Home for Holocaust survivors sees last generation

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

"The commander said, 'There is one person extra. Who IS that person? Come forward!'" Oppenheimer recalls, her high-pitched voice imitating his stern tone. "My face was hot. It was on fire. I thought if anybody sees me, they'll know I am the one who isn't supposed to be there." An elderly woman was pulled from the line and dispatched to her death.

"She was killed because of me, because I wanted to be free," Oppenheimer says, her eyes clouding with tears. "And I feel guilty about that until this living day."

Oppenheimer eventually became a nurse but couldn't bear to work with children. "Here you have happy, lovely kids," she explains. "All I saw were kids being pulled from their mothers and killed. Those are the pictures that I still have in front of me."

The past never totally disappears. One night at dinner someone asked if everyone had received plum cake. Oppenheimer pointed to two tablemates. Suddenly she was reminded of a Nazi commander dubbed "the death finger" because he'd point, then declare with a "you, you, you," those to be exterminated. She trembles just thinking about it.

Oppenheimer now lives in a cozy, sun-lit apartment filled with four generations of family photos. She and her husband — an Auschwitz survivor — had decided long ago they'd eventually move to Selfhelp but he died before there was a need. Oppenheimer has found comfort there. "I'm happy to know that there are people here who went through the same thing," she says.

Oppenheimer doesn't share her story unless asked, but has written a memoir to record events her three children weren't all that eager to hear. "My kids didn't want us to talk about it," she says. "They'd say, 'You're in a free country now. Enjoy the freedom. Forget the past.'"

She can't.

"What happened yesterday — I can't remember," she says, "but what happened at that time ... it's still with me. I can never forget it."

Even when it's unspoken, the past is the emotional glue for these survivors.

"I think it has been very important for them to live as a group, even though they don't talk about it," says Ethan Bensinger, who made a 2012 documentary, "Refuge," about the place his 101-year-old mother, Rachel, calls home. "Whether it's subliminally or unconsciously ... there's a feeling of togetherness."

Rachel Bensinger's story is not uncommon. She left Germany as Hitler's dictatorial grip tightened. She moved to what was then Palestine, but her life was unalterably shaped by the Holocaust — she lost 25 members of her family.

These traumas have been enormous, but they've not been all-consuming.

"They don't want it to be the focus of who they are, they don't want to be marked," says Hedy Ciocci, the home's administrator. "They want to be defined by who they became and what life they've had."

Many became doctors, lawyers, artists, businessmen, teachers, nurses. With roots in Berlin, Prague and Vienna, many also had developed a love for the arts that the home sustains today with lectures, Sunday concerts and visits from a movie critic.

"It represents this world that they remember, that they had to leave," Bensinger says. He describes it with the German word: gemutlichkeit — comfort or coziness.

The home actually started as an association in the mid-1930s when a branch of a New York organization called Selfhelp formed in Chicago. Selfhelp was more than a name; it was a philosophy for refugees who didn't want to depend on public aid. Instead, they started a support group, collecting meager dues to help each other find jobs or apartments, learn English and navigate daily life.

"The mission was to create a safe oasis where they could start again," says Ciocci, whose husband's grandmother was an early member.

Gerry Franks, one of the home's founders, had come from Berlin. Now 92, he still remembers being 17 years old, watching from his bicycle the hateful frenzy of Kristallnacht as Nazi storm troopers painted small crosses in the corner of windows of Jewish-owned businesses so mobs would know where to attack.

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