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Erna Klein

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
1 December 1945
Mode of Arrival:
Came to train as children's nurse in Switzerland and spent the war years in Algeria

Interview Summary:

Erna Klein was born in Ols, Silesia on 16 Sept 1919. She was an only child. Her father’s family were originally from Latvia and her grandfather, a shoemaker, came to Stettin, Pomerania where her father was born. He was one of 11 children. Her mother was from Friedrichshof, Eastern Prussian. Her father served in the army in WWI as a despatch rider and head of artillery and he won the Iron Cross, which he later displayed in his shoe shop in Ols. The shop employed a number of staff, making and selling and was situated in the main street.

Erna went to the local school where she had a happy childhood. She and her parents had non-Jewish friends. She was the only Jewish child at school. The family attended the only Jewish synagogue in their small community. With the rise of Nazism everything changed. Her friends distanced themselves and she was asked to leave the school in 1935. Only one teacher spoke up for her at risk to herself. Her father’s shop was daubed with slogans and suffered boycotts. Erna briefly attended a Jewish School in Breslau where she joined Habonim and took her exams. She wanted to go to Palestine but her parents sent her to train as a children’s nurse in Geneva. Her father paid for her training. They were worked very hard from 6am until 10pm and with lectures afterwards and received half a day off a fortnight. The matron was antisemitic. She was sent on placements to France and made to smuggle money over the border.

In 1938 she finished her training and was not allowed to work in Switzerland. She found a job as a maternity nurse for a family of a lawyer, called Belaiche in Algeria. She worked there for a year. Her parents managed to get a permit to London through a relative in 1939 and she hoped to join them but her passport had run out and then war broke out. She was working for the Dermy family at the time but lost her job. She was alone with no-one to turn to and no work permit. She packed oranges for a while and then was asked to help the local midwife Paulette Ali. She accompanied her and often delivered babies on her own. She lived in a small hotel in Mostaganem and paid her way by keeping the books. She was interned in Sidi Bel Abbès but was released after she became ill. She returned to work with Paulette Ali. When France fell to Germany, a German commission was established and they wanted to send her to Germany but she was in hospital with appendicitis and could not be moved. She volunteered for the Franc Tireurs and was interned a second time in Ben Chicao in the Atlas Mountains. After release she worked for different doctors as a midwife. She met and helped people from the smallest of villages to the important sheiks such as Zaouïa Bentekouk. She was interned a third time by the Americans but through the help of a cousin in the American army she was released and managed to come to England in Dec 1945.

She was overwhelmed at being reunited with her parents. She retrained as a midwife for two years and was sent on various placements. One week before her finals she married a refugee from Berlin, Friedrich Klein, a furrier and went to work in his business in London. They married and belonged to Belsize Square Synagogue. 

They married and moved to Öls (now Olesnica in Poland) and started a shoe shop there. Öls was a Kreisstadt [County seat] … of 16 or 17,000 inhabitants. But there was a whole district belonging to this town …It was a nice, pretty town …surrounded by large woods and mountains… There were large farms belonging to the German gentry, and they came into the town and bought their shoes and riding boots… My father had a workshop …where they made bespoke shoes, riding boots and so on. And …it was the largest shoe shop in town.


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