The family history was treated as secret
American Richard Oppenheimer has been trying to reconstruct the story of his family during the Nazi time period for the past few years. Now his research has led him to the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. "I was now in Germany three times and I have hunted through every archive," says Oppenheimer. "I have also been to cemeteries and registry offices to research birth and death dates. Also, I’ve met an old friend of my mother. Now I still want to see the memorial places."
Oppenheimer has created a detailed genealogy of his family, in which he describes, with detailed information, each individual's fate. The death dates of most family members cause an oppressive silence. Again and again, the years 1942 and 1943 and the camps Sobibor, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz appear. "I just found a lot of new documents with important details that I had not seen before," tells Oppenheimer. "I even uncovered the longtime family mystery of a largely unknown daughter of my aunt Marga."
As a child, he knew little about the family history, remarks Oppenheimer. "My mother did not talk about the past. It was too difficult for her. Only after the death of my parents, I found documents, letters and photos, and began to search and dig." He started first with the USHMM (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) and Yad Vashem, before traveling to Germany.
Oppenheimer's mother, Erika Mannheimer, was born in 1923 in Bad Wildungen, just a few kilometers away from Bad Arolsen. "Walking through the streets in the birthplace of my mother was upsetting," says her son. "On Kristallnacht, her things were thrown into the street. They lost their house." The family had to move to Kassel, and Erika was deported with her parents and two siblings to Riga in 1941. Erika and her mother Lina survived the concentration camps of Stutthof and of Kaiserwald in Riga. The rest of the family was murdered.
On a death march, the two women were released in January 1945, and they made their way back to their hometown of Bad Wildungen. Here they lived for a year until September 1946, when they received the papers to emigrate to the United States. One brother of the grandmother had escaped from Nazi Germany and was able to accommodate them in New York.
In the U.S., Erika worked for a year in a textile factory as a seamstress before she married Max Oppenheimer in 1947 in New York. Max was born near Augsburg and had fled early enough from Nazi Germany. With the words, "You’d better leave," his mother had sent him away after the arrest of his father. In 1940, he managed to emigrate to the United States. An uncle took him and his brother in. Max learned about the murder of his parents only from letters that he received from friends.
"My parents have always refused to go to Germany," explains Oppenheimer, who was born in 1950 in New York and now lives in Sarasota, Florida. "Only in 1978, when they traveled for ten days to Germany for a legal case, did they visit their old homes." In Augsburg last year, Oppenheimer succeeded to get a book with an interview his father gave at that visit. "He had said that he was nervous to walk the streets, and that, at the sight of older Germans, he always wondered, what they were doing at that time. Certain sounds, such as knocks on the door, have always startled him."
No one could be sure that there would not be another Hitler, his father had always said. "That's why my parents only wanted to have one child. They didn’t want to lose more than one", remembers Oppenheimer. "As a child, I could never buy anything from Germany. Once I brought home a typewriter, but had to return it immediately. My mother always controlled all the labels."
A part of him is feeling comfortable in Germany, comments Oppenheimer. "I like the food." But another part is asking old people the same question as his father. And reports of neo-Nazis instill in him the concern that it could happen again. "So I think it is important to ask questions and discuss with young people the persecution of the Jews. I hope that they will not allow this to happen again after they hear the stories." Oppenheimer is also trying to understand the silence of his parents. "I guess they wanted to protect me. But I feel like a piece of my family history was kept a secret, a secret I should have known."