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Berta Klipstein

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
29 March 1946
Interview number:


Dr Rosalyn Livshin

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Berta Klipstein (née Bienenstock) was born on 12 March 1927 in Bielsko-Biaya, Silesia, Poland. She was an only child. Her father was an optician and her mother a dressmaker. The family lived in Bielsko and Berta had a happy childhood. She attended the Jewish school and remembers enjoying various activities including theatre, cinema, and swimming. Berta attended the Zionist youth organisation Hanoar Hazioni and was a member of the swimming club Hakoach. The family was orthodox and attended the Bielsko Synagogue.


Berta’s father died when she was nine years old, and her mother remarried to Ignatz Tentzer in 1938. He was a representative for a chemical firm. On 1 September 1939 Berta, her mother, stepfather, aunt, uncle and grandmother fled east as the Germans advanced. They travelled for two weeks until they reached Russian occupied Lusk (Luck) on the eve of Yom Kippur. They stayed there until June 1940. When the family refused to become Russian, they were taken in cattle trucks to the east, to Siberia, where conditions were very harsh. In August 1940 they were taken by passenger train to the village of Pichtach near the town of Tiger, and near Novobirsk. Living conditions did not improve, and many people including Berta and her mother often became ill.


In Pichtach Berta went to school, and for a while lived with a teacher and later with friends from school. Her mother worked as a dressmaker to survive and they also bartered items they had brought with them.


In June 1941, following the Nazi invasion to Russia, the Poles were once again considered allies and Polish people were allowed to leave Siberia. Berta’s family travelled for a while and settled in the Uzbek town of Kokand in the Fergana Valley. For three years they lived with “Aunty” Dunya, a washerwoman, and Berta’s mother did dressmaking. Berta worked in knitting to help support the family and attended evening classes at the Petroleum Institute School.


Berta’s stepfather joined the Polish army, he returned to Bielsko and in May 1945 came back to take them home. Berta’s grandmother had died in 1942. They travelled back through Moscow, where they learnt that the war had ended.


In Bielsko the family was able to reclaim some possessions and to find work. Berta worked in the Telephone Exchange and studied in the evenings. 


On 29 March 1946 Berta was brought to England by Rabbi Schonfeld. She went to stay with an aunt in East London and attended West Ham Municipal College for three years. In her fourth year she worked for Tate and Lyle as a chemist and gained an Honorary Degree from London University.


Berta married Zygfryd Klipstein from Poland on 3 January 1952, and they moved to Bradford, where her husband had a job in textiles. The couple had three sons.


Full Interview


My mother- in those days, you had to have a dowry, which she didn’t have. She was persuaded to marry my father, the optician with a business. My mother did everything possible, but it wasn’t a very happy marriage. She was very academical, very clever, but she had to learn a trade. She was sent to Vienna to study millinery. Before she was married, she had a salon, a very good one.

After Hitler came to power, a lot of people, refugees, arrived in Poland. They couldn’t get to any other place, so of course I was aware of it and they used to come to the house, and I used to listen to stories. Just like my grandmother used to tell me stories about the First World War, all the people who used to come to the shop, the same stories. I was aware of that.

On the 1st September, about 5 o’clock we heard the first bombs drop. We spent all day in our cellar, with lots of other people. And all we knew about the war was on the radio, ‘bandits this, bandits that’, We didn’t know what it meant, but knew that we had to do something. We took what we could, locked up our place, went to get our aunt and my grandmother and went to the station. And we got on a train. …didn’t know when it was going to go, where it was going to go.

You can’t get things in shops in Russia, but if you’ve got any gold or silver you can buy anything. So on New Year’s Eve, Mrs Rosenberg sent her husband on a train to get her gold teeth exchanged for products, for food. And he lost them between the house and the railway station. It was a calamity, everything was just–, he lost them, they disappeared. So she sent him back. And after hours of looking he found them: they were glistening in the snow, he found them. So that was another way of surviving.

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