Paul Oppenheimer MBE (1928-2007)

Paul Oppenheimer was born in Berlin on 20th September 1928 and died on 8th March 2007 after living in the Solihull borough for more than 40 years.

His parents were Jewish but not very religious and, in his autobiography, From Belsen to Buckingham Palace, Paul notes that his middle-class family was quite assimilated, as were most German Jews at the time, considering themselves proud Germans.

In 1936, Paul and his brother Rudolf (“Rudi”) (born 1931) visited England with their mother, who was six months pregnant. The family stayed in London with their father’s younger brother, Rudi and his wife Lotte, who had emigrated from Germany in 1934 after Rudi lost his job as a result of Nazi restrictions on Jewish employment. The boys’ sister, Rachel Eve Dorothy (known as Eve), was born in Hendon in June 1936, thus having entitlement to recognition as a British subject, which would become crucial in years to come.

Holland 1940-1943

Paul’s father obtained work at a bank in Amsterdam and so Paul and his siblings moved with their mother to Holland. Their peaceful and comfortable life changed on 10th May 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and France. Within six months, the persecution of Jews started in Holland.

On 7th October 1940 the Oppenheimers had to leave their home, which was close to the Dutch seaside and deemed a protected area. They spent the next 18 months living in Naarden and Paul passed the entrance exams for the local grammar school in June 1941. He was only able to complete one term at the school, however, as Jewish children were then banned from attending non-Jewish schools.

In January 1942 it was decreed that Jews were only to reside in Amsterdam and were not allowed outside the city boundary. From April 1942, Jews had to wear the Jewish star – a yellow piece of cloth imprinted with the star of David and the Dutch word “Jood” (Jew) on the left side of the chest on their outer clothing. The Oppenheimers were ordered to move to a small flat in the city on 2nd May 1942.

Life was becoming distinctly uncomfortable and there was a regular procession of more and more anti-Jewish decrees, aimed to humiliate, separate and isolate the Jewish community from the Dutch population and to restrict their freedom of movement

“From Belsen to Buckingham Palace” by Paul Oppenheimer

In July 1942, the forced deportation of Jews from Holland began. Block by block, Jews were forced from the city, with most initially taken by train to the Westerbork transit camp before being transported to concentration camps such as Aushwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. This deportation accelerated in the spring of 1943 and, on Sunday 20th June 1943, the Oppenheimers were among the 10,000 Jews caught in house-to-house raids.

Preparation for deportation

Paul’s parents had been preparing for months for the family’s deportation, knowing that the day would come eventually. Their valuables, prize possessions and treasured documents had been entrusted to various non-Jewish Dutch friends for safe-keeping. A suitcase or rucksack was packed for each person, containing:

  • 1 pair work boots
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 2 pairs of underpants
  • 2 shirts
  • 1 pullover
  • 2 woollen blankets
  • 2 sets of bed linen
  • 1 eating bowl
  • 1 drinking mug
  • 1 spoon and cutlery
  • towels and toiletries
  • food for 3 days

Each of them wore double layers of their best and warmest clothing, meaning that although they were very hot, they did not have to carry these clothes and could fit more into their suitcases as a result.

A Christian Dutch woman, Mrs Koster, living in the apartment below the Oppenheimers offered to hide the family. If discovered, she would herself have been shot or sent to a concentration camp so Mr Oppenheimer rejected the idea of going into hiding. He and his wife believed that their daughter’s British nationality would eventually prove beneficial to the family.

A British subject

In June 1942, Paul’s father had registered his daughter, Eve, as a British subject with the Swiss Embassy in Amsterdam. After consulting with the Foreign Office in London, this status was confirmed in September 1942 and acknowledged by the Germans.

Six-year-old Eve was, therefore, exempt from Nazi restrictions on Jews so did not have to wear the yellow star. It was down to her birth in England that the family remained in Westerbork for seven months rather than being sent to other camps. Their camp registration cards carried a blue ‘exemption’ stamp and it was believed that the Germans wanted to exchange these people for German nationals interned in Britain or America.

Without Eve’s British birth certificate, the family would most likely have been sent to Sobibor or Auschwitz in 1943, with minimal chance of survival.

Westerbork 1943-1944

Westerbork camp was built by the Dutch in 1939 to provide shelter for homeless Jewish refugees from Germany. It was then taken over by the Germans as a transit camp from which they could deport Jews to the East.

On arrival at Westerbork on the afternoon of 20th June 1943, the Oppenheimer family was separated. 14-year-old Paul and his father were sent to one of the men’s barracks, whist 7-year-old Eve, 11-year-old Rudi and their mother went to one of the barracks for women and children. They were able to meet together at lunchtimes and in the evenings to have meals together.

Transports from the camp took place weekly on Tuesday mornings, with the names of the 1,000 or so to be taken to so-called “labour camps” in the East published on Monday evenings. Paul said in his autobiography “if you survived Monday, then you would be safe for another week.”

image credit: Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the war, Paul Oppenheimer examined the official German archives in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. He found that 93 trains left Westerbork between July 1942 and September 1944 and fewer than 5,000 survived out of the more than 100,000 people transported.

  • 34,143 named individuals left Westerbork for Sobibor. Only 19 survived.
  • 58,380 were sent from Westerbork to Auschwitz. 854 survived.

Amongst those who were murdered at Sobibor were Paul’s four grandparents, whom Paul’s father had managed to get out of Germany and move to Holland in 1939. Rudolf & Hedwig Fürst were killed on 26th March 1943 and Josef & Meta Oppenheimer died on 23rd July 1943.

Bergen-Belsen 1944-1945

On 31st January 1944, the names of all five Oppenheimers were on the transport list with other “exchange Jews” for Bergen-Belsen. The following afternoon the family left Westerbok and arrived by train at Bergen-Belsen early on the morning of 2nd February 1944.

The Oppenheimer family was held in the Exchange camp (Austauschlager) at Bergen-Belsen. This was also known as the Star camp (Sternlager) as those held in the camp didn’t have to have their heads shaved and were able to wear their own civilian clothing bearing the yellow star rather than the striped camp uniform. Exchange Jews were also able to keep their luggage.

They were also able to stay together as a family although men and women had to sleep in separate barracks. Education was officially prohibited, although some secret impromptu lessons did take place.

image credit: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although those in Star camp did not have to deal with the physical danger of shootings and random beatings, they were at risk from deteriorating sanitary conditions and lack of nutrition. There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen but overcrowding, neglect, disease and starvation took their toll and many were unable to recover when they fell ill with diarrhoea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhus etc., especially during the winter of 1944/45.

Paul’s mother, Dr Friederike (“Rita”) Oppenheimer fell ill and died of starvation, sickness and exhaustion in the hospital barracks on 17th January 1945, six days before her 43rd birthday. Two months later, Paul’s father, Dr Johann Felix Robert Oppenheimer (“Hans”), aged 43, died in hospital on 20th March 1945, almost certainly as a result of typhus. Paul (aged 16), Rudi (13) and Eve (8) were now orphans.

On 9th April 1945 the Star camp was evacuated. The three children spent the night on a train at the Bergen railway siding before departing in a northerly direction for an unknown destination. Eve was being looked after by the Birnbaum family so, although on the same train, she wasn’t with her brothers.

The camp was liberated five days later on 15th April 1945 but by this time the “Last Train” out of Bergen-Belsen was in Lüneberg. The train then carried on traversing Germany, experiencing some strafing by Allied fighter planes, so it ended up travelling only at night.

After 14 days and nights, the SS guards disappeared and those on board the train were liberated by Russian soldiers at Tröbitz on 23rd April 1945.

Paul and his brother, Rudi, went down with typhus a few days after liberation and were treated at a Russian Army hospital.

Leipzig May-June 1945

Miraculously, the boys were reunited with their sister, Eve, on June 1945 whilst at Leipzig. Just as they were leaving the camp in American Army trucks, Rudi recognised Eve on a truck entering the camp. The boys shouted, the trucks were stopped and Eve then transferred to the boys’ truck to be taken with them back to Holland.

Holland June 1945

The three Oppenheimers arrived back in Holland on 28th June 1945. Noticing that Paul and Rudi had been born in Germany, Dutch officials placed them in a camp for ‘enemy aliens.’ They stayed there for six days with German inmates, including captured SS officers.

Eve was collected by the Oppenheimers’ pre-war neighbour in Amsterdam who had offered to hide the family in 1942. Other Dutch friends vouched for the boys and they were allowed to leave the camp on 2nd July 1945 to go to a Jewish orphanage near Amsterdam.

As Eve was a British subject, she was able to travel to England in September 1945 to live with her aunt and uncle in London. The boys obtained the necessary visas in November 1945 and joined their sister.

England

Paul started work in an engineering company in London and also attended evening classes with the aim of being able to go on to university.

In January 1947, Paul arrived in Birmingham. He lived in a small Jewish hostel in Handsworth and worked in Marston Green as an apprentice with BSA Tools. In the evenings he attended Birmingham Technical College, studying for an external degree in mechanical engineering with the University of London, graduating with first class honours in 1954. In 1955, he gained a master’s degree in thermodynamics at Birmingham University, which he noted in his autobiography was his only experience of full-time education since 1940 when he was 12 years old.

After five years’ residency, Paul was able to able to apply to become a naturalised British citizen. He received his Certificate of Naturalisation in April 1951 and obtained his first British passport the following month.

In 1958, Paul left BSA and joined Lucas Automotive, working first at the Group Research Centre in Marston Green and, from 1961, at Lucas Girling in Tyseley. He worked on braking systems for passenger cars and, in 1970, was appointed to manage the braking regulations standards at Lucas Girling. It was for his work in the field of anti-locking brakes to prevent skids that he was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours List 1990.

In January 1964, Paul bought his first home – a semi-detached house in Lyndon Road, Olton, Solihull. He married in March 1964 and his three children were born between 1965-1970. In 1968 the Oppenheimers moved to Hansell Drive, Dorridge where they lived happily for 25 years.

Testimony

Paul concentrated on building his new life in England so didn’t really speak about his time in Belsen, although he had visited the site of the camp with his brother in 1953.

Upon the announcement of his award of the MBE, Paul was interviewed by local reporters for the Solihull News and Solihull Times. He was asked how long he had lived in Solihull and where he was born, so his Holocaust experiences emerged. One of the reporters knew that there was to be a special reunion in Belsen in April 1990 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the camp’s liberation so Paul, his daughter Judith and his brother Rudi, together with the Solihull Times reporter, attended the events.

Following this trip, there were articles in local newspapers and Paul was asked to give a talk to his synagogue, the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. Other speaking engagements followed, including to school and college students – some 850 talks overall. He took early retirement from his business commitments and recorded his testimony.

Paul also helped with the founding of Beth Shalom, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, in Nottingham in 1995.

Rudi and Eve

Paul was survived by his wife, three children and seven grandchildren, as well his two siblings, Rudi and Eve.

Eve had spent time in Lingfield House children’s home and, after leaving school, worked in her uncle’s glove business. She also gave testimony about her wartime experiences and died in 2017.

Rudi Oppenheimer also became an engineer, gaining a degree in mechanical engineering and working for Shell for 34 years. He dedicated the latter part of his life to giving talks and was a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust family, meeting the Queen during her visit to Belsen in 2015. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in the New Years Honours List 2016 for services to Holocaust education and awareness. He was the last survivor of the three Oppenheimer siblings and died in May 2019.

Further reading

The testimony of Paul, Rudi and Eve Oppenheimer, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Rudi Oppenheimer’s testimony – a video of his talk to a group of students at Beth Shalom in 2015

From Belsen to Buckingham Palace by Paul Oppenheimer (available to borrow from Solihull Libraries)

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