A LIFE RELIVED
by Walter Oppenheimer
with Joshua M. Sklare
Walter Oppenheimer titled his book A Life Relived because he needed to recreate the events and examine the themes that comprised the body and soul of his life, searching for memories embedded in the recesses of a past that began over eighty-five years ago and 5,300 miles removed from his present life in Seattle. The events recall times that were often happy, sometimes sad, and occasionally tragic.
There were subtle signs that things were changing in the early thirties around the time that Hitler was coming to power. As I mentioned earlier, I played and associated with Jews and non-Jews alike. I never knew that I was different, but then when I was about ten years old, I was playing at the home of a friend, when a man, apparently a friend of the family’s, walked in wearing a Nazi uniform. I was shooed out of the room and then told, politely but firmly, that I would have to go home. After that, several times when I was at the homes of different friends I was told to leave. Eventually I could no longer visit and play with any non-Jewish friends. It had simply become too risky for families to let it be known that their son had a Jewish friend. So I was always on the lookout for uniforms. When I saw them, whether they were those of the SA, Nazi storm troopers, or the SS, Hitler’s personal guard, I knew I had to beware. As Hitler assumed power in 1933, the Hitler Youth became so popular that the vast majority of boys from ten years and up became members and proudly wore their uniforms on the street and sometimes to school. In fact, as membership in the movement became mandatory from 1936 onwards, to be seen without a uniform often identified you as a Jew. Most of us were so well integrated into German life that there was no other way to tell us apart from the Gentile population. For we, of course, were not allowed to join the Hitler Youth.
Imagine the feeling when people who had been your friends became afraid to associate with you. That was what happened to me in 1934, as an eleven year old, when one of my closest friends told me that he could no longer see me. He had been my best friend in school; many years after the war ended, I discovered that he had become a success in the toy doll business. I read about Winfred Wenske in one of the German newspapers that caters to senior citizens and eventually got in touch with him. We phoned each other several times and met when I came back to Germany. He had been in the German Navy during the war, serving in the U-Boats, a very dangerous assignment. He managed to survive despite the very successful Allied targeting of U-Boats during the last years of the war. At the end of the war, when many German units had either been captured or surrendered, his U-Boat crew returned to their base and were told by their commander to simply go home. He was anxious to forget this chapter in his life. My friend had married a lovely woman and both warmly received me when I came to visit them. As I thought about the way German history and our personal histories had crossed, I remembered our innocent schoolboy days, days of laughing and playing games. I also remembered the times after 1933, when friendships were torn asunder and people became careful about whom they spoke to and who spoke to them and who was watching them while all this was going on. I remembered when I changed from being like every other kid in the school to being simply “a Jew.” I also remembered why this particular fellow, Winfred, even though we were only children at the time, had become such a close friend. He was an extremely nice guy. And as I have been known to say about the German people of that period, “There were fine and decent Germans all around, just not enough of them.”