Erich Oppenheim, who as a teenager fled Nazi persecution in 1930s Germany and settled in Baltimore where he made a new life, died June 6 of complications from a stroke at the North Oaks Retirement Community in Owings Mills. The longtime former Park Heights Avenue and Milford Mill resident was 98.
The day after his bar mitzvah, when he read from the Torah for the first time publicly in the small synagogue in Nentershausen, Germany, where he was born and raised, Mr. Oppenheim, 13, and his younger brother Manfred were taken by their father, Isador, a dry goods store owner, on Jan. 29, 1935, to the port of Hamburg where they boarded the United States Lines’ SS Washington.
They would never see him again or their mother, Flora, and two brothers, Fritz and Ludwig.
Their passage to New York and eventually to Baltimore away from Nazi persecution was arranged by German Jewish Children’s Aid, which placed the bothers in a Jewish foster home, while their sister, Berta, was sent to England as part of the Kindertransport, where she settled with a family in Wales. In 1949, Mr. Oppenheim brought her to Baltimore.
After arriving in Maryland, the brothers, who were taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Irving Star as foster children, were sent to Camp Airy near Thurmont where they spent the summer learning to speak English.
“Our father settled us in our cabin, blessed us for the last time and left,” Mr. Oppenheim told the Baltimore Sun in a 2001 interview. “I recall feeling sort of numb and lost.”
By 1938, the brothers began receiving letters from their parents asking for help.
“They were urging us to find someone to put up bond to bring them over,” Mr. Oppenheim said in The Sun interview. “We could not find anyone. It was so upsetting to be so powerless.”
By 1941 the letters stopped.
They later learned that their parents and two brothers had perished at Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland where they had been sent from Nentershausen. An estimated 170,000 to 250,000 Jews lost their lives at the camp whose function was simply extermination.
More than 20 years would pass before Mr. Oppenheim could bear to recite the mourner’s kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for his parents and brothers.
“He never forgot that his parents that his parents were able to get two visas in order to send him and his brother out of Germany,” said a son, Lee B. Oppenheim of Gainesville, Virginia.
Mr. Oppenehim later became a Boy Scout and graduated in 1940 from Polytechnic Institute. In 1941, he went work as a chemist for Holtite Manufacturing Co. in South Baltimore, which manufactured Cat’s Paw rubber heels and soles, and rose to become vice president of operations.
In 1946, he married the former Thelma Shapiro, and in 1961, moved to Milford Mill, where they raised their three children.
After Cat’s Paw closed its plant in 1969 and moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, Mr. Oppenheim worked during the 1970s as director of vocational rehabilitation at the Levindale Rehabilitation Center at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.
He later owned the Magic Tub Laundromat until selling the business and retiring in the late 1990s.
Mr. Oppenheim became an active member of the Woodmoor Hebrew Congregation which later became the Moses Montefiore Woodmoor Hebrew Congregation where he had served as president of the congregation and was named its Meyer Stein Man of the Year in 1987.
“My father said he would never go back to Germany, but when he was visiting England in 1982, he decided to do a one-day trip to Nentershausen,” his son said. “He was not happy to see several of those in political power had been active members of the Nazi party during the 1930s.”
Mr. Oppenheim learned from a former resident of Nentershausen now living in Boston that the synagogue that had been desecrated by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in 1938 had been restored and moved to Hessenpark in Neu-Anspach, Germany.
He was later invited back by Germany’s Frankfurt Holocaust Museum to visit the synagogue where he had read the Torah 80 years earlier.
“I’ll come if they open the synagogue and let us have a minyan,” Mr. Oppenheim told The Jewish Times in a 2015 interview.
Accompanied by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in May 2015, Mr. Oppenheim, then 93, returned to Germany to celebrate the anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
Initially, Mr. Oppenheim refused to sit where his father had sat in the synagogue for shul because he felt he had not earned the right to do so, but later was urged to and he accepted.
The wooden Torah ark, from which he had prayed in 1935, was heavily damaged during Kristallnacht. It is now on display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.
After reading his haftorah, he gave a special tribute to his parents.
“It has been 80 years since my parents sent my brother and me to America, and it is 80 years since my parents sacrificed for me,” he said. “I used to sit next to my father where my great-grandsons sit now. I did not say haftorah then . I say it now in memory of my mother who stood in the street watching and waving as we drove away.”
The Morning Sun
After leaving Hessenpark, Mr. Oppenheim and his family drove to Nentershausen, where he visited the cemetery where his grandmother was buried.
“The first gravestone in the cemetery was my grandmother’s,” he told The Jewish Times.
“He went to Nentershausen and found a newer generation there who remembered and taught about the evils done in the past,” his son said.
Baltimore writer Donna Beth Joy Shapiro described her uncle as being "gentle, soft-spoken, and always wore a smile."
His wife died in 2014.
Services for Mr. Oppenheim were private with interment in the United Hebrew Cemetery.
In addition to his son, Mr. Oppenheim is survived by another son, Carl J. Oppenheim of Owings Mills; a daughter, Iris B. Ingber of Owings Mills; six grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.