Watford Yom Hashoah Memorial Service
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Thursday 1st May 2014

On Sunday 27 April 2014, Watford shul welcomed Holocaust survivor Rudi Oppenheimer, 82, to mark Yom Hashoah in a visit organised with the help of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).  The evening started with the lighting of six candles to represent the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.  Rudi then shared his wartime experiences as a child when he and his family were forced to flee their home in Berlin and settle first in London, then the Netherlands, in their attempt to escape the Nazis’ clutches. 

Rudi talked matter-of-factly about his time in Westerbork transit camp and later Bergen-Belsen where both his parents died in 1945, leaving him orphaned at the age of 14.  After the war Rudi, his older brother Paul and younger sister Eve travelled to England to join their beloved uncle and aunt in Brondesbury Park.  Rudi subsequently enjoyed a successful career as an engineer with Shell until retirement.

Responding to a question from the audience after his talk, Rudi said his overwhelming message was, “If you see wrongdoing, don’t be a bystander.”

Watford chairman Ronnie Jacob remarked, “It was a privilege for us to welcome Rudi Oppenheimer to our community and his testimony will remain a powerful reminder of the horrors and disrupted lives so many experienced. With the number of survivors dwindling as the years pass, this was a precious opportunity to hear Rudi’s story first-hand and we hope it will encourage all who heard it to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust and make a positive difference in their own lives.”

                      Holocaust survivor Rudi Oppenheimer talking about his wartime experiences as an ‘Exchange Jew’ at Watford Synagogue’s event to mark Yom Hashoah

Rudi’s story:

Rudi was born in 1931 in Berlin and lived there with his parents and his older brother Paul until he was four years old.

His father worked at the Mendelsohn Bank in Berlin and managed to obtain a transfer to the Amsterdam branch in 1936. Before they moved to Heemstede in Holland, he lived for six months in Britain with his mother and brother, although his father didn’t join them. It was here that his sister, Eve, was born.

In May 1940 German troops invaded Holland, and by October 1942 Jews in Amsterdam were being rounded up and deported from the city. Rudi and his family, who had lived in Amsterdam since May 1942, managed to avoid deportation for the time being because his father was working for the Jewish Council. This gave them temporary exemption from deportation.

In June 1943, Rudi and his family were rounded up and sent to the transit camp Westerbork, situated in the north-east of Holland, not far from the German border.  Rudi’s father had registered Eve as a British subject with the Swiss embassy in Amsterdam in June 1942, because Eve had been born in the UK. Rudi`s family were now classified as “Exchange” Jews which meant that they might be exchanged for Germans interned by the allies and were to be exempt from measures taken against other Jews.

This status allowed Rudi and his family to remain in Westerbork until February 1944, when, after spending 7 months in the camp, the Oppenheimer family was deported to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Rudi was just 12 years old.

As Exchange Jews, Rudi and his family received certain privileges in Bergen-Belsen: they lived in separate compounds from the other prisoners; they didn’t have to wear the striped uniforms that other prisoners were forced to wear, they didn’t have their hair shaved and they were able to keep their luggage. Nevertheless, during the winter of 1944/1945 Rudi and his family suffered dire living conditions. In January 1945, Rudi`s mother fell severely ill and died. Just two months later Rudi’s father also fell ill and died.

On 10 April 1945 Rudi and Paul left on the last train to leave Bergen-Belsen. After travelling for 14 days they awoke on the train to find that the SS guards had gone; Rudi, Paul and Eve, recognised soldiers from the Red Army and realised that they had been liberated. They managed to get to Leipzig with the help of the Russians, and from here they began their return journey to Holland. In June 1945, almost exactly two years after their deportation from Amsterdam, they arrived in Maastricht. 

The Oppenheimers had a relative in England, so it was here that they headed to join their uncle and aunt, in London. Eve arrived in the United Kingdom in September 1945, followed by Rudi and Paul in November. 

Rudi is now retired and talks regularly about his wartime experiences in schools and universities all over the country.

Holocaust survivor Rudi Oppenheimer with Watford Synagogue’s Rabbi Levine at the shul’s Yom Hashoah event