Rudolf Oppenheim, 85; Holocaust survivor, longtime HMLC docent

Rudolf Oppenheim 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rudolf Oppenheim, a Holocaust survivor and longtime docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, died July 24, 2014.  He was 85, and a longtime resident of University City who had been battling pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Oppenheim, a familiar figure at the Holocaust Museum for many years, was also active at Congregation Shaare Zedek (now Kol Rinah).

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. Oppenheim’s 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, Mr. Oppenheim attended Harris State Teachers College and Washington University for two years of graduate work.

At Washington University, Mr. Oppenheim 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.

Mr. 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.

At the Holocaust Museum, he often spoke to students about his years during the Holocaust.  He was president of OACAP, the Older Adult Community Action Program for three years and later vice president.  For 40 years he was president of the Chevra Kadisha Ohave Shalom Burial Society that served the German Jewish survivor community of St. Louis.  Its cemetery, Ohave Shalom at 7400 Olive Street, is perhaps the smallest organized Jewish cemetery west of the Mississippi, measuring 88 feet by 91 feet.

Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, remembers Mr. Oppenheim with fondness and respect.  Cavender told the Jewish Light, “When you think of someone who has a twinkle in their eyes, that is my memory of Rudy Oppenheim.  He was always full of mirth, a little mischief and he always had a joke to tell you.  When you asked him how he was doing, his response was, ‘Much better now that I’ve seen you.’ He was a man who really enjoyed life…We will miss him dearly.” 

Funeral services were held Friday at Kol Rinah, 829 North Hanley Road, where Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion officiated.   In his eulogy, Smason said, “When was the last time you went to a funeral and heard someone deliver their own eulogy?  We all know that in many ways, Rudy was one-of-a-kind.  And while he didn’t leave behind something that strictly speaking was a eulogy, just a few months before his passing, Rudy composed what we can call a brief autobiography, and sent it to Rabbi Mark Fasman.”

 Smason added, “Rudy was very outgoing. In Fran’s words, ‘Shy—he wasn’t!’  And he had a wonderful sense of humor.  Rudy joked around with Fran’s father and with just about everyone else.  Fran saw great husband and father material, and over the course of 58 years of marriage, Fran and Rudy had a marriage exceptional not only fro its longevity, but its closeness.”

He noted that his children kidded him about being very meticulous, even to mowing the lawn in a white shirt and tie.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three daughters, Judy Beizer (Matt); Marcia Estig (Jerry) and Ellen Cordes (Kevin) and a son, Mark Oppenheim, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Burial was at the Ohave Shalom Cemetery, 7400 Olive Boulevard.

Memorial contributions may be made to the charity of the donor’s choice.