Florence Oppenheimer: The Jewish Florence Nightingale

Florence Oppenheimer was born in North London in 1882. Her parents were Alexander Oppenheimer and Eliza Pool. Florence had seven siblings; Cicilia, Rozalie, Eva, Violet, Michel, Beatrice and Eric Bernard.

Florence attended Lady Holles School in Middlesex, and also attended boarding school for a year. It is said Florence always wanted to be a nurse, but her father was opposed to women nursing men or working in general.

When she reached the age of 29, Florence began to grow concerned she would soon be too old to undergo training to be a nurse. Florence’s brother was successful in persuading their father to let Florence train.

Image of Florence Oppenheimer during circa 1911 – sourced from The Jewish Chronicle

Florence began her training at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton in 1911. By the start of the First World War, Florence was almost a qualified nurse, with just her final exams left to complete.

In the First World War, Florence worked on hospital ships around the Mediterranean. She aided wounded soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign, in Egypt and in Palestine.

Florence documented her experiences in her diary. Initially, she wrote daily but this soon became more infrequent. The diaries are held by the Jewish Museum in London. The diary pages and transcripts of the text can be viewed here.

She recounts her journey, from her home in London to Davenport where the ship awaited her. She discusses her experiences which include the conditions on the ship, the dangers of German submarines, the regular evacuation drills and how she spent ‘lazy days.’

Diary page. Source: https://sarahfairhurstjmm.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/diary-of-florence-oppenheimer_005.jpg

Florence even recounts her interactions with soldiers. On July 26th 1915 she wrote

‘It is a good thing that this voyage isn’t going to last much longer. The very atmosphere makes people very sentimental. What with moonlight nights and nothing to occupy one, even staid and steady men seem to go a little bit mad. After chatting for a couple of days to an apparently quite serious Doctor he was foolish enough to propose to me this afternoon. I wanted to laugh at him, however he really seemed in earnest, so I thought the best way out of the difficulty was to tell him my religion, in any case that hurt his feelings least. I cannot think what made him do it. I certainly had not encouraged him at all. He is a Roman Catholic. His name is Brenner and he comes from Newcastle, Ah me: it is a funny world.’

Florence’s contributions were recognised and she was ‘mentioned in dispatches.’ This means her name appeared in an official report written by a superior officer which is then sent to the high command. This is often for gallant action. Florence was further recognised as she received Meritorious Service Medals and Territorial Force Efficiency Medals.

Nurse Florence Oppenheimer letter of congratulations from Royal Sussex Hospital, Brighton 1916. Copyright Jewish Museum.

This resource from the Jewish Military Museum about Florence Oppenheimer shows some of her diaries and has a short film about her. 

After the end of the First World War, Florence signed on to continue working as a nurse for a further six months. Subsequently, she was posted to Palestine. There is more information on Florence to be found through the Jewish Museum and the We Were There Too project.

In 1919, Florence returned to Britain and married the much older Leopold Greenberg at the West London Synagogue. Leopold was a significant figure in the Jewish community at the time as he was the editor of The Jewish World and later the Jewish Chronicle.

It is said that “Under Greenberg’s close editorial guidance, the Anglo-Jewish weeklies thus helped to reinforce the resolutely anti-German climate that prevailed in Britain during the war years and contributed to the wider press interpretation of the war as a great clash between good and evil.”

The Jewish Experience of the First World War. Editors: Madigan, Edward, Reuveni, Gideon (Eds.) 2019 p. 323

Florence began to write a cookery column in the Jewish Chronicle in 1920. This column remained a fixture until 1962 and Florence became an authority in the world of cookery. She published ‘Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery Book’ in 1934.

This book was immensely popular. It became a necessity in every Jewish kitchen, and was the ubiquitous wedding present. This book can still be purchased, and multiple editions have been released.

Florence lived until 1980 having positively impacted the lives of many.