Rudi Oppenheimer BEM

Rudi Oppenheimer

Rudi was born in 1931 in Berlin and lived there with his parents and his older brother Paul until he was four years old.

His father worked at the Mendelssohn Bank in Berlin and managed to obtain a transfer to the Amsterdam branch in 1936. Before the family moved to Heemstede in the Netherlands, however, Rudi lived for six months in Britain with his mother and brother, although his father didn’t join them. It was here that his sister, Eve, was born.

In May 1940 German troops invaded the Netherlands, and by October 1942 Jews in Amsterdam were being rounded up and deported from the city. Rudi and his family, who had lived in Amsterdam since May 1942, managed to avoid deportation for the time being because his father was working for the Jewish Council. This gave them temporary exemption from deportation.

However, in June 1943, Rudi and his family were rounded up and sent to the transit camp Westerbork, situated close to the German border in the north-east of the Netherlands.

Rudi’s father had registered Eve as a British subject with the Swiss embassy in Amsterdam in June 1942, because Eve had been born in the UK. Rudi's family were therefore classified by the Nazis as 'Exchange' Jews which meant that they might be exchanged for Germans interned by the allies and were to be exempt from measures taken against other Jews. This status allowed Rudi and his family to remain in Westerbork until February 1944, when they were deported to Bergen-Belsen in Germany which, at this stage in the war, mainly held various categories of relatively 'privileged' Jews.

As Exchange Jews, Rudi and his family received certain privileges in Bergen-Belsen: they lived in separate compounds from the other prisoners; they didn’t have to wear the striped uniforms that other prisoners were forced to wear, they didn’t have their hair shaved and they were able to keep their luggage. However, conditions in Belsen deteriorated rapidly in 1944 as increasing numbers of Jewish prisoners were brought to the camp from Auschwitz-Birkena and elsewhere. As a result, Rudi and his family suffered increasingly dire living conditions during the winter of 1944-45. With tens of thousands of prisoners now arriving, overcrowding, starvation and disease were rife. In January 1945, Rud's mother fell severely ill and died. His father died just two months later.

On 10th April 1945 Rudi and Paul left on the last train to leave Bergen-Belsen. After travelling for 14 days they awoke on the train to find that the SS guards had gone; the brothers recognised soldiers from the Red Army and realised that they had been liberated. With the help of the Soviets, they managed to get to Leipzig, where they were reunited with Eve - she had been on the same train as them but in a different section. In June 1945, almost exactly two years after their deportation from Amsterdam, they arrived in Maastricht.

The Oppenheimer siblings had an uncle and aunt in London, so they came to Britain after the war. Eve, who had a British passport, arrived in September 1945, followed by Rudi and Paul, who had to wait for their papers, in November.

Rudi is now retired and talks regularly about his wartime experiences in schools and universities all over the country. His testimony can also be found in the following books:

  • From Belsen to Buckingham Palace by Paul Oppenheimer;
  • Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, published by the Holocaust Centre; 
  • Zachor: Child Survivors Speak, edited by Stephen Smith.