Ella Oppenheim fled Nazi Germany in 1937

September 05, 2004|by MARLO BARNHART

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail will run "A Life Remembered." The story will take a look back - through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others - at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Ella L. Oppenheim, who died Aug. 24 at the age of 95. Her obituary appeared in the Aug. 26 editions of The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail.

It was 1933 in pre-World War II Germany when Ella Sasse and Fritz Oppenheim fell in love and decided to marry. But because Oppenheim was Jewish, the couple had to go to England to get married and when they came back to their homeland, life under the growing Nazi influence became increasingly difficult.

Ella Oppenheim, who helped pioneer the Sister City affiliation between her adopted Hagerstown and Wesel, Germany, died Aug. 24 at the age of 95.


"What they did was against the law then because my grandmother was a non-Jew," said Ella's grandson, Mark Oppenheim, as he recalled the courage of his grandmother.

A year after they were married, the Oppenheims' only son, Michael, was born in Germany. In 1936, Fritz Oppenheim was taken into "protective custody" by the Nazis.

"My mother went to the authorities to have my father released," Michael said in a recent interview at his mother's former apartment at 112 S. Prospect St. in Hagerstown. "She went all the way up to Heinrich Himmler," then chief of the Nazi SS, or police.

Once Fritz was free, the Oppenheims had to leave Germany quickly, forfeiting their business of buying and selling horses to farmers and the Prussian army. When they fled in 1937, their money and belongings were left behind, Michael said. The last few pieces of family jewelry were hidden in 3-year-old Michael's little suitcase.

"The Nazis searched my parents' suitcases, but when I kept swinging my little suitcase toward the officers, they told me to go away," Michael said.

Off first to Holland and then America with their paltry collection of valuables, the Oppenheims were sponsored by Fritz' aunt, who had preceded them to freedom years earlier.

Although free of the Nazi tyranny, life still was quite hard for the Oppenheims as jobs were scarce in New York during the Depression.

"My father was a Fuller Brush salesman for a while in those early days," Michael said.

Ella used her sewing talents to help support the family, working as a designer in New York for such famous stars as Marlene Dietrich and Betty Grable and for wealthy families, Michael said.

Grandson Mark said the couple moved to Hagerstown in the 1940s, where Ella resumed her design career and Fritz became the manager of a home furnishings business. When he died in 1954, Ella stayed in Hagerstown except for a 12-year period when she returned to Germany to be near her only son.

Mark remembered how his grandmother could make people feel special.

"She was a grand lady whose elegance was her major theme," Mark said.

Loyal to and very active in the community, Ella lent her talents to the Zonta Club, the Hagerstown chapter of the American Heart Association, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the USO. She also represented Hagerstown on several roundtables with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower.

In the eulogy at his mother's memorial service, Michael spoke of how her style, grace and wit touched many and will remain unforgettable to all who knew her.

"She always said we should live in a way that when we die, we would have wanted to have lived that way," Michael said.

He concluded the eulogy to his mother by offering the Hebrew toast, L'Chayim, which means "to life."

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