‘Everybody is equal. Nobody should have to be afraid’

As Amnesty International reports that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for refugees and migrants – and extremist groups in the UK attempt to exploit the appalling events in Woolwich – it seems timely to remind ourselves that the rights of people fleeing conflict and persecution deserve to be protected – and need to be defended. This is an interview I did with Holocaust survivor Paul Oppenheimer a few years before his death from cancer in 2007, aged 78.

Paul Oppenheimer was four years old, about to start school in Berlin, when Hitler came to power in 1933. In 1936, like many other Jewish refugees, he fled Germany, moving, with his mother and younger brother, to London. They later rejoined their father in Holland, where Anne Frank’s family were to be near-neighbours. In May 1940, the Germans invaded, and Paul and his family were sent, first, to a transit camp, and, then, to the extermination camp Bergen-Belsen, where both his parents died. Forty years passed before he was ready to tell his story and to lend his energies to supporting the work of the Beth Shalom Holocaust education centre.

In the 40 years that followed his liberation from Belsen, Paul Oppenheimer kept his experiences to himself. But meeting other survivors of the Nazi concentration camp where both his parents died prompted him to tell his story. After 10 years of educational work, he is convinced that it is only by learning the lessons of the Holocaust that we can hope to prevent it happening again.

He was born in Berlin in 1928, to middle-class parents, Hans and Rita. ‘My parents were Germans and I was also German,’ Paul says, ‘my parents were Jewish, and I was also Jewish. All the troubles that we encountered subsequently with the Nazis were entirely due to the fact that we were Jewish. If we had not been Jewish, we would have had a very different life.’

Paul and his family were what were called ‘assimilated Jews’, non-observant Jews who took no part in Jewish religious life. Once the Nazis had achieved power, life became gradually more difficult for them and for all other Jewish people in Germany: ‘Most wanted to get out. The biggest problem was to find another country that would take in these “refugees” from Germany – nowadays they would be called “asylum seekers”.

‘We were fortunate. We had an uncle and aunt who lived in London. They offered to take us in. So, in March 1936, when I was seven-years-old, we left Germany and we came to England. My father stayed behind in Berlin. We’ve never been able to find out why he didn’t come with us.’

While in London, Paul’s sister Eve was born, and her British citizenship turned out to be of the utmost importance to his story, almost certainly saving her life and the lives of Paul and younger brother Rudi. In September 1936, Paul’s father left Germany, to work at the Amsterdam branch of Mendelssohn’s Bank. Once established, he wrote to his family in London suggesting they join him.

‘We went to live in Holland. Those were the best days of my youth. But, on 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded. Once they had taken over, they started to persecute the Jews in Holland as they had in Germany. We were segregated into citizens and subjects, we had to go to a Jewish school, we had to wear the yellow star, we were not allowed on the tram or the bus, we had a curfew in the evening, we had to live in Amsterdam, we had to hand in our bicycles, our money, our stocks and shares. It just got worse and worse. Once all the Jews in Holland lived in Amsterdam, they started the deportations, to what turned out to be Poland.’

In June 1943, Paul and his family were deported to a Dutch transit camp, called Westerbork, from which weekly transports to the extermination camps Auschwitz and Sobibor departed. Of 100,000 deportees, less than 1,000 survived. ‘We remained at Westerbork for a long time and the reason was our sister Eve, because she was British. The Germans had a plan whereby they wanted to do an exchange. They knew there were Germans living in England during the war and wanted to get these Germans from England back to Germany to help with the war effort. In return they offered the British Government British nationals and their immediate relatives. We became know as “exchange Jews”.’

Because of Eve’s British citizenship, Paul and his family remained at Westerbork much longer than was usual and when, finally, they were transported to Bergen-Belsen, it was not by cattle truck but by passenger train. They lived in Belsen as ‘privileged prisoners’, not required to wear the black and white striped uniforms the other prisoners wore. Instead, they wore civilian clothes with a yellow star, though they slept in barracks like the others, and ate the same rations. Their part of the camp became known as the ‘Star Camp’.

Given only a cup of ersatz coffee, a bowl of turnip soup and a piece of bread a day, starving and exhausted prisoners succumbed to illness. Dysentery, pneumonia, TB and, worst of all, typhus were rife. In January 1945, Paul’s mother fell ill and, without doctors, nurses or extra food, died shortly after. She was 42 years old. Two months later, his father, 43, died from typhus, just one month short of liberation. At the time, 600 people were dying in Belsen every day, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Paul, Rudi and Eve spent more than six months in the camp, emerging from it as ‘starving, exhausted skeletons’.

After liberation, Paul and Rudi returned to Holland with Eve who, as a British citizen, was able to return to London with her uncle. Paul and Rudi spent six months in an orphanage before receiving their visas to come to England.

During the next 40 years, Paul made a new life in England, but spoke little of his experiences, even to his three children. Putting his experiences to the back of his mind, he forged his new life. ‘Nobody ever asked us about it, nobody seemed to be interested in it, we didn’t particularly want to talk about it, so we forgot about it. But, for a variety of reasons, in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve come back to remember the story.’

The catalyst was the award of an MBE, for his work on road safety for the motor industry. ‘All these reporters from the Solihull News and the Solihull Times came to the house. They wanted to know where I had been during the war. When I told them that I had been at Belsen, they forgot about the MBE. One of the photographers told me that there would be a reunion in Belsen that year. He asked me whether I would like to attend and, after speaking with my family, we decided to go.’

Meeting with other survivors of Belsen brought a lot of old memories back to the surface, and, when he returned to England, Paul took the opportunity of becoming involved in educational work, talking to schools and adult groups and working with the Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre. Unlike most survivors working in education, he does much of his work with adult groups. ‘Other survivors do schools, because there are organisations to set that up. I’m not aware that any of them do adult groups, but this is something I have done right from the beginning. A rotary club first asked me to give a talk, now, whenever I speak, two more people ask me to give another talk.’

Many of those attending the talks are older people, with their own stories: ‘People don’t talk about what happened to them. A lot of people have very interesting stories, people who lived through the Blitz, who were evacuated, all sorts of things happened to them. But they don’t talk about it.’

‘The message is that we should never let this happen again,’ Paul says, ‘I finish off by telling the students why we go around telling this story. It’s because people haven’t learned anything from our experiences. And the same sorts of things are happening again, or have been happening all the time, in Cambodia, Rwanda, in Bosnia and Kosovo, in East Timor, where people are being hunted down just because there is something different about them, their religion, the colour of their skin.

‘We want people to learn that everyone should be equal, that nobody should have to be afraid. I end [my talks] with the quote: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” I say that I hope you will learn the lessons of history so that you and your children will not have to repeat our experiences.’

This interview was first published in Adults LearningFor more information about Beth Shalom and its educational work visit www.bethshalom.com. The centre publishes Paul Oppenheimer’s book, From Belsen to Buckingham Palace.