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Lucky escape of Helen Meyer and her dinner guests

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:14 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

Helen Topor was born in Vienna in 1915 of Jewish heritage. In the 1930s she was a young film star (a good friend of Hedy Lamarr). The day after Hitler marched into Vienna, her father had already been arrested and nobody in the film industry would talk to her. She managed to escape from Austria by marrying a gay Dutch friend and lived in Holland for a while. When she returned to Vienna to try and save her mother and sisters (in vain), she returned to Holland to find that all the gays had been arrested, and she immediately obtained passage to the UK by boat in 1934 I believe. In London she was employed at an antique dealership in Curzon St., Mayfair. During the Blitz, the owner 'flew' to New York leaving Helen in charge of the shop and still living in a flat in Curzon St. Helen became a fire warden who patrolled the roof of her block during bombing raids.

One evening, in 1941 I believe, she had invited several acquaintances for dinner including Sir Robert Clement Witt, a well known art historian who with Samuel Courtauld set up the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1920s and also became a trustee of the National Gallery. During dinner, air raid sirens started and she should have guided the guests to the bomb shelter in the basement before taking up her position on the roof, "but," she said, "for some reason I took everyone up to the roof..." Just as they reached the roof up a rickety ladder, a bomb dropped on the building destroying half of it including the whole bomb shelter and the ladder leading down from the roof. They spent the night up there and then one guest (a Polish airman I believe) climbed down four floors via the drainpipe to get word to rescuers. They still had a difficult crawl across a ladder laid across roofs to escape. The event appeared in the press with regard to the survival of Sir Robert. Helen was not mentioned. The antique shop was also severely damaged. The shop owners said she could take any damaged antiques - these later populated the house where I grew up.

Helen also took part in digging for Britain which involved an allotment in Golders Hill Park, Hampstead to which she travelled by bus from Mayfair! On occasions this involved carrying sacks of potatoes and moving them a sack at a time to and from a bus stop on Oxford St. to her flat! She also worked at bomb-making in a local car garage on Wades Hill in Winchmore Hill after moving in nearby with my father, Herbert Meyer. They could not officially marry until 1946 when they found proof that her 'proxy' Dutch husband had passed away during the war. They had lived in fear that neighbours would discover that they had been unmarried which was a major social crime in those days.

Helen and Herbert retired to Frinton-on-Sea, running the local Meals-on-Wheels service for 25 years. Helen lived to 101 and was a much-appreciated Frinton resident.

I have recently deduced that Herbert Meyer was probably a very significant war hero, and his 'story' is posted separately.

History

Person the story/items relate to

Helen Meyer née Topor, Sir Robert Witt and other guests

Person who shared the story/items

David John Meyer

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

She was my mother

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID

90895