Date March 28, 2023
Media Contact

Do not let it happen here, Holocaust survivor and Brown retiree urges community

In a moving keynote address during Brown’s Global Day of Inclusion, Holocaust survivor and author Ruth Oppenheim called on University community members to stand in the way of injustice.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a child in a small German town in the 1930s, Ruth Oppenheim witnessed her family’s rights and humanity diminish as Nazi influence grew — the Jewish family was banned from public events, expelled from school, and her father was dragged from their house and beaten for refusing to destroy the Torah at their synagogue.

Now 95, Oppenheim said she is devoted to telling her story for as long as she possibly can.

“I hope what you hear from me will make you more aware that discrimination pulls all of us down, and it isn’t what our democracy should be like,” Oppenheim told an audience of hundreds at Brown University on Tuesday, March 28. “So I have a mission, I guess, to be able to tell my story as long as I have some energy left to do it.”

Oppenheim delivered the keynote at Brown’s second annual Global Day of Inclusion, presented by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity. Attendees gathered in the Salomon Center for Teaching and joined virtually on Zoom to bear witness to Oppenheim’s harrowing personal account of the Holocaust.

President Christina H. Paxson called on members of the University community to listen deeply to Oppenheim’s message and commit themselves to advancing inclusion.

“I believe very firmly that universities are at their very best when they welcome people from a wide range backgrounds, life experiences and points of view — especially people who have been historically marginalized for a variety of reasons — and bring them together so that they can work together, live together and learn from each other in a community where they’re supported and respected for who they are,” Paxson said. “That’s what generates knowledge. That’s what creates great educational experiences. That’s what supports our mission.”

Oppenheim, who published a memoir in 2016 titled “Beyond Survival: The Story of my Life,” delved into her memories of life in Nazi Germany in vivid detail. She recalled how Jewish people were banned from movies, concerts, swimming pools and skating rinks. Then her classmates weren’t allowed to talk to her. The atrocities continued to escalate.

She remembered Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, in November 1938, when a mob stormed her family’s home: “They were shouting ‘out with the Jews,’” Oppenheim said. “I heard my father pleading, ‘I will come with you, just spare my family.’”

She shared the story of her family’s escape to the United States — first her oldest sister, followed by her father, and ultimately her mother, her, and her two remaining siblings. She mourned relatives who could not escape or survive, including her 5-year-old cousin, whom she loved like a little brother and who was killed in a gas chamber. The tragic loss of family members “remains a wound that never heals.”

“I shall never forget the heart-wrenching goodbye of my mother and her sister,” she said. “I was relieved to leave Germany but deeply sad to say goodbye, knowing it might mean forever.”

She spoke about the inspiration she continues to draw from her parents’ bravery, resiliency and determination in the face of danger and hopelessness. Her father safely shepherded the Torah he had rescued and brought it to the United States, where he donated it to a synagogue in New York City’s Washington Heights, where Oppenheim’s brother read from it on his bar mitzvah, as did members of the next generation of their family.

“ I’m deeply concerned about the resurgence of antisemitism. If only we could reach acceptance of each other’s differences. Tolerance is not enough unless tolerance is used in the sense of, ‘I have no tolerance for discrimination, bigotry and hatred.’ I count on you to remember long after I am gone: Do not let it happen here. ”

Ruth Oppenheim Holocaust survivor and author

“The impact of living in fear, desperation and hopelessness has been profound,” Oppenheim said. “Yet I’m proud to have led a productive life, to have had a good marriage, two amazing children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.”

Day of inclusion provides opportunity to embrace “living history”

The keynote address marked a Brown homecoming for Oppenheim, who worked at the University for 21 years, joining Brown when her children had gone off to college and she and her husband relocated from Boston to Rhode Island for his job. She served for 15 years as the office manager for Brown’s English department, followed by six years as the manager of the dean of the College’s office.

“Sometimes in life you are gifted with the chance to meet living history,” said Sylvia Carey-Butler, vice president for institutional equity and diversity.  “Such was the case when I had the awesome opportunity to meet Ruth.”

During a Q&A following the lecture, facilitated by Carey-Butler, Oppenheim shared her fondness for Brown and regaled the audience with some of her recollections, including the puzzled responses she received when she answered the English department phone line with her German accent, prompting callers to wonder if they had dialed incorrectly. “I learned to say, ‘What better place to learn English?’”

“Working in the University and being surrounded by knowledge, and eventually [attending] courses that they gave at night, it filled my need to fill the gap of an interrupted education,” Oppenheim said. “I enjoyed going to work. I enjoyed walking around the campus. It was a wonderful time for me… I look back on that time as a very gratifying time.”

Following Oppenheim’s keynote address, Global Day of Inclusion featured an afternoon filled with workshops and sessions for Brown staff that covered a wide range of topics, such as creating inclusive leadership development, supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion, fostering empathy in the workplace, reframing the conversation around disability as diversity, and considering terminology and engagement with Indigenous people in the Brown community and beyond.

Oppenheim framed the day powerfully, bringing to life the dangers of exclusion and discrimination that nearly destroyed the lives of her siblings and parents — and shining a light on so many others whose lives were lost.

“Lately I feel so saddened to see what’s happening,” Oppenheim said. “I’m deeply concerned about the resurgence of antisemitism. If only we could reach acceptance of each other’s differences. Tolerance is not enough unless tolerance is used in the sense of, ‘I have no tolerance for discrimination, bigotry and hatred.’ I count on you to remember long after I am gone: Do not let it happen here.”