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?
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…..