My father, Karl, was born on November 17, 1881, in Oberlangenstadt, Germany. The Boehm family had been in the textile business in this village in northeastern Bavaria for many generations. Karl and his brother, Alfred, jointly took over the business from their father. After Karl and Alfred separated as business partners, my father moved to Hof, a town nearby, where he ran his own retail textile business. My mother, Bertha “Bertel” Oppenheimer, was born on April 6, 1888 in Guntersblum, Germany, near Worms. Her father was employed by the state of Hesse as a professional wine taster. Her mother enhanced the family income by keeping a small store.
My parents married in 1912. Their first child, Werner, was born in 1913 (I, Eric, was born in 1918). In the First World War, my father became a soldier, serving for four years. My mother recalled that the traumas of experiencing trench warfare, and being wounded twice in battle, changed him forever. My mother and father lived a typical middle-class Jewish life. During the interwar period, Hof was home to fewer than sixty Jewish families, but the Jewish middle class was vital to the life of the city. Karl continued to build his textile business while Bertel assisted in the office.
Persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany escalated from 1933 on, but my parents did not emigrate immediately. My father wanted to stay with his business, which he spent most of his life building up. The big shock for my parents was Kristallnacht. That night, when almost every male Jew was thrown into a concentration camp, the police chief of Hof did my father a great service by keeping him in the local prison instead; he was afforded some protection because he was well-established in the community and had been a decorated soldier. He was released from prison two weeks later. My parents understood the Kristallnacht pogroms as an ominous warning. The rush to apply for visas to emigrate to the U.S. was so substantial that their later application delayed their emigration. In 1940, towards the end of their waiting period, my parents were expelled from Hof and assigned to sequestered “Jewish buildings” in Berlin, probably in anticipation of deportation.
Sometime in 1941, my father and another prisoner were shackled together, to be sent to the Dachau concentration camp. In the vicinity of Nuremberg, the train they were on was suddenly rerouted back to Berlin and my father was sent back to the “ghetto”. He made a vow then, that if Bertel and he survived, he would turn to Judaism in a more committed way – a promise which he kept. I know few of the details of their experiences in Nazi Germany; my parents rarely talked about this period in their lives. I didn’t see the full implications of what they had been through until many years later.
My parents received their visas to the U.S. in 1941. On their departure, at the Stuttgart airport, my parents’ fate hung on the balance of a scale. Had they weighed over a certain amount, only my father could have left; fortunately, after my mother went on the scale, they were both permitted to go on the flight to Madrid. My parents arrived in New York on June 5, 1941 on an American ship. They then lived with my brother, Werner, who was a social worker. Life in America was a big adjustment for them. My mother worked in a relative’s jewelry store. My father went from being the owner of his own business in Germany to being a shipping clerk. He eventually became an entrepreneur, importing and distributing hand-stitched handkerchiefs and doilies. He also invented an innovative bookkeeping system. For most of the years after the war, he was a legal consultant, assisting with the restitution of Jewish property stolen by the Nazis. When I was stationed in Munich, working for the U.S. government, my father took time to collect old debts from his textile business. Before the war, he often allowed customers to buy goods on a long-term installment plan. Based on the records I had recovered from his former secretary, Karl collected a substantial amount of money after the war from customers who had refused to pay their debts during the Nazi period. Father gained tremendous satisfaction from having accumulated enough savings by 1968, from his restitution work in postwar Germany, to pay cash for a home in Santa Barbara. My parents’ time spent in Santa Barbara, with children Eric and Inge and grandchildren Ron and Steve, was a positive highlight at the end of their lives.
Karl and Bertel reached a ripe old age; they died in 1974, within months of each other.