Ellen Shiffman was born in 1924 in Breslau (now Wroclaw), the second of two children. Her paternal grandfather was a Chief Rabbi and her father was sent to study to become a Rabbi as well, but he chose to attended University instead to study medicine. He won the Iron Cross during World War One.
Ellen’s mother belonged to a liberal family, she studied Social Science before marriage and worked as a social worker. Her father was a banker. The family lived in Breslau until 1930 when they moved to Hamburg, where the father worked for the Jewish Hospital. The family was not observant except for High Holy Days although Ellen attended synagogue regularly for a time. Ellen initially attended a non-Jewish school and then a Jewish one from 1935, and did not experience antisemitism although she was aware of the rise of Nazism and the restrictions imposed on Jews. She remembered that her impression was that people embraced Nazism because of circumstances, rather than due to hatred of Jews.
Ellen’s brother went to England to attend a public school in 1935, and her parents started to look for opportunities to emigrate. Through medical contacts, her father was sponsored to come to England by the Attenborough family. He re-sat all medical exams and his wife and daughter joined him on 1 September 1938. They brought with them furniture, silver and clothing; only the transfer of money was restricted.
The family settled in Leicester and Ellen attended a non-Jewish school there. She felt welcome at school, and was the first refugee there. Ellen’s parents brought over a German Jewish girl on a domestic permit. After the outbreak of war, Ellen was interned as soon as she turned sixteen; she was the first in her family to be interned. Later her brother was interned on the Isle of Man, at Port Erin Camp where he was treated well. Her headmistress sent Ellen all her schoolbooks and she revised there for exams. Through intervention of the headmistress and Chief Constable of Leicester she was released six weeks later in time to sit her exams; she was the first to be released. She stayed at school until the age of 18 and then went to study medicine in Edinburgh. She met her husband in the university’s Jewish students society. He was also studying medicine. They married in 1949 and lived in Liverpool.