From Germany to Shanghai, how Rudolf Oppenheim found his way to St. Louis


St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, Special To The Jewish Light

Today, we tell the remarkable story of Rudolf Oppenheim a St. Louisan whose family in 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and his father’s release from a concentration camp, fled Germany. Because there were few countries that permitted Jews to emigrate during this period, Rudolf and his family relocated to Shanghai for nearly two years.

Rudolf Oppenheim

Rudolf Oppenheim was born Nov.5, 1928 in Elmshorn, Germany.  He was the son of Otto and Gertrud Oppenheim. His Oppenheim’s parents were from a prosperous family who had lived in Germany since the middle of the 17th century.

Oppenheim described his parents as “well-assimilated into the German culture and the good life.”  His father was an industrial chemist in the leather degreasing industry.  His parents had started the first kosher margarine factory in Europe.  Their life was generally good until the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Listen to Tape 1 / Side 1 of Rudolf’s Oral History

Fleeing Germany

Oppenheim and his family fled Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938.  During the Kristallnacht pogrom, all Jewish males over the age of 16 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  Mr. Oppenheim’s father was sent to a camp near Berlin.  He was among a group of prisoners who were released after promising to leave the country within three months. His mother applied for a visa to the United States but was told there would be a two-year waiting period. Deciding there was no time to waste, Mrs. Oppenheim booked a passage on an Italian liner for Shanghai, China, which was the only free-entry port.  Rudy Oppenheim’s brother Walter had been sent to Australia with the Kindertransport a few weeks before Kristallnacht.

The family was able to move to the United States after two years in Shanghai.  They settled in Granite City, Ill., where their son Rudy became a bar mitzvah under the tutelage of Rabbi Sholom Epstein, brother of the late Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Shaare Zedek.  Three years later, they moved to St. Louis, where Rudy attended Blewett High School (later Soldan-Blewett).  Upon graduation, Oppenheim attended Harris State Teachers College and Washington University for two years of graduate work.

At Washington University, he met his future wife, Frances Bixhorn, whom he married on Jan. 15, 1956, at the Kingsway Hotel on West Belle and Kingshighway. They had four children.

Oppenheim worked as a brewing chemist for the Falstaff Brewing Corp. for 20 years.  When the company left St. Louis, he worked as a water treatment chemist for boiler and water and cooling tower technology and formulation of janitorial compounds for the next 15 years. After that, he spent four years as director of technical services for the Lighthouse for the Blind, formulating cleaning compounds for the government.

In addition to serving as a long-term docent at the Holocaust Museum, his other activities included 26 years of teaching bar and bat mitzvah students at B’nai El Congregation.  He was the only Hebrew teacher in St. Louis who had a Gottlieb Pin Ball machine, and often challenged his students to games on the vintage device.  In his 47 years as a member of Shaare Zedek, he served three terms as vice president of the shul, and was a 40-year board member and past president of the Men’s Club.  He warmly greeted and welcomed new members through the years.