Staff Sister Dorah Bernstein (1888–1918),
South African Military Nursing Service.
Died 6 November 1918
at the South African Military Hospital, Richmond Park;
buried at Willesden Cemetery.
For some time after I first encountered an obituary for “Staff Nurse Sarah Bernstein” my searches focused on looking for Sarah’s records. After having attempted, without success, to locate her grave in Willesden Cemetery—where I had learnt she had been “buried with full military honours”—I approached the cemetery officials for help. The foreman at the cemetery, unable also to locate a record matching this name, searched the original records for 1918, discovering that the first name of this young nursing sister was Dorah, rather than Sarah. I was later to find Dorah listed on the South African Roll of Honour for the Medical Services, as B. Bernstein. Her gravestone, and some other records, though not the army records, suggest that she had reached the rank of Staff Sister, and I defer to the former, in describing her as Sister Bernstein and, while some documents record her as Dora, again I take my lead from her family, as expressed on her headstone.
Dorah was a victim of the ‘Spanish Flu’, possibly one of the most devastating pandemics in history. The daughter of Harris and Flora Bernstein, she was survived by her mother and her siblings. The headstone on Dorah’s grave records that she was “of Kimberley in the Cape Province” but obituaries of the period suggest that her family later lived in Hillbrow, a suburb of Johannesburg. Her headstone suggests that she was just 29 (“in her thirtieth year”) at the time of her death, and that her nickname was Bunny—which perhaps accounts for the “B” in the SAMNS records. It also notes that her death was “to the deep grief of her patients and colleagues”. The headstone, erected by Dorah’s mother, Flora, and her sisters and brothers, and adds, in summary of her life’s work, “a duty unflinchingly performed and a glorious end”.
In searching for her parents and siblings, another name variation came to mind, which throws doubt that ‘thirtieth’ year was applied in the traditional sense. The Griqualand West Bris records include a Deborah Bernstein, born 17 January 1888, the daughter of Harris and Flora Bernstein. This indicates Dorah would have been 30 at the time of her death. They also provide the names and birth dates of other children, born to this couple in South Africa, viz. Miriam (Kimberley, 1886), Judith (Tafelberg, 1891), Lazarus (Tafelberg, G.W., 1894), Rachel/’Rae’ (Tafelberg District Herbert, 1896) and Leah (Kimberley, 1901). For Leah’s birth we also have an address, 33 Sydney Street.
The feelings of her family, expressed with pride and sorrow on her headstone, echo those of her nursing colleagues. Five members of the South African Medical Services, serving at the South African Military hospital died within a few days of each other, four being buried with military honours at Richmond Cemetery, while Dorah, the last to succumb, was laid to rest at Willesden Cemetery.
This is how Dorah’s death was reported in the December edition of The Springbok Magazine.
Sister Bernstein was a beautiful character and her loss is indeed a heavy one. Her record was one of loving devotion to her unselfish duty. She joined the Union Defence Force in September of 1914, and remained at her first post in Wynberg until May 1st of the following year, when she was transferred to Swakopmund, South-West Africa, returning to Wynberg on August 11th, 1915. Sister Bernstein faithfully served our patients on the Hospital Ship Ebani, plying between East Africa and Cape Town for two years and two months. She left Wynberg, where she had been appointed Staff Nurse and Nursing Sister, for England this year, and reported for duty at the South African Military Hospital, Richmond Park, Surrey in July. She passed to her rest on the 6th of November and was buried with full military honours on the 10th November at Willesden Cemetery.
The Richmond and Twickenham Times of 16 November 1918, under the headings ‘Death of a Hospital Sister’ and ‘SOUTH AFRICAN HOSPITAL’S LOSS’ gives some details of her nursing career as a fully fledged Nursing Sister with the South African Medical Nursing Service, but also some indication of the effect her death had on her colleagues (including some further afield) and on her patients.
A valuable life has been prematurely cut short by the death at the South African Military Hospital, Richmond Park, on the 6th instant, from pneumonia, supervening upon influenza, of Staff Nurse Dora Bernstein, S.A.M.N.S., daughter of Mrs and the late Mr J. Bernstein of Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Sister Bernstein joined the nursing service shortly after the outbreak of war, in September, 1914, and served in the South-West African campaign until August 1915 at the hospital at Swakopmund. From August 1915 to October 1917, she served on the hospital ship, Ebani, and after a short stay in East Africa, she was transferred to the Wynberg Military Hospital. She arrived in England to take on duty at the South African Hospital on August 21st last, and was promoted to the rank of sister. In Richmond she was a general favourite among the staff and patients alike, and many touching tributes to her sweet disposition and devotion to duty have been expressed both by officers and co-workers.
The high esteem in which she was held was manifested at the funeral on Sunday last. The coffin, wrapped in the Union Jack, was borne from the hospital mortuary by Jewish orderlies of S.A.M.C. through lines of the nursing staff drawn up as a guard of honour, and placed in an ambulance for transport to the Willesden Jewish Cemetery, where the interment took place. On arrival there the cortege was met by a military escort and firing party. Among those present were the officer commanding the South African Hospital (Lieut.-Colonel C.M. Thornton) the matron (Miss Jackson) and a large contingent of the nursing staff. The service prior to the interment was read by the Rev. H. Goodman, the officiating clergyman to the Jewish troops in the London District. After the burial, the usual three volleys were fired and the “Last Post” sounded. The second portion of the service was read by Major the Rev. M. Adler, D.S.O., the senior Jewish chaplain to the forces.
The tribute to Dorah in The Springbok Magazine included a photo of the numerous floral tributes sent by her colleagues and friends. While flowers are not customary at a Jewish funeral, it appears that an exception was made in accepting them, perhaps in recognition of the grief of the many colleagues who paid tribute to her, in the way with which many of them were most familiar.
Wreaths and other floral tributes were sent by:
The officer commanding, medical officers and other ranks; matron and sisters; staff nurses; V.A.D. probationers; warrant officers and N.C.Os of the S.A.M.C.; men of the S.A.M.C; Mrs Ritch (Hampstead); the masseueses; nursing staff and patients in Ward C; the domestic staff; Miss Bond and nursing staff; Comforts Committee of South Africa; Mrs E. Brooke; Nurse Harries; Staff nurses Burgess, Aves and Daly; Jennie (Wynberg, Capetown); the medical officers; and the officers in hospital.
Can YOU help Dorah’s relatives to access this material?
I would like to share the information I have obtained about this remarkable nurse, with her relatives i.e. the descendants of Harry and Flora Bernstein. Some of it, including a photograph of her headstone, is not included in this blog post. If readers of this blog know Bernsteins with a South African background, who might be Dorah’s great nieces and nephews, and are able to help me find them, please contact me privately via the contact form on my professional blog or by means of a public comment on this post.
‘HMHS Ebani’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMHS_Ebani, accessed 6/5/2016.
The Richmond and Twickenham Times, ‘Death of a Hospital Sister,’ 16 November, 1918.
The Springbok Magazine, ‘Obituary. Staff Nurse Sarah (sic) Bernstein, December 1918, p.73–74.