Erna Kimmel (Weiss) was born to Solomon and Celia Weiss in Drohobycz, Poland. Sol was a leading tailor and clothing manufacturer while Celia, a very educated woman, worked as a secretary for a legal firm. Kimmel, together with brothers Philip and Leo, led a fruitful life. Within 10 days of the German army defeating the Polish army in September 1939, Poland was divided into two occupied zones and Kimmel’s family began living under Soviet control.
In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Drohobycz was occupied by German forces, and Kimmel’s entire family was forced into a ghetto. After the liquidation of the ghetto in December 1941, she and her parents were transferred to a forced labour camp, S.S. Zwangsarbeitslager, which was under the brutal control of the SS and the Gestapo. In June 1944, she was liberated.
In 1948, the entire family arrived in Winnipeg where she married. She and her husband, Herman, began working in Winnipeg’s fur design industry. Life was not easy and eventually, with the little English she could speak, Kimmel moved on to work at the Bay. She was promoted to head cashier and worked there until she was five-months pregnant. Her husband died at an early age, leaving Kimmel a single mother.
At this difficult time, Kimmel began working with her brother, Philip, in his business. She also threw herself into a life of volunteerism, active in the Women and the Arts, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Manitoba Association of Community Arts Councils.
For 28 years, she dedicated her life to the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble. Kimmel designed and created spectacular costumes for creative dance numbers. Her biggest satisfaction was working with young people and watching them perform on stage. They considered her their second mother.
In 1978, Kimmel became a founding member of the Winnipeg Associates of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. For 26 years, BGU became her heart and soul. During her presidency of eight years, she organized many events which brought the largest financial support for Ben-Gurion.
As a result of her dedicated leadership and vision, Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University, personally inscribed and presented Kimmel with a special book during a BGU mission to Israel. Her unwavering support for BGU earned her much recognition, including: recipient of the first BGU 30th Anniversary Award (1999); elected to serve on the Board of Governors of BGU in Beersheva, Israel (2000); Ben Gurion University Negev Award, its highest honour (2006). As education was always her priority, she dedicated the proceeds from her tribute luncheon to establish the Erna Kimmel Computer Laboratory which continues to benefit needy students with their research and homework.
Erna Kimmel died in 2010. She was a unique lady, a true survivor, loved and admired by all whose lives she touched. She leaves a legacy of her deep love and friendship to so many, her good name, and the recognition and respect she has earned from the community.