Paul Oppenheimer (1928 – 2007)

Paul Oppenheimer was born in Berlin in September 20th. 1928 to Friederike and Johann Felix Robert Oppenheimer and he has 2 siblings, Eve and Rudi and together they lived in a typical middle class family of assimilated Jews who admit:

“..rarely ventured into a synagogue.”

However, under Nazi decree, this had little to do with how Jews were perceived as Jews and was more to do with their antecedence and historical 5,000 year connection to their Judaism. While recognising the perils of remaining as Jews within Germany, Hans moved his job and together they settled near Heemstede, Holland in 1936. Tragically, and with the Germans invading Holland and the Dutch capitulating in May 1940, all of Dutch Jewry, and particularly Foreign Jews were under threat.

“..Life was becoming distinctly uncofortable and there was a regular procession of more and more anti-Jewish decrees ..aimed to humiliate ..separate and isolate ..Jewish community from ..Dutch population and to restrict their freedom of movement.” Paul Oppenheimer.

For the Jewish People in Holland, and in preparations for their removal further East, the Dutch Jews were sent to the Camp at Westerbork. From there, on a staggeringly regular basis, these Jews were to be resettled to the Death Camps at Sobibor and Birkenau, Poland for elimination. History recalls that less than 1,000 of those Jews deemed fit for transport, that being All of Dutch Jewry and their other Country Cousins, managed to Survive. Paul Oppenheimer was one of those out of the more than 100,000 Jews removed from Holland and deposited in Poland.

“..if you survived Monday ..then you would be safe for another week.” Paul Oppenheimer.

For Paul and his Family, who were rounded up in Amsterdam in June 1943 and sent to the transit Camp at Westerbork, they were to become witness to the horrors of The Holocaust. As luck would have it though, they became pawns in a game of hostage to Allied measures for German POW’s, as the ‘Exchange Jews’. This was all because of Eve Oppenheimer, his Sister, having been born in Britain, she made their exemption from the resettlement deportations a reality.

“..We travelled by train in 3rd. class passenger coaches ..arrived early in ..morning at another camp ..Belsen. ..We had never heard this name before and had no idea what it was like. soon as we marched into ..we could see that it was even larger than Westerbork ..and much worse. ..barbed wire ..guard towers ..electrified fences ..SS ..with bloodhounds ..machine guns ..searchlights. ..a real concentration camp.” Paul Oppenheimer.

After 7 or so months in Westerbork, they were transferred to Belsen in January 1944 and were made to sit out the War in the brutal space of almost certain death for the all too many Jews encamped there. Paul’s Mother died of starvation sickness and exhaustion in the hospital barracks, even as liberation was assured, on January 17th. 1945. Paul’s Father died in hospital on March 20th. 1945, from typhus. The 3 Oppenheimer Children were now orphaned, and Paul, the eldest was 16, Rudi was 13 and Eve was 8.

On April 10th. 1945, the remnants of these ‘privileged’ Jews, some 2,500 out of a total of 4,000 Exchange Jews were driven to board a train for removal away from liberation. Heading toward Luneberg and then Berlin, the transport was playing a delaying game, keeping these Jews a step ahead of liberation but also ensuring their SS guard would not be forced into the War and captivity for their Crimes Against Humanity.

On April 23rd. 1945, having been on the transport for 2 weeks, they realised that the SS guard had merely melted away and liberation approached them upon horseback. These were the Cossacks members of the Russian Army who had been racing across Germany and who were now arriving to set them free. Eventually, Paul came to England and settled in Birmingham, gaining his degree in engineering. Paul Married his Wife Corinne in 1964 and they had 3 Children.

I met Paul in Birmingham, at an exhibition given over to the memory of Anne Frank and as I had previously bought his Book, From Belsen to Buckingham Palace, I sought for him to sign it for me. Paul had had Published by Beth Shalom in 1996. This then is how I remember that encounter, as I sought to add to the memory of his passing, and not so much as a Eulogy but more of a detail of a personal loss.

“..When I met Paul in Birmingham, I simply wished to inform him that I was one of those who knew the great wrong done to him and to the Jewish People of the Holocaust. I did not want to trivialise that encounter by mention of the work I had undertaken. My own personal concern over the indifference shown, which had so trained our very intolerance to become even more intolerable, was well known to Paul Oppenheimer. Also, I was not here to self publicise my own work! But now I wish I had been a little more forward about what I had started and what I had hoped to achieve. I had reached out a hand of friendship to a man who I felt needed an apology for all of those who have yet to acknowledge their own guilt. I was not of that time but they were supposedly of my moral and ethical belief?

So for what we allowed to happen to 6,000,000 of his fellow Jews, and regrettably there are few today who are eligible to offer that apology, mine is in their stead. Yet history might yet realise its own debt of complicity, and while this debt is yet to be repaid, in abstentia of those murdered we must acknowledge that it is long overdue for those Jews whose murder would demand it. For me also, I wanted Paul to know the strength of my own sorrow and grief for the Jews of the Holocaust. I still feel much like the intruder into a very Jewish catastrophe, a rather distant spectator to a disaster we could and should have prevented. Sadly I now wish I had been more outspoken about my need for him to know that there is one more Christian who knows the terrible wrong perpetrated against so many innocent Jewish lives.

Sadly too, few people realized the strength to be gained from living alongside the experience Paul gave to us. But he offered us more than words, he offered us a reason to hope and he has left us with a legacy that will undoubtedly extend beyond his immediate Family and into ours, for those of us who would wish to learn. His gift of human forgiveness, which few of us can accommodate, exemplifies for me the need for all to grasp the lessons of The Holocaust he managed to survive. So finally, and I borrow here from Paul’s own book.” Patrick Dempsey.

Paul Oppenheimer was taken from us on March 8th. 2007 and his words linger longer amongst us due to the fact that he managed to place his words on record. And perhaps indeed his book will help?

“..One cannot imagine ..filth ..fear ..horror of those years ..thankfully ..behind us. It is a world ..though we hope we will never witness again ..we must nevertheless try to understand.” Paul Oppenheimer (1996.)