Oppenheim: My Father's Crossing

Aug 24, 2016

My father passed away a few years ago, but a few weeks from now, he would have turned 90 years old. And lately I’ve been thinking about how as a child, he fled Nazi Germany.

His name was Henry Oppenheim – originally Hans or Hansie. He lived in Nurnberg, the Bavarian city at the heart of the Nazi movement. In fact, in the mid-1930’s, when my Dad was walking home from school one day, he came upon a crowd of excited people, raising their arms at a man appearing on a balcony. It was Adolf Hitler. A cop barked at my father to raise his hand, which he quickly did.

From 1933 on, life for Jews in Nurnberg, and so many other places, became untenable. My father was taunted by other children and kicked out of public school. My grandparents could not have foreseen the slaughter to come, but they knew that staying in Germany was dangerous – both for themselves and their two sons.

They were lucky. Unlike millions of other European Jews, they knew things were bad early enough to get out. They had relatives in America, who agreed to back them with money the U.S. required so immigrants would not become a burden. America may not have been overly welcoming, but at least there was a way in.

Until they left, however, there was constant threat. Days before the family was to sail for America, officers showed up at the door, demanding everyone’s passports. The documents were taken without explanation, then just before the scheduled departure, returned. The purpose presumably was to incite fear.

That trauma turned my father into a dedicated American citizen. For Henry, it was vital to give back to this country. He became a psychologist known for his compassionate treatment of mentally ill veterans.

US immigration policy is understandably complex, and in broad terms, it’s important to allow people in who will contribute to our society, not harm it.

But my father’s crossing reminds me our approach must be grounded in humanity, whether immigrants are fleeing economic stress in Latin America, or persecution in Syria. My family history, our collective history, is proof immigrants shape our nation and make it stronger.

It’s easy to forget the late 1930’s in the U.S. were very like our current politics. Back then, many Americans were touting deeply isolationist anti-immigrant ideas. Fortunately, those ideas didn’t prevail. If they had, my father wouldn’t have had a chance.