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Erna Klein

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
1 December 1945
Interview number:


Dr Rosalyn Livshin

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Erna was born Erna Dannemann in Oels (Olesnica), Lower Silesia. Her father’s father, a shoemaker, had fled Latvia to escape the 20 years’ compulsory military service in the Tsar’s army for Jews and probable forcible conversion. Coming to Stettin-Grabow (Grabowo) in Pomerania, he established himself as a merchant. Here Erna’s father was born, one of 11 children. Erna’s mother was West Prussian, born in Soldau (Dzialdowo) and growing-up in Friedrichshof (Rozogi). Erna’s father served in WWI as a despatch rider and as field artillery section leader, winning an Iron Cross. This he later displayed in the window of his shop on the market square in Oels to counteract the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. The shop was a Salamander shoes franchise with a workshop for making bespoke footwear attached.

Erna’s family attended the small community’s one synagogue. They had non-Jewish friends. Erna, an only child, happy and keen to become a doctor, went to a school that was mainly for girls. The Oels district was very pro-Nazi, and things began to change. The shop was daubed with slogans. Erna’s friends distanced themselves. One teacher, a Protestant pastor’s daughter, spoke out against the Nazis. The school, which also had the former District Rabbi’s daughter among its teachers, closed in 1932. Erna moved to a state school. The only Jewish pupil, she was the focus of Rassenkunde (racial awareness) lessons. She was told to leave in 1935.

Erna briefly attended commercial college in Breslau (Wroclaw), being treated in much the same way as at her previous school, then moved to a Jewish housekeeping school there and joined Habonim. She wanted to go to Palestine, but her parents found her training in pre- and post-natal childcare in Geneva. She was worked hard from 6am until 10pm, with lectures afterwards, receiving half a day off a fortnight. Some of the sick children she looked after were her own age. The matron was antisemitic. She was sent to placements in France, having to smuggle money there under threat of being sent back to Germany if she refused.

In 1938 Erna finished her training, but Switzerland would not let her stay. The only work she could find was in Bulgaria or Algeria. Erna chose Algeria as it was part of metropolitan France and seemingly safer. She was children’s nurse for the family of a Jewish Algiers lawyer, Marcel Belaïche. Meanwhile her parents had left Germany for London in August 1939. Erna believed she would imminently be allowed to join them and resigned her job. When no permission came, Erna started work for a farming family outside Mostaganem in western Algeria and, as a German, was dismissed on the day war broke out, finding accommodation in exchange for doing the bookkeeping of a small hotel.

Shortly after, Erna was taken to Sidi Bel Abbès and interned as the only woman among pro- and anti-Nazi male prisoners, then released and allowed to return to Mostaganem.

Alone and without a work permit, she packed oranges in a cellar stinking of hashish and where workers were paid next to nothing and only in kind.

Erna then had the good fortune to meet a midwife, Paulette Ali, and started nursing and midwifery work, first with her and then, increasingly, on her own, in the area around Mostaganem, where Arabs assumed she was Christian.

The Phoney War over, Erna was again interned, this time at Ben Chicao in the Atlas Mountains, where she had charge of the camp’s infirmary. Paris fell, and Germans were released. Back in Mostaganem, in hospital with appendicitis and peritonitis, she was considered unable to survive being transported to Germany and so was not taken by the Gestapo team which had arrived there.

With practical support from women whom she had, herself, helped, Erna recovered, then worked independently for Paulette Ali and various doctors. She treated Arabs and Mozabites up and down the social scale, including sheikhs, such as the notorious Sheikh Bentekouk, head of a Mostaganem zaouïa (madrassa), and her reputation spread. She cycled alone, unmolested, through desert scrubland that echoed to the cackle of hyenas and was often asked for help by villagers who could not afford to pay for treatment.

Having overcome the Vichy French, it was the US Army that next interned Erna. But, to do so, they had to run the gauntlet of a protest by Arab women trying to prevent her removal to Oran.

With the help of a cousin in US Army Intelligence, she was released and returned to Mostaganem. Having re-applied for an entry visa, Erna came to England in December 1945.

She was overwhelmed at being reunited with her parents after eight years. For two years she trained for British midwifery qualifications, working in East London and Kent. One week before final exams, she married a refugee furrier from Berlin, Friedrich Klein, and was afterwards asked to work in his business. They were members of London’s Belsize Square Synagogue. In 1988 she moved to Liverpool with her son and his family.


Full Interview


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.

I was the only woman interned there [Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, home of the Foreign Legion]. I was put into the hall where PE was, where there was PE for the children, on a sack with straw and watched over by a soldier with a bayonet. I asked the French officer could I please have the key to lock myself in, and he was kind enough to give me the key.

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