At the age of 90, Ruth Oppenheim remains an elegant woman. Though one can detect traces of a German accent in her voice, her spoken English is both graceful and flawless. Her mastery of the written word is evident in her published work – her article on Kristallnacht in the April 1985 issue of Moment magazine has received much deserved praise.
I brought my young family to Barrington in the summer of 1974 to begin my career as rabbi at Temple Habonim. Ruth and her husband Walter – who was later to serve a two-year term as president of our growing synagogue – were among the first couples to greet us.
To this very day, my wife, Sandy, and I cherish our friendship with Ruth. As her rabbi, I have also had the opportunity to meet her grown children, Claudia and Jeff, on several occasions, and I had the privilege of officiating at the June 1982 wedding of Jeffrey to Valerie Shor.
During the 44 years that I have known Ruth, she has told me much about her childhood in Germany, her difficult adjustment to life in the States as a refugee from the murderous Nazi regime, and the gradual process – and project – of her Americanization. Nevertheless, it was not until I read and reread her 2016 memoir, “Beyond Survival: The Story of my Life,” that I have been able to piece together her shared memories into a coherent picture.
Ruth tells her readers that her “intention in writing the memoir has been to record people and events in my life for the edification of the current and future generations of my family.” What she is too modest to say is that her memoir also serves to edify all those who seek insight into the tragedies and triumphs embodied in the immigrant experience; her personal story sheds light upon the lives of millions of others who have come to America’s shores.
Ruth was born on Nov. 28, 1927, the third daughter of Albert Heimann and Rosa Fromm. She grew up in Werne, a town in northwestern Germany that had only 10 Jewish families. Her memories of her childhood are darkened by the harsh realities of Nazi rule:
“The fervor of the Nazi movement reached Werne during my first year in the Hochschule [school]. A decree was passed that Jewish students could not participate in any way other than attending class. We had to sit in the back of the classroom. No one was allowed to speak to us or associate with us, even during recess. I remember my embarrassment as I stood alone in the playground while former friends chatted and giggled …. I would try to be invisible behind a tall tree.”
After the terror and trauma of Kristallnacht, on Nov. 9, 1938, Jews were no longer permitted to attend public schools. Ruth had no alternative but to study at the nearest Jewish school, 12.5 miles away in Dortmund.
Though not all that far from Werne, the school was difficult to reach by public transportation in time for the earliest class. Nevertheless, Ruth managed to make new friends there who filled the void left by “the local playmates” who were forbidden to associate with her.
In May 1939, Ruth’s oldest sister, Julia, then 15, left for America. In August, their father Albert followed, intending to bring his wife, Rosa; Ruth’s older sister, Hannelore; younger brother, Herbert; and Ruth herself as soon as possible.
After much drama – hopes raised, hopes crushed, hopes raised again – on Jan. 24, 1940, the four of them set sail on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, to New York City.
The six Heimanns were reunited in their crowded two-bedroom apartment at 248 Audubon Ave. in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Like almost every other immigrant family, they struggled with learning a new language, earning enough to make ends meet, adapting to a different culture.
With an eye for detail and remarkable recall, Ruth documents those early years as a stranger in a strange land: “Most of the time I felt like an outsider, self-conscious of my German clothes and my different ways. I remember the first American dress I bought at Klein’s discount store in downtown New York. It was light blue with a white sailor collar, trimmed with matching light blue piping. I liked myself in my American dress.”
With the passage of time, Ruth felt herself becoming an American. On June 21, 1947, she married Walter Oppenheim, who eventually prospered in the jewelry business. Though the 1960s were a turbulent time for America, Ruth tells us that their children, Claudia and Jeff, “spared us teenage revolts. They were protective of their Holocaust-surviving parents.”
In August 1968, Ruth and Walter took their children to Germany. As the family neared Werne in their rental car, Ruth was flooded with disturbing memories of the town she had not seen for 28 years.
Later, sitting with her husband and children in the dining room of the only hotel in Werne, she reflected: “The few assembled townspeople greeted us with silent stares …. Throughout an uncomfortable silence prevailed, and I found it difficult to swallow my food. We left as soon as we could, strangers among xenophobes.”
Ruth returned to Werne in 1980, 1983 and 2007. While still not comfortable in that environment, these subsequent visits were not nearly so painful.
The title of Ruth’s memoir, “Beyond Survival,” expresses the richness of her life in America: marriage, children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, a 21-year career at Brown University as a beloved and respected office manager (15 years with the English department, six years as manager of the Dean of the College office).
Though Ruth is a survivor of the horrors of Nazi Germany, she does not define herself as one; rather, she sees herself as a woman who has created a life that has extended far beyond the act of surviving.
It is precisely because Ruth Oppenheim has demonstrated the strength, the courage, the determination to live “beyond survival” that so many of us consider her an inspiration.
Those who want to contact Ruth Oppenheim can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.
Contact him at email@example.com.