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Lore Oppenheimer and Hermann Ziering - Society of the Survivors of the Riga Ghetto (New York)

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5051 | Film ID: 3804, 3805, 3806, 3807, 3808

Lore Oppenheimer and Herman Kempinsky (now Ziering), co-presidents of the Society of the Survivors of the Riga Ghetto, share their experiences during the Holocaust. They address the conflicts between German Jews and Ostjuden, deportation to the Polish border in 1938, propaganda, arrival in Riga and witnessing evidence of murdered Latvian Jews, and life in Riga ghetto. Mr. Ziering conceals his face during the interview which takes place at the 1978 Society conference in New York city. Lanzmann also briefly speaks in German with Friedrich Baer, a WWI veteran frontline soldier, who attended the conference.

FILM ID 3804 -- Camera Rolls NY 70,71
NY 70 Mrs. Oppenheimer tells Lanzmann that she was born in Hannover, Germany, and that her father thought he was safe when the Nazis came because he had served in WWI; also, he was German and didn't want to leave Germany. By some coincidence, the father was not sent to a concentration camp during Kristallnacht, but things soon got worse and he had to give up his business. By the time he got an affidavit to emigrate to the US, it was too late. Also, the parents' efforts to get the children out with the Kindertransport failed. By 1941, like other Jews, the family was crammed into a few "Jewish houses", while many other Jews lived in former schools, even in cemeteries. Suicides were common then - about a dozen every night. She cites the restrictions on Jews before the 1941 deportations - wearing the yellow star, carrying an identification card marked with a "J" and the added name "Sarah" or "Israel", depending on gender, and being banned from sidewalks and most stores; schools had been closed and synagogues burned.

NY 71 Lanzmann talks with Mr. Ziering, whom he calls Mr. Kempinsky, about his recollections. Ziering tells of being born in Kassel, Germany in 1926 to parents who came from Poland after WWI. By 1933, students were already segregated and he had to attend a Jewish school. Coming from Poland of German heritage, he occasionally used a Yiddish word and was taunted by German Jewish teachers and fellow students as Ostjuden; "East Jews" were blamed by German Jews for all the problems facing Jews. Mr. Ziering's father did not feel endangered by the Nazis because his father had served in WWI and was a businessman. Mrs. Oppenheimer confirms what her husband said about East Jews. Mr. Ziering tells about being deported in 1938 before Kristallnacht. The parents were stateless, as they had neither Polish nor German citizenship. With one hour to pack, they and 500 other families were sent on a two-day train to the Schneidemühl camp on the Polish border in Zbaszyin.

FILM ID 3805 -- Camera Rolls NY 72-75
NY 72 Mr. Ziering explains how his family's statelessness came about. Their passports had to be sent to the Polish Consulate in Frankfurt for visa extension, but were never returned. Lanzmann calls this escalating discrimination "a kind of preliminary for the extermination". Mr. Ziering tells of the effect of the daily insults and propaganda on him as a child. He began to believe that there really was something wrong with Jews the way they were portrayed in the media and the antisemitic newspaper The Stürmer. When his family could not get into Poland, they were given the option of paying for the return trip to Kassel; they were on the last transport back to Germany before the border was closed. A month later, the men were rounded up again, taken to the border, chased each night by dogs and shot at by police on both sides of the border. The father was able to escape and return to Kassel, then was able to get a visa to England, but could not get the family over before war broke out. His mother, brother and he were considered to be Polish citizens and had to report to the police station every morning. All three had to state their names repeatedly, as for instance, "I am the Jew, Hermann Israel Kempinsky", then were mocked and insulted by the police sergeant.

NY 73 Mr. Ziering repeats his story about the daily ritual at the police station. He had to stand at attention, look at the sergeant and other offices, and say his name in various denigrating ways, such as "I am the Jewish pig Hermann Israel Kempinsky". This went on for two years for his family. The police would remind them of what happened to the Jewish student, Grynspan, an incident the Nazis used as justification for Kristallnacht. Mr. Ziering tells about the SA breaking into and plundering Jewish stores, setting the synagogue on fire and, the next day, rounding up community leaders to clean up the mess. After that, all Jewish stores were marked with a sign "Jew" to keep non-Jews away. Mrs. Oppenheimer has similar memories of Kristallnacht: many men were deported to camps and people's apartments were destroyed, but by luck, her father and their apartment were overlooked. Her father died doing heavy construction work in Hannover in 1941. After being deported to Riga, she and her brother were sent to the concentration camp Stutthof and from there to Dachau, where her brother was killed in 1945. Lanzmann asks both of them about daily life during the Nazi time. Alternately, they describe the restrictions of shopping only at Jewish stores, getting inferior food, having to live in segregated ghetto-type housing, and all males over fourteen having to work. Walking to school, Mr. Ziering was easily recognized by Hitler Youth who would attack and beat him.

NY 75 Mr. Ziering repeats his account of abuse by Hitler Youth members with no intervention from witnesses. Basic food and heating materials were harder to come by, so he and his brother would pick up coal in a cart to bring home or deliver it to old people. Lanzmann returns to the topic of suicides. Mr. Ziering said those were mostly Jews born in Germany, who could not believe what was happening. In an incident in the concentration camp Kaiserwald in Riga, a German Jewish prisoner said with pride, "those are our planes flying overhead," which was incomprehensible to the 14-year old Ziering, given the terrible treatment by the Nazis. Mrs. Oppenheimer repeats her certainty about the dozens of suicides every day in Hannover - proof being the dates on the cemetery gravestones. She goes on to describe the crowded, awful conditions of sharing a room with 15 to 20 people and more in the gymnasium. Since all 1600 Jews were living in 14 houses, it was easy to round them up in December 1941 for the transports to the East. Mr. Ziering was also deported at that time.

FILM ID 3806 -- Camera Rolls NY 76-79
NY 76 Mr. Ziering talks about being in Frankfurt for training to become an auto mechanic and how frustrating he found the restrictions on Jews of no movies, no soccer, no swimming. One time he sneaked into the movie "Jud Süss". He got the German view of Jews inside the movie theater where it became clear that people fully believed the inhuman stereotypes of Jews they saw on the screen. He returned to Kassel to join his mother and brother for the deportation to the East. Lanzmann asks what "the East" meant to him. Mr. Ziering admits it was frightening not to know, but thought they would all work in a factory. He reads the German order to report. Every deportee had to make a complete list of possessions and give up all valuables for which he/she was give a receipt - a highly ironic exchange - theft with a receipt. Lanzmann asks about the complicity of the Jewish Council. Mr. Ziering says it was the Nazi's method of 'divide and conquer', pitting Jews against each other, but giving benefits to a certain few. Mrs. Oppenheimer adds that the Jewish Council members were not deported at that time, though by 1943, they were sent to Theresienstadt.

NY 77 Mrs. Oppenheimer tells of her mother's attempt in 1940 to get she and her brother out on the Kindertransport to relatives in Amsterdam. Though the head of the Jewish Council assured her that the children would be put on the list, when the time came, they could not go; the suspicion is that he substituted his own children. Yet these children later came back to Hannover and were deported to Auschwitz, where, being twins, they were subject to medical experiments. Lanzmann asks for more information about the deportations in December 1941. Mrs. Oppenheimer tells of all the Jews being called to the Horticulture School in Ahlem, held there for three days and giving up all valuables. Some did not have to go, mostly those in mixed marriages. The rest were shipped in regular trains but it was very crowded, the heat was turned off and they had only the food they had brought along. Arriving at the Scirotawa station, SS men yelled at them and marched them off to a Riga ghetto.

NY 78,79 Mr. Ziering says that they arrived on December 12. NY 79 Mr. Ziering describes the arrival in Riga, where a SS man marched them to the ghetto surrounded by barbed wire; they saw blood on the ground and saw bodies outside. Inside the apartments everything had been left in disarray, even with food, sabbath candles and a prayerbook still on the table, a shocking, incomprehensible situation. Lanzmann asks how he found out what had happened. Mr. Ziering describes slipping under the wire with other teens to another ghetto where he spoke Yiddish with Latvian Jews and learned that a few days prior, the Jews in his ghetto had been taken to the forest and killed with machine guns. When he reported this to the German Jews of his transport, they wouldn't believe him. Lanzmann states that the killings had started on November 30, 1941.

FILM ID 3807 -- Camera Rolls NY 80-81
NY 80 Mr. Ziering tells of the some Latvian Jews resenting the German Jews, fearful that these would replace them at their work stations because of their ability to speak German. During weeks of sitting around, he and his friends would sneak out of the ghetto and scavenge for food. Sometimes they found frozen potatoes, which they ate, despite the awful taste. Once, when carrying a sack of potatoes back into the ghetto, a guard caught his group and marched them to the cemetery, known to be the execution place. Just as his group was all lined up, it began to rain and while the SS guards put on their raincoats, Mr. Ziering ducked behind a monument and survived. Eventually, the deportees were given work outside the ghetto as tailors and mechanics, but Mr. Ziering does not understand why the Latvian Jews, who were more skilled at these trades, were killed. He goes on to describe the naiveté of the German Jews who considered themselves safe from harm by virtue of being German and following the rules. But if people became ill or could no longer work, a truck would come and ostensibly take them to a fish factory where work was easier; in reality, they were taken to the Forest Romboli and shot. Their clothes came back and were sent to Germany for charity. Mrs. Oppenheimer talks about food being the key to ghetto residents' survival - whatever they could smuggle out was exchanged for food from the outside population. But anyone caught with smuggled food would be shot.

NY 81 Mrs. Oppenheimer reflects on how much harder it must have been for the parents to be deported - torn away from everything they had - than for young people like her. She was not able to talk to her mother about it later, as her father had died before the deportation and her brother after. Mr. Ziering agrees - he lived for the moment and didn't worry as his mother did. He talks about wanting to get even and doing so by breaking the Germans' furniture when cleaning it, burning hundred dollar bills, and burying the gold he and his friends found. Sabotage gave them the will to fight and resist. Lanzmann asks about the hangings they all had to watch. Mrs. Oppenheimer says that those caught exchanging goods were killed - men were hanged and women shot. Everyone coming back from work had to look at the body hanging from the gallows for three days. If a person didn't look up, the SS would hit them. Mr. Ziering reflects that no matter what a person did, it was the wrong thing; if he escaped, the family or others were killed in retribution. Lanzmann asks why Mr. Ziering does not show his face to the camera.

FILM ID 3808 –- Camera Rolls NY 72A-74 coupes
Silent shots of Mrs. Oppenheimer and Mr. Ziering.

Event:  November 1978
Production:  1985
New York, NY, United States
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:47:59
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