to have a soup with caraway seed, first, you know.
She was a wonderful cook, your mother?
Yes, a very good cook. Of course we never used tins, tins you don’t know. And when I came to England they said “Take a tin opener”. But I didn’t use much tins, I like cooking. I like cooking but not much now really. But I loved cooking and baking. I make very nice meringues, you know, mit hazelnuts – what did I say, one of your sons, I think, (unclear) your son get married “I’m going to make meringues!” Together, together, yes. I love baking, cooking, sewing. Actually I like a lot of things, you know.
At the corsetry, did you work until you retired?
How many were there of you in the workshop?
Not so many, I think. Downstairs was the workroom. There were about four of us. And the one upstairs, serious lady, five or six of us. Yes it was a nice shop. I don’t know if it still exists. You know how it is. One doesn’t know much. But it was a very nice – how shall I say it – when you make a garment and it fits and the customer is happy, and they always made me laugh and they used to say “Make me a – oh what did they used to say – a cleavage” A cleavage, a cleavage. That I remember, that word cleavage, yes.
Were they all for individual customers?
Yes, oh yes, all individual. But how shall I say? High class people and film and show people, you know. But you know they were very nice, really very, very nice. I can’t complain about people, you know. It was nice.
In the family do you celebrate the Jewish festivals and the other festivals?
Oh yes, everything. Oh yes, because you know when you work, you work how shall I say with some firms closed down, you know, so you have to but it was nice. As I say we had three or four kinds of religion at home so everybody celebrated what they want. And there was no friction. You know. And I gone to Midnight Mass at Christmas, that was nice, and I used to sing carols like here. And (unclear) used to get dressed himself up like that, big fat man and came to sing carols. And we had special cakes in the bakeries – lovely Christmas cakes and all sorts of things. Nice. It was as I say a small place but a very cultured place. Lovely shows and theatres, cinemas, you know. Concert halls, big concert halls.
Did you have the Walt Disney films which were coming out just then? Did you have “Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs”?
Oh yes, things like that. Over here or in Presov? Oh no, in Presov, yes. But later, a few months later, “Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs.” Lovely. We were so happy to go to the theatre and concert halls and coffee houses. You know it was very social, you know. If I say you met a lot of people who you know and you know you sit down for a coffee and finish, you know.
Oh yes, we used to go skating. Just skating, you know, nothing else. I didn’t go ski-ing or things like that, but I loved skating and there was always professionals, you know who did. You know, it was lovely . I loved to go. I think I have here a pair of skate. I’m not sure. As I say I went to Brixton. It was quite nice. Ja, I tell you it wasn’t an easy life. It wasn’t an easy life. And I tell you if I think if my parents would be here how nice it would be. I mean there is plenty of room for them. (Sighs)
It is nice that you have your son near here and the family.
Oh yes, I mean I have as I said. I can’t complain. And the children as well, very, very nice.
What happened to your uncle in Belgium? Is he still there?
He died. He died there. Yes. He died.
Has he got any children that are still in Belgium?
No. No, no. Nobody nowhere any more. Nobody nowhere.
So your family is really in England now? You’re the one who brought them all over?
Ja, ja. Yes. And others I brought, you know. I was thinking here, sitting here, and sadly they have all died who I brought out. I acted as their sponsor. You have to. But as I say for women there is only domestic. But eventually you can change here.
But when your sister came out was she working in domestic work as well? Or as a nanny?
Yes. Yes. I liked the nanny. I loved children, ah so sweet, you know. And Lydia, you know, so sweet. And she grows you know. Ah my heart is so happy, my heart is so happy.
There is the family tree. My husband’s name was Ernest. What happened it was the name was Martinovic, so we cut out the ‘ovic’. (The original name was Mandelbaum not Martinovic. John aged eleven went with his parents to the solicitor when they changed their name. Martin was the solicitor’s name. “That’s good enough for me” said Mr Mandelbaum.) He brought it, my husband when he was alive. He was very sentimental, very very sentimental.
All his family perished. They lived in Moravia. They perished. Ostrava was different from Presov, more a coal mine, you know. They were not involved in the coal mining. They had their own business as well. You know mostly people had businesses. They had a very good business. As I say Monday and Friday they left me at home to help in the shop, you know. Yes, when you think about it it’s unbelievable.
What would you say was a typical working day when you were working here?
Here? You know, when I tell you honestly, when you are young, nothing is too much. But certain ways I suppose people find it difficult. Of course I haven’t been used to domestic, you know. So I wasn’t domestic domestic because as I say I looked after the little boy mostly because I didn’t like housework. No I didn’t like housework. I mean at home we never did because we always had – as I say my mother was in the business and had to have somebody, and we always had a girl, you know. And they were happy, very happy. I never forget that as I say that maybe at Christmas time in the best room laid out for her everything – the goodies. She was very happy. And when I went back, you know, everybody “Golmanova! Golmanova! Svetschna Golmanova.” My name as a girl.
It’s been a very interesting life, hasn’t it?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Are you going to write a book or what? You’ll let me have one copy?
It’s your story. You can put in photographs if you want to. I think it is lovely for the children to hear what you did and how the world was when you were young.
It’s so nice, I can tell you, it is lovely to go back but there is a lot of changes, a lot, a lot of changes. But when you remember every corner, every path, every church, you know, it is wonderful. And all the customs, you know, how the women used to come with butter in dishes, you know, to sell on Monday and Friday. And cheeses, you know. It’s very funny. I mean the village people come to town. There is plate, just a plate from Presov, in the hall, you know.
I’m sure your brother had some very interesting experiences when he was with the partisans.
Maybe. Around Presov there was Bargeyov, a little town, a very little town. Small little towns you get. And they settle in the country and they come to town selling all sorts of things to make a little money.
What language did you speak at home?
We always spoke English with my son.
Did you and your husband speak Czech together?
No, we always spoke German.