Holocaust survivor Rudi Oppenheimer delivers 1000th speech

By James Martin, May 21, 2009
Rudi Oppenheimer with pupils of St John's School in Leatherhead

Rudi Oppenheimer with pupils of St John's School in Leatherhead

Holocaust survivor Rudi Oppenheimer reached an educational landmark on Monday when he delivered his 1,000th account of his life.

Addressing pupils at St John’s School in Leatherhead, Surrey, the 77-year-old recounted that his middle-class Berlin family had fled to Holland in 1936 as the Nazis stepped up their antisemitic policies.

“We lived by the sea in Heemstede and lived a happy life as secular Jews. That changed when the Germans occupied Holland and Jews were persecuted, including being banned from public schools and not being allowed into public places.”

In 1943, the five family members were sent to Westerbork transit camp, where their status as “Exchange Jews” — due to sister Eve having being born in London — meant they could be swapped for Germans held captive in Britain. Mr Oppenheimer believes this spared his family from “almost certain death in Auschwitz or Sobibor”.

Instead they were sent to Bergen-Belsen for 15 months, which his siblings also survived. However, his parents died “near the end of the war”.

He recalled that “as we entered the second winter, illness started to spread and by the time the camp was liberated in April 1945, around 600 people a day were dying through malnutrition and a typhus epidemic”.
After the war, he came to England to live with his aunt and uncle in Dollis Hill and went on to forge a successful career as an engineer with Shell.

He began speaking about his experiences in 1997 after being approached by the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. He aims to give “at least 100 talks a year while I still can.

“The word was that there couldn’t be another Holocaust. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt compelled to tell people that genocides are still happening. When people talk about refugees arriving in Britain today, I remind them that I was one too.

“These boys [at St John’s] had interesting questions to ask.”
School head of history Neil Whitmore said Mr Oppenheimer was a regular visitor.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for our pupils to have direct contact with someone who was personally involved in perhaps the greatest calamity in history.”

Last updated: 2:22pm, May 21 2009