Paul Oppenheimer, MBE, mechanical engineer from Solihull, was born on September 20, 1928. He died of cancer on March 8, 2007, aged 78.
Every Holocaust survivor has a different story. This is certainly true for the three Oppenheimer children, Eve, Rudi and Paul, who were fortunate to survive for five years under the Nazis in Holland, and in the camps of Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen, and who finished up on ‘The Last Train from Belsen’.
Our parents, Hans and Rita Oppenheimer, lived in Berlin. We were a typical middleclass family of assimilated Jews, who rarely ventured into a synagogue. Paul and Rudi were born in Berlin in 1928 and 1931, respectively.
With the advent of Hitler and the Nazis, life became progressively more difficult for all Jewish people living in Germany. Many Jewish families wanted to leave Germany, but most other countries would not accept these refugees. Our father, Hans, worked at the Mendelssohn Bank in Berlin which had a branch office in Amsterdam in Holland.
He had managed to obtain a transfer to the Amsterdam branch in 1936 and the family went to live in Holland, near the seaside in Heemstede. These were happy days for the Oppenheimer children, but they only lasted for four years.
In May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland and within five days, the Dutch army surrendered. The Germans occupied the whole country, took over its government, and soon started to persecute the Jews who lived there. Anti-Jewish laws were introduced in an insidious step-by-step manner to restrict the life of all Jewish people in Holland.
Child wearing yellow jewish badge
We were not allowed into public places like parks, zoos, restaurants, hotels, museums, libraries and swimming pools. We had to attend Jewish schools. We had to live in Amsterdam. We had to wear the yellow star. We had a curfew. We had to hand in our bicycles. We were not allowed on the bus or tram.
Then the deportations started for “re-settlement in the East” and gradually all the Jews in Holland were transferred from Amsterdam to Westerbork, the transit camp in the northeast of Holland near the German border. From Westerbork there were regular weekly transports to the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor. Out of 100,000 deportees, less than 1,000 survived – 1 in a 100 survived, but 99 out of 100 never came back...
Our family was rounded up in Amsterdam in June 1943 and sent to Westerbork, but we were exempt from deportation to Auschwitz or Sobibor because our sister, Eve, was British. She had been born in London in 1936 during a six-months spell when we were living with an uncle and aunt in London, on our journey from Germany to Holland. This fortunate event eventually saved our lives.
In Westerbork, Eve and our family were classified as “Exchange Jews”, people the Nazis wanted to exchange against Germans held by the Allies. After seven months in Westerbork, in February 1944, all five of us were deported to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. By this time, Paul was 15 years old, Rudi 12 and Eve was only 7.
We travelled by train in third-class passenger coaches and arrived early in the morning at another camp, called Bergen-Belsen, or Belsen for short. We had never heard this name before and had no idea what it was like. But as soon as we marched into the camp, we could see that it was even larger than Westerbork – and much worse. In addition to the barbed wire and guard towers, there were electrified fences and lots of SS soldiers with bloodhounds, machine guns and searchlights. It was a real concentration camp.
We had certain privileges in the Exchange Camp in Belsen. We were allowed to wear our civilian clothes with the yellow star and our camp became known as the Star Camp. We did not have to wear the usual black-and-white striped pyjama outfits. We did not have our hair shaved off. We were allowed to keep our luggage, a suitcase full of clothes and books and games.
But like other concentration camp inmates, we lived in barracks, male and female, and we slept in three-tier bunk beds. Every morning, we lined up in rows of five to be counted on the assembly yard. We received three “meals” each day – a mug of warm brown liquid in the morning (substitute coffee), a bowl of turnip soup for lunch and about one and a half inches of bread in the evening.
Although Paul was 15 years old in Belsen, he did not have to work – and Rudi and Eve were also too young. We were confined to the Star Camp, surrounded by barbed wire. We had a broom to sweep our barracks, and were not allowed any schooling, or games or sports. We messed around in groups of kids, looking for scraps of food, and wasted our time. We did nothing all day; every day was the same, it was extremely boring.
We were starving, exhausted skeletons...
We arrived at Belsen in February 1944 when it was cold, but we were in reasonably good condition and could cope. Then it was summer and not too bad. But it was the last winter of the war, 1944-1945, when it all went wrong. We had been in Belsen for more than six months and were very hungry, under-nourished, starving, exhausted skeletons.
The daily roll-calls became more and more traumatic. We had to stand in line for hours, even in the rain, sleet and snow, when it was freezing cold and the icy winds blew across the heathland area around Belsen.
This was when many people fell ill with diarrhoea, pneumonia, tuberculosis and various other illnesses, and they were unable to resist or recover. In January 1945 our mother fell ill; she went into the hospital barracks and we visited her every evening. We never knew what precise illness she had because there were no doctors, no nurses and no medicines.
And there was no extra food. We could see that she was getting worse, but there was nothing we could do to help her. And one evening when we came, she was no longer there. She had died and her body had been taken away to make room for someone else in the hospital barracks. Our mother was not yet 43 years old and we realize now that we never really got to know her very well.
It was particularly bad for our sister Eve because she was only eight years old at that time and all alone in one of the female barracks. Fortunately, an Orthodox family called Birnbaum, who had six children of their own, offered to look after her during the last few weeks in Belsen.
Early in 1945, a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp, transmitted by lice. There were lice everywhere – in the barracks, in the bunk beds, on our bodies, in our clothes. We were always itching and scratching and we spent hours “hunting” the lice. They used to breed in the warm parts of our bodies and we were never able to get rid of them. Most people who died in Belsen, died of typhus – along with other diseases, starvation and exhaustion.
In March 1945 our father fell ill and he went into the hospital barracks. We went to see him every evening, but after a few days, he was no longer there. He had also died, almost certainly of typhus. He was 43 years old; he had survived for almost two years in the camps and died within one month of Liberation. It was very sad.
At this time, 600 people were dying in Belsen every day, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot in another section of the camp. But we realized that the Allies were winning the war. Eventually we could hear the Allied guns approaching Belsen and we looked forward to our liberation and freedom. But there was another ordeal in store for us because the Germans wanted to keep the “Exchange Jews” as hostages and the Star Camp was evacuated.
All the inmates were marched to the nearby railway loading ramp and we boarded the third of three trains. The other two trains departed; the first one was liberated by the American army within just a few days, the second one may have reached Theresienstadt, the perceived destination of all three trains.
Child image courtesy of Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.
Read part two of The Last Train from Belsen: