Ernst was born in 1923 to Irene and Leo Kohn, an upper middle-class German family who traced its roots back to the 1400s. Although Frankfurt had a relatively large Jewish community (about 40,000), Ernst’s family lived in the suburbs where there was not a large Jewish population. Leo, worked in the leather business, manufacturing ladies’ handbags in nearby Offenbach.
Ernst attended public school until 1933-34 when he, like other Jewish students, was no longer allowed to attend. He and his younger brother Herbert transferred to a private Jewish school, the Philanthropin. Ernst chose a vocational track, hoping to go into the leather trade like his father, but was never able to complete his studies.
With increased restrictions against Jews after the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Leo lost his job because he could no longer call on non-Jewish businesses or travel at will. He was fortunate to find a job in the sports department of the Philanthropin.
During this difficult time, the family was approached by a German woman offering to help smuggle money across the border for a fee. While Irene was tempted, Leo wanted no part of the scheme. This woman, as well as the 500 Jews who participated, were all tortured and murdered. When the Kohns finally left Germany, they did so with hardly a dollar to their name.
As conditions worsened, Leo drew up a family tree in hopes of finding family who might facilitate their emigration. He sent letters all over the world; a third cousin from Birmingham responded and offered to be their sponsor. While their US visa came in 1938, it would not become valid until 1940, and so they waited.
During the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, Leo and his father Julius were arrested at home — they returned that same night. Unfortunately, the Gestapo returned the next day and arrested only Leo, sending him to Buchenwald concentration camp.
Irene knew she had to find a way to get Leo out of Germany, if and when he came home. She sent a telegram to a relative in London, who agreed to provide a small amount of money to pay for Leo’s housing and some living expenses in London, making Leo eligible for a transit visa to England. Irene went immediately to the English consul in Frankfurt. He asked to see the telegram from London and all four family passports. Irene told him that while she and the boys had the money to purchase tickets to travel, they had no money to live on in England and no sponsor there; thus, they would have to wait until her husband could send for them. The consul said that might be too late, and in a humanitarian gesture, he signed and stamped all four passports with exit visas, essentially saving their lives.
Leo was released from Buchenwald after only three weeks because he was carrying a certificate verifying receipt of the Iron Cross during World War I. He returned home in mid- winter wearing only a raincoat (no clothing underneath). His hair was white, and he had lost 30 pounds. While he was ordered not to say anything, he shared stories of unspeakable abuses.
Leo left for England the following day. Irene and the boys stayed while she disassembled their home and made sure her parents were taken care of. Six weeks later, Ernst traveled to England, where he had a position as an apprentice; Irene and Herbert arrived in May 1939.
In April 1940, the Kohn family left for the US under the sponsorship of Dorah (Heyman) and Mervyn Sterne of Birmingham. Upon their arrival in New York, they were given the option of staying in New York, going to Chicago, or moving to Alabama to learn how to farm. They chose Alabama and traveled to Birmingham. Sterne had paid a local Demopolis dairy farmer, Mr. Gillespie, to build the family a small home and teach them how to garden and dairy farm. Sterne covered all the family’s expenses during the first year. Ernst Kohn would later in life refer to himself as “the only Jewish dairy farmer in the state of Alabama.”
The agreement with Mr. Gillespie was that after a year, he would receive the house he had built. The Kohn family moved to nearby Gallion, where they lived on an 80-acre farm rented by Mervyn Sterne. They worked hard caring for the cows and becoming self-sufficient.
Ernst attended Demopolis High School for two years and went on to a life-long career as a dairy farmer. Shortly after high school he moved to South Florida for six years to work at a large commercial dairy.
In 1949, Ernst moved to Anniston, where Mervyn Sterne had purchased a 100-acre farm on Coldwater Road in Oxford. Sterne furnished the land and paid the taxes; Ernst furnished the labor and paid part of all the expenses. After one year under this arrangement, he borrowed the money and repaid Sterne.
Ernst joined the synagogue in Anniston but never really talked much about his past. From his early beginnings as a city boy, Ernst found freedom in America as a country boy.