Mildenhall students learn about Holocaust from Rudi
A survivor of the Holocaust told his story to pupils at Mildenhall College Academy last week - and for one of the school’s staff it held personal significance.
Rudi Oppenheimer, who is in his eighties, spoke to Year 8 students at the academy about his experience of being in Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp, northern Germany, during World War Two .
For Ken Buckfield, a technician at the school, the visit was especially poignant.
Mr Buckfield said: “My dad was one of the soldiers in the British Army who liberated the Belsen camp in 1945.
“I had lunch and chatted with Rudi. To talk to someone that was in that camp was quite emotional.”
The talk started with the 200 students learning about Mr Oppenheimer’s early years.
He was born in Berlin in 1931 and lived with his parents and his older brother, Paul.
Mr Oppenheimer said: “Though Hitler was not in power yet, the Nazis were around. I never realised what was going on, as I was too young.
“As far as I knew it was okay in Germany, I considered myself a German then and I was proud of it.”
But as tensions in Germany grew, both boys were taken by their mother to England, where Rudi’s uncle lived, while their father waited in Germany, hoping to be transferred from his bank job there to offices in Amsterdam.
He said: “My father thought if he got a job there we would be safe, as the Netherlands were neutral in the First World War.
“If war broke out, he thought they would do that again – but unfortunately it turned out differently.”
His sister Eve was born in England in 1936 and was given a British birth certificate, which, Mr Oppenheimer said, would later save his and his brother’s lives.
The family moved to the Netherlands, but on May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded the country.
Mr Oppenheimer said: “After that day it all changed for the worse.”
Laws were passed, including banning Jews from some public places, and from April, 1942, Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars on each item of clothing.
At the age of 11, young Rudi and his family were transported to a transit camp in Westerbork, Holland, and spent the next seven months there.
On January 31, 1944, the family was taken by train to Bergen Belsen.
“In my innocence I thought Bergen-Belsen would be a good camp, but when we got there I realised I had made a big mistake,” he said.
“As soon as we got there we were shouted at by soldiers with barking dogs.”
Young Rudi managed to get a job handing out food in the camp. Making the most of the parsnip soup he served at lunchtimes helped keep him and his brother alive.
He said: “Parsnips floated to the top and a few bits of potato and peel would sink to the the bottom of the urn, so I would stir and serve the soup but not touch the bottom.
“When it was getting empty I would put my hand in secretly, get the potato out and share it with my brother. I am not proud of what I did, but we were so hungry.”
With the Russians advancing into Germany in 1944, prisoners from Auschwitz, including Anne and Margot Frank, were brought to Belsen, where the pair later died.
Mr Oppenheimer said 600 people were dying from disease each day in the overcrowded camp, and in 1945 both his parents became ill.
He said: “My mother was ill, we visited her daily, then one day there was a stranger in her bed and they said she had died.
“My father then got ill. We visited him daily then one day we saw another stranger in his bed and we were told he had also died. We never got the chance to say goodbye to either of them.”
The three now-orphaned children were put on the last train out of Belsen, and were later liberated from the train by the Russians on April 23, 1945.
Due to Eve’s British papers she was sent straight back to London with their uncle and in November, 1945, Paul and Rudi were sent there, too.
After his talk, selected students were given the chance to ask questions. One was: “What is your biggest everyday reminder of the past?”
Mr Oppenheimer said: “I get reminded every time I give these talks but most of the time I forget about it.
“I feel very lucky, firstly that I survived and secondly that because of my story I got to meet people like the Queen, just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Nicola Powling, faculty leader for humanities at the school, said she felt the talk gave the students a unique understanding of World War Two.
She said: “This personal experience just unlocks that part of history for them and brings their learning to life.
“It is something that in 10 or 20 years time they will be telling their children and later on their grandchildren.”