“The commander said, ‘There is one person extra. Who IS that person? Come forward!”’ Oppenheimer recalls, her high-pitched voice imitating his stern tone. “My face was hot. It was on fire. I thought if anybody sees me, they’ll know I am the one who isn’t supposed to be there.” An elderly woman was pulled from the line and dispatched to her death.
“She was killed because of me, because I wanted to be free,” Oppenheimer says, her eyes clouding with tears. “And I feel guilty about that until this living day.”
Oppenheimer eventually became a nurse but couldn’t bear to work with children. “Here you have happy, lovely kids,” she explains. “All I saw were kids being pulled from their mothers and killed. Those are the pictures that I still have in front of me.”
The past never totally disappears. One night at dinner someone asked if everyone had received plum cake. Oppenheimer pointed to two tablemates. Suddenly she was reminded of a Nazi commander dubbed “the death finger” because he’d point, then declare with a “you, you, you,” those to be exterminated. She trembles just thinking about it.
Oppenheimer now lives in a cozy, sun-lit apartment filled with four generations of family photos. She and her husband — an Auschwitz survivor — had decided long ago they’d eventually move to Selfhelp but he died before there was a need. Oppenheimer has found comfort there. “I’m happy to know that there are people here who went through the same thing,” she says.
Even when it’s unspoken, the past is the emotional glue for these survivors.
“I think it has been very important for them to live as a group, even though they don’t talk about it,” says Ethan Bensinger, who made a 2012 documentary, “Refuge,” about the place his 101-year-old mother, Rachel, calls home. “Whether it’s subliminally or unconsciously ... there’s a feeling of togetherness.”