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AHEC staff is currently working from our new location on Highland Avenue, with teacher and community programs being hosted on-site. We are currently taking limited group tours and will be open by appointment to the general public soon. For more information, contact us at info@ahecinfo.org or 205.795.4176.

1970 - 2011

Irma Kern Koch

Biography

It was already too late for most Jews to escape Nazi Germany when a desperate 21-year-old Irma Kern received her visa to the United States.

The Nazis had destroyed the synagogue in her native Heilbronn am Nekar south of Heidelberg in 1938, and soon after, her widowed mother, Berta, lost her livelihood — the family furniture business, Albert Kern — after the compulsory aryanization of Jewish businesses.

In March 1939, Irma and her mother boarded a ship for the US. Berta’s mother’s family, the Würzburger cousins in Chicago, sponsored them. They bade adieu to Irma’s two other sisters, who had delayed getting out. “A lot of Jews thought things would get better. When they realized that was not going to happen, it was too late, and they couldn’t leave,” Irma’s son Howard said. Sisters Gertrude and Elise Kern were murdered by the Nazis, along with cousins and extended family. Irma’s older sister Regina, brother-in-law Sigmund Rosenfeld, and their young son had previously immigrated to the US in 1938.

Irma found work in Chicago caring for young children, but wishing to be closer to family, she joined her mother and sister in Washington, DC. One night, while admiring a Christmas window at Woodward and Lothrop, she found herself standing next to Harry Koch, another German Jewish refugee who she knew from home. The two had first met when Irma was only 8 years old. They married three months later in 1942.

Harry Koch came from a well-to-do family in Mönchsroth, Germany. His uncle was a cattle and real estate broker, his brother owned a decorative feather factory, and Harry owned a sweater factory. Harry traveled the country as a Zionist organizer, and on one of these trips, had met with Irma’s family in Heilbronn. When life became impossible in Germany, Harry was able to convince his sister’s family (including her husband and two children) to immigrate. Harry came to the US in July 1938 with 26 cents in his pocket. The remainder of Harry’s family perished.

Harry was sponsored by an affluent man in Denver who owned Denver Dry Goods. He offered Harry a job, but Harry declined and promised never to be a burden. “My parents were aliens from a country in conflict with the United States,” Howard Koch said. “They were watched until they became citizens. They both had to work to make ends meet.” Harry worked construction for the Federal Government in order to not be incarcerated as an enemy alien. Irma became a nursery school teacher.

“My parents both loved the United States,” said Howard. “They became citizens as quickly as they could. Most of the time they wouldn’t speak German. English was the language of their country, and they didn’t want to identify with being German. They were citizens of America. They were very loyal.”

Harry eventually traded in his coveralls to become a traveling sales rep for a clothing manufacturer. He and Irma moved to Richmond, VA to be near his sister. It was here that their son Howard was born. As a member of Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Irma became more observant as she aged. They joined the New American Jewish Club, which Harry encouraged to create a cemetery where Holocaust survivors could be buried and to build a monument there to loved ones who perished. The result was Emek Sholom Cemetery at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Henrico County, where Harry was laid to rest in in 1975.

After Harry died, Irma moved to Birmingham to live near her son, his wife, and their two children. Having taught nursery school for 36 years, she shared this passion at Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center, “It was something to see my mother in her late 70s or early 80s walking down the hall in her bathing suit taking children to go swimming,” Howard said.

After retiring in 1986, Irma realized her dream of visiting Israel — not as a tourist but as a volunteer. During her 2-3 month stay, she worked on an Army base in support of their tank platoon. This little 68-year-old woman, wearing IDF fatigues, cleaned and oiled tools and parts.

Irma died at her home in 2011 at the age 92. She was buried next to her dear Harry at the Emek Sholom Cemetery.

Irma dealt with her past by not talking about it. Her husband, who lost even more family in the death camps, was scarcely more forthcoming. “Being a survivor of the Holocaust was like having surgery with no Novocaine,” Howard said. “It was a painful conversation.”

More Information

Name in US
Irma Kern Koch
Name at Birth
Irma Kern
Married Name
Irma Kern Koch
Parents' Name

Berta Würzburger (1877-1954) and Albert Kern (1882-1921)

Date of Birth - Note
February 11, 1918
Country of Birth
Germany
City of Birth
Heilbronn
Sibling(s) Name(s)

Regina Kern (Sigmund Rosenfeld)
(1901-1968)

Elise Kern
Murdered in Holocaust

Gertrude Kern
Murdered in Holocaust

Spouse(s) Name(s)

Harry (Heinrich, Heinz) Koch
(1901-1975)
Married October 11, 1942 in Washington, DC

Also a Holocaust survivor but never lived in Alabama.
Born: December 7, 1901, Mönchsroth, Germany
Parents: Simon Koch and Emma Goldsmith
Came to US July 7, 1938
Died: November 11, 1975, Richmond, VA

Children's Names

Howard Alexander Koch
(February 25, 1944-February 2, 2020)

Religious Identity (Prewar)
Jewish
Religious Identity (Postwar)
Jewish
Other Experiences

Sponsored by the Würzburger family in Chicago

Year / City / Ship to US
March 25, 1939 / New York City / SS President Roosevelt
Date Moved to Alabama
1994
Alabama City of Residence
Birmingham
Date of Death
January 3, 2011
City of Death
Birmigham
City of Burial / Cemetery
Henrico, Virginia / Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery
Dates Lived in Alabama
1994-2011