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Rudolf Oppenheim

image of Rudolf Oppenheim
Nationality: German
Location: China • Elmshorn • Germany • Missouri • Shanghai • St. Louis • United States of America
Experience During Holocaust: Attended Nazi Rally • Escaped the Holocaust • Family Survived • Lived in Shanghai Ghetto

Mapping Rudolf's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Rudolf. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“In the slum area, where even the Chinese didn’t want to live, now became the haven for the Jews, the German Jews and the Austrian Jews. Pretty soon, as these people found jobs and other occupations, they started to open up German restaurants, German nightclubs, German shops, and the whole section was transformed into a small ghetto that resembled a German town.” - Rudolf Oppenheim

Read Rudolf's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

OPPENHEIM: My name is Rudolf Oppenheim, also known as Rudy Oppenheim. I was born November 5, 1928 in the city of Elmshorn, Germany. Elmshorn is located in the northern section of Germany, approximately 17 miles or about 35 kilometers, due north of Hamburg on the road to Kiel. Elmshorn, at the time of my birth was a city of approximately 18,000 to 22,000 people. It was also on the river of the Kruerkau. The Kruerkau was a contributory river to the Elbe. Our family, what consisted of my mother and father, Gertrude and Otto Oppenheim, and a brother who was seven years older than myself, Walter. Also in our household lived my grandmother whose husband had deceased about a month prior to my birth and her sister who was a widowed aunt. So there were six members in the family. Our business, or my father’s business, I should say….my father was a chemist, was that we owned a leather fertilizer plant in which leather was degreased and oil was extracted. The oil was then used in the manufacture of, shoe polish in Europe. The residual from the extract of the oil was then transported, made into cakes so to speak, and sent to Granite City, Illinois – right across the river from St. Louis. This, incidentally, was a very fortunate enterprise, since because the thirty year interchange between Granite City and St. Louis, it consequently later on helped us to get from Germany to the United States. The company, Smith-Rowland Company was the one who was instrumental in the cause. My early years were quite uneventful. I lived a normal boyish life. Our family was in a good affluent position, so that we, the boys my brother and I had really as far as the financial or economic situation was concerned. Also, one has to remember that children do not perceive political influences, even though the feeling of the Hitlerian period that later was to come in to full bloom, became much more evident as the years and my growth developed. Certainly, for the first five, six years after 1934, I do not remember that power. And I do remember that I attended a parade in Hamburg in which Hitler was supposedly in the motorcade, but I do not remember the exact incident. This came by hearsay of what I had seen, because to a 6-year old, seeing Hitler or the Fuhrer at the time, did not really mean much. My early years were spent in the Elmshorner Volksschule, or the public school system, which was in 1935 renamed the Adolf Hitler Schule. Starting with 1935 in the fall, I would say, the early classes were devoted to religious instructions. With the fall of ’35, I was not – how should I say – not allowed or requested not to attend this…these early sessions. I was excused from them. Again, it made no difference, because it meant that I could come to school an hour later. It was only that in the beginning of, I would say, .36 that certain restrictions began to appear that would affect my own life. For instance, I was not longer allowed to have a governess. Because Elmshorn was a small town, It did no have to many Jewish people. There were fifty families. Certainly, those employed by Jewish households were no Jewish. My governess could no longer work for Jewish people. Also, the movie theaters now began to sprout signs of “Juden and hunde bicht erlaubt”…’Jews and dogs are not allowed.’ Again, this was not too much of a detriment because many times I would sneak in undetected. Who would stop a small – I was always small for my age, I must add – who would notice a small youngster entering a movie on Sunday afternoon. As a result of the Hitlerian period, my parents began to feel the pressure and this is more really in retrospect, as I look upon it now, as actual observation at the time. Again, a youngster does not notice these things. The times became more difficult when one observed that the signs sprouted out “Kauft nicht bei Juden” – ‘Don’t buy from Jews; do not purchase from Jews’ – ‘do not deal with the Jews’. Certainly the Nuremberg Rules or Laws took effect in ’36 to the fullest that Jews could not hire anybody of non-Jewish faith for domestic work. They were still able, however, to give work to…in the factories and their plants. The true impact of what was happening really came with destruction of the synagogue and the arrest of the Jewish males on November 9 in the evening to 10th – 9th to the 10th, which is now called Kristallnacht or Crystal Night…the shattering of crystals. Throughout Germany the synagogues were burned, the men were arrested. Again one has to remember – I am going back a little bit, a few years – that the Jewish community in Elmshorn lived there since the secession of Germany of that section of Germany, Schleswig-Holstein, from Denmark that goes back to the 16th century. The Jew that lived among them – my own ancestors are buried in the Cemetery there. My earliest ancestor being buried there in 1728. So the Jews were well assimilated. The German Jew had always the reputation for being well assimilated into his country. And he thought of himself as a German first and a Jew second. The German Jew, incidentally, has often been accused of this, but in his political life, he was a German first. The concept of a persecution of the Jews by his fellow man or by his citizens, was perhaps an inconceivable type of idea. Many times people of the Germans were asked, or of German origin were asked, “ Why didn’t you leave in the early eight years?” To give you an Example here, my mother in 1931 wanted to leave Germany because she said, “I don’t like the way the times are beginning to look”. Picture yourself as a successful businessman with a heritage or roots that go over several hundred years in a country and they say, “Are we going to listen to this egomaniac?” are we going to throw everything, even though you could have sold it an taken your money with you?” So the German Jew became blind to his own impulses. He became, so to speak, an individual who no longer believes in the reality that was staring him in the face. Consequently, when the German Jews saw the destruction of the synagogue and the earnesty, with which now, the machinery of Nazism was beginning to move, he began in earnest to struggle to get outward. Now in Elmshorn the people were, for the fifty families in Elmshorn, were really a not so much anti-Semitic towards them, because they were their neighbors. They were school friends; they were their peers at school; they had grown up with them.
PERRY: You said fifty Jewish families. There must have been at least a thousand families in that town, at least, not Jewish. There was a very small percentage.
OPPENHEIM: Yes, there was a very small percentage. There were
20,000 people in that town. So as a result that the….on the night that they were arrested – and this again goes into retrospect – the information was furnished by my 87-year-old uncle, really a cousin to my mother and father, that really the police did not know what to do with them for that night. The synagogue was burning. They brought the males to the jail, and the jail master said, “Look, I’m not going to lock you up. Just sit around and if you need anything, like sandwiches….. However, in the morning, I have to give you over to the National Gestapo Agency who will come with trucks and take you to Hamburg.”
PERRY: Were you, you as a 10 year-old child, aware of what was going on?
OPPENHEIM: No, because I remember vividly the pounding on the door at about 2 or 3 in the morning. They said, “Open up! Open up! This is the National Police Agency.” And they asked for the males over 16-years old by name. My grandmother, who was at the time 75, shouted from the upper windows, “ We have lost five sons in the first World War. I am not giving you anymore.” And of course their reply was, “Open up! Open up!”, and my father did open up. And they asked him to get dressed and to pack his belongings for a few days’ stay and to report to them. They were very courteous, because they were again organized police and members of the Gestapo. But again, remember that these people were from the town. They were their own townspeople.
PERRY: At that time, your father still owned and ran his factory?
OPPENHEIM: Right. Okay, that was so much for that. Now they were taken to the police station. They were well taken care of for the night, and in the morning, anything that they needed, especially from their homes, their wives or family could bring them. And then they were transported to the concentration camp, Sachsenhausen in Berlin, where after three weeks’ stay, those who had the financial to leave the country, could show, and they were released.
PERRY: Including your father?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. Now the following morning, after the arrest, the Gestapo came by and they said that the house and the property – and there was quite and extensive large property – was under German jurisdiction and that it would be sold under such jurisdiction and that the funds of it would become the property of the German Government. However, if at a later time, that they want to leave the country, funds would be made available for passage and for transporting of furniture and goods. Remember this was in ’38. There was no thought of annihilation; that at the time, there was no concern or concept of what they called Rassenvernichtung – extermination of the Jews. At that time, also, beginning actually in ’39, prior to the invasion of Poland, Germany tried every country in the world to take the Jews, offering to pay their passage, because the concept was to make Germany Judenrein… to clean… make Germany clean of the Jews. And they were even willing to settle them anywhere that they could possibly settle. So the shame of the German atrocities that were to follow later are partly to blame, really on the rest of the world. And history will bear this out of some of the things that had to come.
PERRY: Let me ask you a question. Then all this was happening, they knocked on the door, you remembered that. They took your father away. What did your mother tell you and your brother?
OPPENHEIM: My brother…we had notice…my brother never was in the concentration camp. About a week before…
PERRY: He was over 16?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. About a week before, the men knew what was going to happen. They didn’t know the day or the time, but they knew it was going to happen. So my brother was scheduled to be sent, was sent out with the children’s transport to England and later on to Australia. And we were separated for 18 years.
PERRY: What did your mother tell you when they took your father?
OPPENHEIM: I don’t remember verbatim just what she said, but she comforted me.
PERRY: Yeah, in other words, since there wasn’t any such thing as a Vernichtung at that time, one wasn’t that excited about it.
OPPENHEIM: Well no, not excited, but you still have an arrest.
PERRY: Yeah, right. But nevertheless, you had no idea what Germany was going to turn into.
OPPENHEIM: No. I remember my father kissing me goodbye and kissing my mother goodbye. And he said, “I’ll be back.” Now, I was scheduled to be sent to Holland with 68 other children on a children’s transport. Because they were making efforts to save the children. They knew what was going to happen. And I was scheduled to leave on the morning the night before my father was released from the concentration camp and came home. So that he said, “No, he’s not going.” He said, “We sent one son out away from us, and he’ll go with us wherever we’re going.”
PERRY: When you said they knew what was going to happen, they had no concept of the details?
OPPENHEIM: No, but they knew of the arrests coming.
PERRY: They knew of the arrest and that it wasn’t a good place for Jews to live, presumably.
OPPENHEIM: So they wanted to save the children. I’m not so sure that some idea may not have been formed. Incidentally, it was a good thing that I was not sent to Holland. Out of the 68 children that were sent – and I would have been the 69th – none returned. All perished, uh, so sometimes…
PERRY: They were all from Elmshorn?
OPPENHEIM: No, from Hamburg. Later on, I have the book on the – let me show you this later on, of the 6,000 Jew that died from the city of Hamburg with the dates of the transportation and the dates of their death and the concentration camp. Germany was very meticulous. Even today, when I was in Germany two years ago, I was addressing the city board, I said to the secretary there, “Is it possible to get an additional copy of my birth certificate?” And she said, “Certainly”, and she went to the micro file.. microfiche, and pulled out my birth certificate from 1928 and I have a copy of it, an additional copy. The German Jew at the time of his arrest, even then, was at a complete disbelief of that was happening to him. He had just in 1937 received his medal from the first World War now signed by Adolf Hitler.
PERRY: Your father was……?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. And in it, it was sighted DER Dank des DeutschonVolkes 1st ausgesichert – ‘The thanks of the German people is assured,’ with Adolf Hitler. How can then all of the sudden be an arrest, and anything much worse was inconceivable, take place. However, it was time to leave.
PERRY: Let me ask you…may I ask you a few questions before you leave the subject? A few things might be of interest. First of all, you obviously were well-integrated into the community. Did you speak any language but German at home?
OPPENHEIM: Only German.
PERRY: And did you have a religious education?
PERRY: Could you tell me a little about that and how it was carried out and what you remember of it?
OPPENHEIM: Our synagogue, it dated back, in fact it was a Sephardic synagogue, and the congregation in Elmshorn was what is called now a conservative movement. It was not what is called a reformed movement. It was not what was called a reformed movement. It was orthodox or certainly the men on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would have daven with a kitel. All the holidays were strictly observed, Passover. We kept a strictly kosher home, and my grandmother was especially strict on this. We had a kosher butcher in the town and certainly from Hamburg here were many kosher butcher shops. So there was no problem in that respect. We had a Talmud Torah. We had education of course, by the time that I came around, there were fewer youngsters, but there were still about six of us left, who every afternoon, would go to cheder and we would learn Hebrew. Here in St. Louis, I must add, there is a rabbi, Rabbi Moddel. Rabbi Moddel’s father was my Hebrew teacher.
PERRY: That’s interesting. He also ended up in Shanghai and eventually he and I, I hope, are going to discuss his experiences in Shanghai.
OPPENHEIM: In fact, it was interesting that back in the late 40’s, I was walking through Heman Park and there was a man sitting on a bench with a red beard and I stopped to look and I said, “Excuse me, but you look so much like my Hebrew teacher in Germany.” And he said, “What was his name?” And I said, “Moddel.” He said, “Well what was his first name?” I said, “It was Ruben,” and I said, “Well…” and he said to me, “That was my father.” And so again the world is small in this respect. In religious education, we had a beautiful synagogue. We had a fine rabbi who later on immigrated to this country and died in New York…a Rabbi David Baum.
PERRY: And the Jewish community was organized with its own Kultur area and things of that nature?
OPPENHEIM: Oh yes. And certainly being that close to Hamburg, you know they had every bit of the cultural aspects of a large city.
PERRY: Now as a boy, you, personally, obviously before this happened, you had no inkling that it was going to happen. You never heard people worrying about anti-Semitism, except in ’31 – but of course you wouldn’t remember that anyhow, but your mother would. Did anyone ever talk about this, either at the Cheder or any other place?
OPPENHEIM: No, not necessarily, except the morning after my father’s arrest. Two Hitler youths came to out property and they were school friends of mine. I went to school with them. They were in uniform and one of them pulled out a small dagger, and he said, “I will kill myself a Jew,” and he began to point the dagger at me. And as I clutched my hands to my chest, he hit me in the left hand and I bear the scar to this day. And remember, he was 10 years old and I was 10 years old. And when he saw blood he got scared and he ran, even leaving his knife behind. Okay. Our family doctor was not allowed, who was no Jewish, was not allowed to treat us. So I had to wait till the following night after 10 o’clock, then he treated my hand. And today I bear a small scar on my left hand.
PERRY: So that was the organization of your Jewish life and experience?
OPPENHEIM: My Jewish life and experience. I certainly remember that as a child I never really had any problems such as being single out as a Jew. I played with them and it was only through the publicity that later on came, you know. By that time ‘37 came around, I was the only Jewish youngster left in the whole school system, because I was the youngest one there in the school. There was one younger, nut he hadn’t started school yet.
PERRY: So in any case, after your father….Let’s jump back again, because I interrupted you. Then after your father came out of the concentration camp, he decided that he was going to get out of there?
PERRY: Please pick up again where you started.
OPPENHEIM: Well anyway, the German government had taken all of our money and we were allowed to take out furniture and pay our passage to Shanghai.
PERRY: Of course they had seized his factory at this point?
OPPENHEIM: Oh yes. The factory and all of the money seized. There was some additional funds that had to be paid, because somebody said we could get him out sooner – out of the concentration camp – and large sums of money were paid in addition for that. But it didn’t make that much difference because you couldn’t take out, you were allowed to take out 10 Marks, each of us, $2.50. But you were left with your life. And we left by train from Hamburg in the beginning of ’39. We went through Munich, through the Brenner Pass, into Italy and our boat, the Victoria, sailed from Genoa.
PERRY: Was that your total nuclear family that went with you?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. No, I shouldn’t say that. My brother had already been sent to Australia. My grandmother and her sister we had sent to England. So it was only my mother, my father and I who went to Shanghai. Now that is actually the aspect of our life in Germany, unless you have any specific questions.
PERRY: Well, only any other impressions you might have had at the time. Not in retrospect, you obviously knew why was happening to you. You were 10 years old.
OPPENHEIM: I doubt it.
PERRY: No, no. You knew you were being taken out of the country at that point. You knew you were going on a long journey and probably wouldn’t come back until some indefinite time. So you knew that something strange was going on.
PERRY: And what type of ship was this?
OPPENHEIM: Oh the ship was a luxury liner. I was a luxury liner, the Victoria. It was the Lloyd Triestino Line. It was, as I said, today, you couldn’t get cruises like this, but it was a six-week cruise which put into 23 ports; Bombay, Aden, the Suez Canal, Ceylon, certainly also Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. So for a youngster of 10 years old….a vacation.
PERRY: So they you arrived in Shanghai?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. On the arrival in Shanghai marked for the adults, and I imagine for the adults had different thoughts than the children would have had during this voyage, because what are you going to do?
PERRY: Yes. They even had to find a place to eat.
OPPENHEIM: Now to the credit to the Russian Jewish immigrants into Shanghai who came during the early part of the century, great credit has to be given to them. There were Jewish traders. Shanghai had a large Jewish community. But no matter how large a community…to be told that 20,000 German and Austrian Jews were coming to their shores, to take care of them, to house them, is a formidable task.
PERRY: How big of a community was there?
OPPENHEIM: I have no idea, and up to this point, I really don’t know. There are books that were written. There is one in particular that I’m thinking of, Deliverance in Shanghai, that might give a pointer on that.
PERRY: But as you said, no matter how many it was, there were still 20,000 people.
OPPENHEIM: Right. Twenty thousand people arrived in Shanghai. The Russian community was ready for them. They met them at the boats with trucks, five ton trucks.
PERRY: You remember…you remember yourself?
OPPENHEIM: Yes, of course, I was there. And the people were put onto the trucks and they were taken to school buildings and to dormitories of colleges and old hospitals. People were put into these rooms…24 to 36 people in a room, in beds, bunk beds, three high. I think that for us children it was an exciting thing. for an adult who had been in the affluency of life – say a successful businessman – to be put in to a situation like this where you are to share…….

Tape 1 - Side 2

OPPENHEIM: As I was saying, for the children it was more or less of an adventure. For a person with a history of affluency or success in life, this was a marked change in his life-style. Not all people were able to take it. And many times we would wake up in the morning to find somebody hanging from the rafters. I remember as a 10 year old – remember that I was only 10 – at that young age, to have a women give birth in the next bunk and someone say, “Take the child away,” and they said, “In this situation, he has to learn all aspects of life.”
PERRY: So you stayed?
OPPENHEIM: Yes. However, the Jewish community did a great deal for the children and for the adults. First of all, no one went hungry. Everyone was fed morning, noon and night. They stood in lines. In the morning they had bread, two eggs, jam, tea. Certainly not glorious way of being fed with on…metal trays, but body and soul was kept together. At lunch, we would have hot soup, and some form of a main dish, with perhaps a small piece of cake. The women in the camp – we called it a camp – were selected to volunteer to help in the kitchen, but the food and the monies was provided by the organization.
PERRY: What was the name of the organization? Did it have a formal name?
OPPENHEIM: It had a formal organization and I’m trying to think of it at this time. For the school – in fact I was just looking the other day at what we wore – the little Magen David badges with the name on it. I forget the organization that it was. But we called them Heims, not camps.
PERRY: Heims? H E I M?
OPPENHEIM: Yes, H E I M. Now they also made every effort to find jobs for the people so that they would become self-sufficient. The section in which these Heims or homes were, was the slum area of Shanghai. Shanghai itself had a beautiful section of parks, race tracks, homes, a French, English section. But the slum area where even the Chinese didn’t want to life now became the haven for the Jews…the German Jews and the Austrian Jews. Pretty soon, as these people found jobs and other occupations, they started to open up German restaurants, German nightclubs, German shops, and the whole section was transformed into a small ghetto that resembled a German town. My own parents and my uncle and my aunt, went with us. My uncle was a very enterprising man, at that time he was young, he had, when he had his pickup for furniture, he had every second hole pre-drilled and he had his nails cast into gold and he had a lot of gold in each one. As a result of this, we were able to buy – not buy – but rent a large house owned by a Chinese doctor with a beautiful garden. In this garden we set up tables and chairs. We lived in the house. We even rented out to other people, apartments or living quarters. And they renovated the kitchen into a modern kitchen and they made a German restaurant.
PERRY: Now as your father working at this time?
OPPENHEIM: No, no. He became active in the restaurant. And there was another family, a third family, who was also participating in this…and so three families. The men were the waiters; the women were the cooks. However we could not afford to eat at our own restaurant. Well, sixty-five cents for a whole meal, that was way too high. So we children – there were two children in the other family – none in my aunt and uncle’s family, who…The children were sent to the home for lunch, for breakfast, lunch and evening meals…to go with the pails.
PERRY: To the Heim?
OPPENHEIM: Yes, to the Heims. But, however, for each one of our birthdays in the family, we got a free meal on the house. Now, the German community thrived in Honkew. Honkew, H O N K E W. The Honkew section thrived. It had theaters, German theaters. It had the Honkew Symphony Orchestra and also was cultural so that a man who later died here in St. Louis years ago, a Mr. Kardo, his name was Katznol Kardo, he was on the Berlin Stage and he was a Shakespearean actor. So that cultural association pays these people to go to various German restaurants on Sunday afternoon to perform, whether it be a string quartet. And so people would come there for coffee and cake and they would sit there. I also have to add that our restaurant was in a very, very bad area in Honkew. You had to walk through about 200 feet of the dirtiest Chinese alley that you could think of, where people would squat in the middle to do their business. But they had to go through, and then you came to this oasis of a spot, going through these gates, where you found the rock garden and that…and found this beautiful Chinese garden. So the German Jew really survived in the midst of everything. This only went on for a limited time.
PERRY: What about your education?
OPPENHEIM: Alright, the education. Remember this, I had left Germany in the beginning of January, so for that semester I could not go to school, but certainly I was immediately enrolled into the English speaking school that a family named Kadori founded. He was a philanthropist. Mr. Kadori gave a lot of money to the rehabilitation of the German Jew and most importantly, the education of the youngsters. Grade schools, junior high schools and high schools were established on the American level.
PERRY: So you really had some good schooling there?
OPPENHEIM: We had excellent schooling. And while during the summer months, spring and summer, I leaned to speak Chinese before I spoke English, and a result of it, I have a definite loss of an “R” in my vocabulary because Chinese don’t have “R’s”. I soon was enrolled in English. However, with the Hebrew education, they set up Hebrew schools and they had very fine Hebrew cheders and really I did not lose that much time in my schooling. Today, many of the members of the Jewish community from Shanghai gather at least every two years. They had one two years ago in San Francisco of 4,000 of them who are still living today.
PERRY: Now, help me out, because I’ve never been to Shanghai. At that time, I guess you were living in what were called the areas for Foreign concessions?
OPPENHEIM: No, we were living in the Chinese slum area.
PERRY: At one time, remember, until a bit later, there was a British Concession….
OPPENHEIM: Yes, but that was still on the other side of the bridge. We lived on the wrong side of the tracks now. But now in the Chinese Concession there was so much, that it built it up, that even the Chinese grocery men learned to speak German. There were 20,000 Jews living in an area of Shanghai that was perhaps a, I would say, two miles by – at the most – three miles area. It was highly concentrated with Germans. And when you think of it, at night, we would walk down Broadway in Honkew and saw neon signs with flashing in both Chinese and German, and English, that it really became a wonder in the Far East.
PERRY: But of course at the time you just accepted it.
OPPENHEIM: We accepted it. It was nothing to us, because a child accepts this. We were very, very fortunate because we had applied for our visa in Germany to the United States and we had to wait, and it came through while we were in Shanghai. We went right away of course. So, the company we had dealt with in Granite City sponsored us, and we left in September, a year and a half. All the rest of the people, and out of the 20,000, it was less than 600 that were able to get out of Shanghai before the war. All the rest lived in Shanghai during the war. Now while it was all glorious before the war, once the war started and Japan was thrown into it, Japan was ordered by Germany to really do whatever they could to annihilate the Jews. But Japan really had no feelings about the Jew. In fact, Japan always felt that they were related in some form or another to the Jew. One of the tribes that lived in northern Japan, the Ino, think that they are on of the lost tribes of Israel. And they are practicing Judaism today. So what they did, what they actually did, really, was cordon off Honkew, that section, that two by three miles, and they said, “Okay, you can go out to work in the other section, but just be sure to come home at night.” However, as the war progressed, it became worse and worse. Now they had no sustenance and no one could buy any food. And my aunt and uncle later on virtually lived in a hole-in-a-wall, they had nothing. So the people who lived afterwards…this is one of the reasons that if I were ever to go to one of the reunions of Shanghai, I’m not considered really one of “The Shanghai Jews” because I left too early. I went through the good times, but I didn’t go through the rough times. When I talk to my friends in Shanghai, in Chicago and in California, and so forth, they say, “You really weren’t….You saw the good side of it. It was like a vacation for you.” However, just let me say this, that the Russian community also took care of the health of the children. I , myself suffered from asthma. There were about 80 to 90 children who had a bad respiratory condition, and the sent us, the children, to a Dairien in Manchuria for six weeks during the summer of 1939. And when we came back from that, they pointed me out because I was evidently the most healthy individual. They had clothed me out and I was as round as I was tall, and brown, and they thought that it was because I had lived on the seashore, and it had actually cured my asthma. So, some of my memories of Shanghai are very fond memories. I belonged to the Zionist movement there, I don’t remember which one, but I still have photographs of the little blue and white caps and the handkerchiefs. And to be quite honest, at that time, again a 10 year old, what is Zionism.
PERRY: It was a nice place to play.
OPPENHEIM: It was a nice place to play and they took us out for outings, and to march and we sang certain Hebrew songs. For my parents, it would have caused a great…should, should I say…sacrifice. Some of the furniture had to be sold in order to exist, even though you had the restaurant. Later on, that was lost anyway when the Japanese came into being.
PERRY: How long were you there after the Japanese came?
OPPENHEIM: The Japanese had been there all the time.
PERRY: Yes. They came into Manchuria in ’38?
OPPENHEIM: In ’37, in the Manchurian China War. But the Japanese didn’t bother the Jews.
PERRY: It was only after they entered the war?
OPPENHEIM: Yes, it was after the war. To digress a moment, I was with the army in 1951 to 1953 in Tokyo, Japan, and I joined the East European Culture Club. Now the East European Culture Club in Japan is for Japanese professors who have married Germans; whether they be females who have married Germans, of males who married Japanese. And I got to know them quite well, and I was invited to their homes. I asked them what they had done during the war. They said that some of them had to go to the Bund meetings. They had a Japanese Bund! And I said, “What did you do”? Well, all that they did really was – remember that they were Germans who had lived in Japan – they would listen to a film on Propaganda by Goebbels or by Hitler, and then after wards they said, “Shut the machine off,” and they would drink beer, have food, and play cards. That was the extent of being a Bund member in Japan.
PERRY: But of Course, they only had to do that after the war broke out, I assume.
OPPENHEIM: Oh Sure. They had to, because they were still German Nationals. But they were too far removed from the scene really to do anything. So, anyway, in September of 1940, we left China and we came to this country. Do you have any Questions at this point?
PERRY: Yes, I do have a few, Rudy. Your father obviously and mother agreed that they were going to get out of there. Was there a problem getting out?
OPPENHEIM: Out of Germany?
PERRY: No, no. I’m talking about out of China.
OPPENHEIM: No, once you had the visa…
PERRY: The Japanese didn’t stop you?
OPPENHEIM: No, no, no, no.
PERRY: That was December, when did you say, 1940?
OPPENHEIM: No, not December, 1940. We came here in September, 1940.
PERRY: Okay. So really the Japanese really weren’t in the war yet with Germany, so you shouldn’t have had any trouble at all?
OPPENHEIM: No, the war didn’t break out until 1941. So there was no war going on.
PERRY: So that’s how you were able to get out so easily? They weren’t cracking down yet.
PERRY: And your father knew he didn’t want to live in Shanghai for the rest of his life?
OPPENHEIM: Oh, no, no, no. Everyone, my aunt and uncle later on went to Australia where the children were. My brother, remember, was in Australia. Out of the Shanghai Jews, only one Jew is left living there in Shanghai. I don’t know if he is alive, but it was written up in TIME magazine – not TIME, but the NEW YORK TIMES. He is blind and he’s deaf and he’s being cared for by a Chinese, he’s the last one and he writes, “ Do not forget me.” Of the toll in deaths, over the seven years that the Jews – hopefully more than that – yeah, 1938 to ’45, out of the seven years, only, I would say, out of the 20,000, perhaps a thousand didn’t make survival.
PERRY: But some of them were older too?
OPPENHEIM: All by natural causes. No one really died. Well they may have died, some, of malnutrition, that’s true, but some of them were older. Certainly the young people all survived.
PERRY: Your immediate family from Germany. How about your relatives, where they trapped there?
OPPENHEIM: Some of them were, yes. And they are listed in the Gray book of Hamburg. They are listed, yes. There are 26 members of the family who didn’t make it. Some of them went to New York. We have got relatives there. And certainly they were strewn all of the world. But some of them, 26, did not make it.
PERRY: And do you still speak Chinese?
OPPENHEIM: I’ve lost all of my Chinese now, but I spoke Chinese before I spoke English. But children pick that up very easily.
PERRY: Rudy, I presume that you are a member of many organizations of people who are refugees from Germany. Could you tell us about some of them?
OPPENHEIM: First of all, I’m a member of the St. Louis Holocaust Commission and also a Yom Hashoah Planning Commission. I am also the President of the German Jewish Congregation, which is now w burial society and we have out cemetery at 7400 Olive Street Road, right in front of the Yeshiva Building. The German Jews, when they came to St. Louis in the beginning of ’37 and ’38, found themselves more or less on their own. It wasn’t like in many later years that the Russian Jews came over here and they were well taken care of and met at the train station. The German Jews came over here and they had to shift for themselves. So the ones that came three weeks after. They would meet them at the train station. Thy would see if they could find a place for them to live and they certainly would see whether they could help them in finding a job. The German Jews congregated in the area of the Wellston-Blackstone-Page area, and they also began to settle in the Waterman-Pershing area…5500. They soon sought out that they wanted to have their own organization. They had their high holiday services at Berger Memorial. They had their own cantor, their own rabbi, the late Rabbi Appell and the cantor Manfred Issenberg. They also then began to take on the tradition of doing there own dead, the washing of the dead, very much like my son today is called once or twice a week, to follow the tradition of the family. And whenever there was a death, the needs of the family were taken care of and the emotional needs were also taken care of in forms of minyan which were conducted in the evening. Today the chevra is relatively small, because most of the younger ones had moved away from the congregation in 1942 when there was a dichotomy in the decision of the board where the young people said, “We shouldn’t isolate ourselves from the American Jew,” and so they didn’t want to be within the older group. Otherwise, today the German congregation would have been like in many cities, one of the larger congregations in the city. At that time, we owned the whole property. We could have built a sanctuary and we would have had our own Talmud Torah. As a result, we have a cemetery and we have about 140 people left and every year, unfortunately, we are burying some. So that gradually, the German section of the refugees is going to be extinct.
PERRY: For the record, you implied at the beginning when you were talking to me, would you mind stating once again why your father chose this area and how he got established?
OPPENHEIM: We had sent our, as I said, our residual leather materials to Granite City, and it became natural fertilizer. Smith-Rowland was a large fertilizer plant. They had seven plants in the United States. They had sponsored us. They even lent us some money to come from Shanghai over here, every cent of which was paid back by my parents after they started working here. My mother began to work immediately in the garment industry, for which she worked twenty years, as a dress finisher. My father worked for Smith-Rowland Company in granite city, and they took him around to the various other plants to make a selection of which plant would be more suitable to him. But he figured they were all fairly much alike and since we were already in Granite City, there was no use moving on. We could have gone on to Norfolk, Boston, etc. So as a result of his staying with them for about a year, by mutual agreement with the company and my father, they thought that the same technology that was prevalent in that industry in Germany was not really suitable for this place. So he left that company and he went into the leather industry, and he later on…My father died at a relatively young age, 64, of a heart attack. But he worked in the leather goods industry.
PERRY: One other thing that might be useful to discuss. I don’t know if you’re still seeking members of your family who might be scattered, but quite often, it’s usual to put down the names of your immediate family, in English at least, or if you know it in Hebrew, in case somebody is also looking.
OPPENHEIM: No, our members are all accounted for.
PERRY: You’re all accounted for, so there’s no problem there. Some people are still looking.
OPPENHEIM: No ours are all accounted for. We have a genealogy that goes back to the 1700’s. It goes to the present time. In fact, we add now, and in fact in six weeks, hopefully, we expect our new addition. My daughter Marcia, is going to make me a grandfather. She just came back from Israel, she and her husband, so we will have a new member to the genealogy. We also had our older daughter get married in New York, so our family is growing. While at one end they do die out, at the other end, they add on.
PERRY: Is your brother still living in Australia?
OPPENHEIM: My brother died in 1971 here. He came here in 1956. My brother contracted lung cancer and died at the age of 49. My mother died at the age of almost 85, in 1980.
PERRY: Well, you’re going to make it to 120. You’ll be the first one.
OPPENHEIM: No, not the first one. My grandmother’s father died at 105, and her mother at 103.
PERRY: Well, you’ve got to do better, 120, Rudy.
OPPENHEIM: Alright, 120.
PERRY: Well is there anything else you think that I didn’t ask you that you think I should have asked you?
OPPENHEIM: No. I don’t think there is anything that can me added really. I think that it is very important that today young people are informed of what is happening. But more so importantly, what’s happening is the interest of the young German students is very much perked to what happened then, so that it can be avoided in the future.
PERRY: Have you spoken to non-Jewish groups in the United States?
OPPENHEIM: Not in the United States, but certainly I have spoken to them in Germany. I have not talked to non-Jewish groups in the United States, no.
PERRY: Would you consider that if someone should ask you?
OPPENHEIM: Certainly.
PERRY: Some times they don’t know enough to ask. Well, I certainly thank you very, very much.
OPPENHEIM: There is one story that I would like to finish, and it gives perhaps the impact of the whole drama that took place in Germany. In Elmshorn there lived a woman and her husband, a Mr. and Mrs. Lippstadt. Mr. and Mrs. Lippstadt were very much Jewish, members of the Elmshorn Jewish community. They had a daughter named Anna. Anna was what was commonly called at that time, a disgrace to the family. She married a non-Jew. She married a fellow named Loetje. And she lived in a small town close t o Elmshorn, called Elerau and where she still lives today. Mrs. Loetje is 74 years, and she had five children by a German husband and more or less was ostracized by her family. Now during the years of the war, Mrs. Loetje was able to remain on the farm. She was protected, so to speak, because her husband held a position in the German government and there were five children involved, where were his children too, and who needed a mother. So she survived. However during the war years, an interesting situation or drama unfolded. Mrs. Loetje’s father, who had died, never saw his daughter again. The mother however, was sent to an area in Poland. And she was being marched along a country road by a squad of German soldiers, when from the opposite direction, came another squad of German soldiers. Mrs. Loetje’s mother, Mrs. Lippstadt, recognized the leader of that patrol as being from her home town, Elmshorn. And she called out, “Hello Guenter. Hello, Guenter,” and he acknowledged and stopped the patrol and said, “:Ah Guten Tag” – “Good day , Mrs. Lippstadt, how are you? It’s good to see you.” And he watched as she and the other 15 women were marched into the field and executed! Now, he came back after the war into the town, and he knew the daughter of course, and he came to the daughter and said, “Your mother will not be coming back. I watched her being executed.” Now coincidentally, both this man and Mrs. Loetje are the same age and they are friends today. And I sat with both of them over a cup of coffee, and a question was burning on my tongue to ask this man, and yet it would have done no good to have known the answer, and it would have done no good for Mrs. Loetje. Do you know that question would have been? Remember he was the leader of the other patrol coming in the opposite direction. He certainly couldn’t have done anything about it. Where was he coming from? Was he another execution patrol? So, we might say the persecuted and the hunted both lived in the same realm and they often lived…..

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