Holocaust educators have paid tribute to Bergen-Belsen survivor Rudi Oppenheimer for “playing a key role” in bearing witness to the past, including to The Queen, after his death was announced on Tuesday.
Berlin-born Oppenheimer was nine years old and living in the Netherlands in 1940 when the Nazis invaded. In 1943 his family was rounded up and sent to the Westerbork transit camp, where they remained until 1944.
Because his sister had been born in the UK, his family were classed as “exchange” Jews, to be exchanged for Germans interned by the Allies. This meant they were exempt from measures taken against other Jews.
In February 1944 they were deported to Bergen-Belsen where their status gave them a separate compound. They didn’t have to wear the striped uniforms or have their hair shaved and were able to keep their luggage.
That winter conditions deteriorated dramatically, however. Thousands of new arrivals led to overcrowding, starvation and disease. In January 1945, Rudi’s mother fell ill and died. His father died in March. In April, Rudi and his brother left on the last train.
After two weeks travelling they recognised soldiers from the Red Army and realised that they had been liberated. They managed to get to Leipzig, where they were reunited with their sister, who had been on the same train but in a different section. The trio then came to London to stay with an uncle.
In later life Rudi dedicated much of his time to Holocaust education, and met The Queen at the camp during her visit in 2015. He also spoke to thousands of schoolchildren at the same time during an innovative online session.
“It was our first time trying a live webcast and the obvious person to do it was Rudi,” tweeted Alex Maws, now head of educational grants at the Association of Jewish Refugees and UK delegate at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
“Hundreds of schools signed up to participate and I was so nervous about whether it would actually work, but then as Rudi spoke it was clear that he had captivated the virtual audience.”
Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock said he “dedicated the latter part of his life to ensuring that young people understood the trauma of his childhood under Nazi-occupied Europe”.
She added that he spoke to “an extraordinary number of schools… When Rudi gave his testimony, it felt like he was still the child he was then. It was heart wrenching”.