Clementine Bloch, the eldest daughter of Max and Olga Bloch, was born in Vienna in 1905. Her father, Max Bloch (b. 1876), who had been an officer in the Austrian-Hungarian Army, worked as a tax consultant and later became a civil servant in the Taxes and Fees Department of the Ministry of Finance. Her mother, Olga (née Bermann), was born in 1879. She had one sister, Erna Safich, who died in 1974.
Clementine Bloch went to the only humanistic girls’ high school in Vienna, which was supported by the feminist organization Verein für erweiterte Frauenbildung. After passing her final high school examination, she decided to study law like her father, explaining that “I was the boy in the family. My father was a doctor of law and had no son who could follow him in his choice of profession.”
In June 1930 she graduated as a Doctor of Law without needing to write a Ph.D. thesis. Upon graduation from law school the Austrian bar required a seven–year-long legal training at court or in a law office to pass the bar. The salaries at the time were very low; people called them “ink money,” since they covered only the cost of their ink and did not enable one to support a family. Clementine Bloch worked especially for the juvenile court. Her supervisors were so satisfied with her work that they moved the institution for court assistance, which was related to the court, in order to be able—once she was working as a lawyer—to appoint her as a guardian for minors. She frequently also defended accused juveniles.
From 1936 through 1938, while Clementine Bloch was articled to lawyers, she realized that she was interested in criminal law and after passing the bar examination in 1938, she indeed gained a reputation in criminal cases. One of her first clients was a previously convicted member of a famous burglar ring who at first fought against being defended by a woman. After she managed to obtain a relatively light sentence for him, he told everybody in the prison: “Listen, this little Jewess can bring up the big guns.” Her success in this case brought Clementine Bloch over three hundred similar clients, but she never made a fortune with these clients. Every time she charged a prisoner with five schilling, her mother asked her whether she was not ashamed of taking money from poor people. It was a matter dear to Bloch’s heart to defend accused who were driven by hunger and poverty to break the law. The people she usually defended in court slept on the floor of the Simmeringer barracks. Because they had nothing to eat, they injected petrol into their arms, which led to a terrible swelling. With that swelling they went to hospital in the hope of getting something to eat while being treated there. The result was that they were accused of cheating the hospital. Clementine Bloch’s colleagues reported that she was called “the angel of the Grey House.” Tired of receiving her clients at her parents’ home, she wanted to have a place of her own and decided to marry. On February 14, 1938 she married the architect Oskar Bern (d. 1948) in a civil ceremony, but since the political situation was extremely unstable, her father decided to wait before buying the couple an apartment. As a result, not only Clementine but also Oskar Bern lived with her parents.
Dr. Clementine Bloch practiced in court until July 15, 1938, when she received the letter informing her about the provisional prohibition to practice her profession. She received an affidavit to emigrate through her uncle, Arnold Hoellriegel, who was a well-known Austrian writer; but thinking that she might still be able to work as a lawyer in Austria, she did not take advantage of the affidavit. Only when she was finally officially banned and her father was arrested by the Gestapo did she realize her mistake.
Within a month, Clementine and Oskar Bern emigrated to the United States on a second affidavit. On August 3, 1938, they arrived in New York, where Clementine Bern found her first job at a newspaper, translating birth certificates for fifty cents apiece. Later she worked from time to time as a maid and in many other inappropriate jobs since her Austrian law certificate did not qualify her to work in the Anglo-American law system. At the advice of a social worker, Clementine Bern took up studying again, this time to become a teacher. For an entire year she attended the required classes, only to learn from the education authority of New York on the day of her graduation that these classes were inadequate and that she needed at least a Master’s degree in order to teach. Fortunately, a scholarship from the National Council of Jewish Women enabled her to enroll at the Teachers College at Columbia University. In 1941 she graduated with an M.A. in Latin and German. The title of her final thesis was “Vienna, my hometown.” She then taught for a short period at the Walden School but, lacking American citizenship, could find no other employment as a teacher. Furthermore, the authorities let her know that they liked neither her accent nor the fact that she was a Jew.
Rejected as a teacher, she found work as secretary-general of Austrian Action, an organization founded by Ferdinand Czernin, which tried to get the status of non-enemy aliens for Austrian emigrants. Clementine Bern was in charge of the entire organizational side of the material help for Austrian emigrants and for their legal advice. Among other things she organized a blood drive by over three thousand Austrians for the American Red Cross on March 13, 1941, the anniversary of the Anschluss. Later she organized a parade on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes she went so far as to give her own savings for the actions of the organization. When Austrian Action ran out of money and could no longer pay her salary, Clementine Bern took a new job at the British Information Service, monitoring German-language radio broadcasts. There she worked between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m. in order to make it possible to work voluntarily at Austrian Action from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
In 1944 Clementine Bern was naturalized as an American citizen and started to work for the Office of War Information (OWI). At the end of May she was sent to London to be part of the staff of the new American Broadcasting Service in Europe (ABSIE). She produced many programs, including the Prisoner of War Messages and the Labor News, as well as the program for German women and even the military programs, which were later taken over by a high-ranking American officer. In addition Clementine Bern was Chief Translator and wrote the special programs on the occasion of the 1940 presidential election and on the liberation of Vienna in April 1945. In July 1945 she returned to the United States and worked for OWI until the end of 1945.
In 1946, out of a desire to help the victims of Nazism and the war, Clementine Bern registered for UNRRA and was soon appointed director of a Displaced Person Camp in Germany. After first working in Eschewege/Wera, Clementine Bern was transferred to headquarters at Bad Wildungen and later became director of a camp at Bensheim on the Bergstrasse. There she was responsible for a camp of three thousand persons, in which she had to provide food, sanitary facilities and accommodation. In cases of misdemeanors she had the function of judge. It was an exhausting and heartbreaking time, she said in an interview years later. But the discipline of her law education and her own sufferings as a refugee, as well as the work of the last years, helped her to make contact with the many broken-hearted people and to cope with her demanding task, earning high praise from her employers.
When the camp was dispersed in January 1947, Clementine Bern returned to Austria for a visit. Her former colleagues, judges and friends greeted her warmly. The minister of justice welcomed her and invited her to take part in a session of the highest court. When she entered, all the judges rose in her honor. She was invited to return as a judge and later to be appointed to the War Crimes Tribunal, but she preferred to return to New York, which she did in October 1947.
There she was welcomed by Herbert Zernik (b. 1899), a Jewish refugee from Silesia, who years earlier, even prior to her departure for Germany, had asked her to marry him. The couple married in 1948 and Clementine Zernik started to work as a librarian for the UN at Lake Success. From 1948 to 1975 she was as a UN librarian at the New York Public Library and in this capacity served as a liaison between the Library and the UN. In 1954 she again enrolled at Columbia University to gain an M.A. in library science.
In addition to her work, Clementine Zernik helped the Austrian embassy for many years in collecting information from the NYPL and the UN Library. When the Austrian Institute was established, she worked there under the leadership of Dr. Meyerhöfer of the National Library in Vienna and Dr. Schlag, director of the Austrian Institute. For a long time she worked voluntarily in the evenings and on Saturdays to catalogue the library. In 1959 Clementine Bern-Zernik was a founding member of the Austrian-American Federation, where she worked for many years as a voluntary secretary and librarian as well as a temporary member of the board, also accompanying the organization’s tours to Vienna as a travel guide. In 1977 she received the Golden Medallion for her contribution to the republic of Austria. In 1982 she received the Golden Ph.D. diploma of Vienna University.
Bern-Zernik’s parents and her sister had gone to Palestine in 1939. Her father died in Jerusalem in 1939, but her mother and sister returned to Vienna in 1954. Thereafter Bern-Zernik spent her summers with her mother, who died in Baden in 1969. Erna died in Vienna in 1974.
On December 31, 1996, Clementine Bern-Zernik died in Queenstown in Queens, New York City. “I lived a rich life,” she said. “I enjoyed every single day I’ve worked.”
Austrian Business, published by the US Austrian Chamber of Commerce, NYC, 23/3 (1982).
Austrian Information 30/2 (1977): 8.
Hartenstein, Elfi. Jüdische Frauen im Exil. 10 Begegnungen, 111–127. Dortmund: Ebersbach, 1999.
“Multi-Lingual Librarian Keeps UN Informed.” Long Island Press, (January 3, 1971), 40.
Stiefel, Ernst C., and Frank Mecklenburg, eds. Deutsche Juristen im amerikanischen Exil (1933–1958), 13. Tübingen: Mohr Siebrek, 1991.
Werner, Röder, and Herbert A. Strauss, eds. Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933, vol. 1, 845. München: N.p., 1980.
Institute for Contemporary History, Munich, MA 1500/65/B.
Archiv des Österreichischen Widerstands. Universitätsarchiv Vienna Prom. Jur. Fakultät Uni Wien M 32.7, 1930.
Volume of the lawyers in Vienna, Niederösterreich and in Burgenlande 1929, ed. by the Rechtsanwaltskammer Wien.
Nachlass Clementine Bern-Zernik, Deutsches Exilarchiv, Frankfurt, EB 97/56.
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Rowekamp, Marion. "Clementine Bern-Zernik." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bern-zernik-clementine>.