Bertha F. Kipness was born in Nerashka, Russia on November 4, 1900. In 1909, her family immigrated to the United States on the ship New Amsterdam through Ellis Island in New York City. They settled in the Elmwood Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, a neighborhood made up of mainly Russian and some German immigrants. She lived with her widowed mother, Fannie, her older brother, George, and her younger sister, Anna, and spoke Yiddish growing up. Her father, Jacob, immigrated through Ellis Island in 1906, three years before the rest of the family, but died shortly after the family arrived in the United States. When the Communist Party of the United States was founded in 1919, Kipness joined soon after. Her membership in the Communist Party would later be an inspiration for her decision to join the fight in Spain later on, like many others. On May 14, 1926, Kipness became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
As a teenager and in her early 20s, she worked as a typist for a chemical sales company before graduating from the Mt. Sinai Training School for Nurses in 1926. Founded in Philadelphia by the Beth Israel Hospital Association and the Mt. Sinai Hospital Association, the Mt. Sinai Hospital of Philadelphia was created to aid the poor, Jewish, immigrant population in Philadelphia in tandem with other medical aid centers in the area, like the Jewish Hospital, which also served the local population. After graduating from nursing school, she began working in a covalent home in the Krewstown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
After working as a nurse in Philadelphia during the ‘20s and early ‘30s, Kipness moved to Brooklyn, New York. Still, her Philadelphia roots stayed with her— she remained a member of the Communist Party of Eastern Philadelphia. Her move to Brooklyn was likely prompted by her brother, George, who lived in Brooklyn with his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Ethel. The family lived on Reid Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was, at the time, a neighborhood made up mostly of the children of European immigrants moving out of the Lower East Side and into Brooklyn. Like her hometown of Philadelphia, her neighborhood in New York was made up mostly of people of Jewish and Eastern European descent.
After living in Brooklyn for only a short period of time, Kipness arrived in Spain on April 8, 1937, where she served as a nurse for the Republican Medical Services with the American Medical Bureau. Kipness was stationed at a hospital in southern Spain, likely in Murcia. As a part of the International Brigade, all nurses received some training from the Red Cross, but the level of training varied based on experience. The training courses required for nurses varied in length from about one week to two months, so, as a trained nurse, Kipness likely would have received little training upon her arrival. After her training period, she served as a nurse with the George Washington Second American Battalion, which fought alongside the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was headed by Mirko Markovics, a former commissar of the Red Army.
In a 1938 pamphlet titled “From the Cradle of Liberty… To the Tomb of Facism,” sent from Spain to Philadelphia, Kipness and others contributed letters and writings to bolster support for the Republican cause. In a letter addressed to her mother on May 26, 1937, Kipness writes of the good conditions at her hospital, talking of leisurely activities and plentiful food and water. While she writes of good spirits among the Republicans, she also makes a comment on Spanish society, saying that “the conditions here are similar to the conditions during the Czarist days of Russia,'' regarding the lack of education that the water boy at her hospital received. She also says that his position was not uncommon, citing that 65% of the people in Spain received no schooling and had worked since childhood. Her distaste for pre-Communist Russia, as well as, of course, her involvement in the Communist Party, heavily inspired her support for the Republic, playing into her decision to travel to Spain and fight against the ultimate enemy: fascism.
At the end of her letter, Kipness writes that the spirits amongst the Republicans and the Republican army were high, and also reports that the motivation of the army came from a place of true dedication to the cause, saying “they definitely know why they are fighting and they surely will win.” Her impression of the Republican army was shared by the other writers in the pamphlet, who wrote from both the fields and the frontline in Madrid saying that morale was high and that they believed that the Republic would pull through. One soldier, Andrew Pape, even wrote that “our doctors and nurses here are the world’s best— they certainly perform miracles with boys you’d never expect to pull through.” Overall, the effectiveness of volunteer doctors and nurses in Spain was a collective effort, facilitated by their high morale. Nurses and doctors write of hard work, constantly going from one surgery to the next – sometimes for days without stopping – to treat severely injured soldiers. Despite the difficulty of the work, the nurses in Spain, according to a head nurse, Fredericka Martin, “have never lost their cheerful spirit or quarreled with each other or grumbled” and were eager to provide the best care they possibly could.
After serving in Spain for just over a year, Kipness left Europe from Le Havre, France aboard the Ile de France on August 13, 1938 and arrived in New York six days later. Instead of listing her address in the United States as being in Brooklyn, though, she listed her address in Philadelphia. When she arrived in New York, she moved back to Pennsylvania to live with her mother and sister, and continued her work as a nurse for a private practice. In 1944, she remarried Charles Cohen, who she had married and divorced prior to her time in Spain, in Philadelphia. After five years of marriage, Kipness died on June 19, 1949 at 49 years old. She is buried at the Mount Jacob Cemetery in Glenolden, Pennsylvania.
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