World History

Descendants Of Holocaust Survivors Meet In Washington, D.C.

Newsy's Sasha Ingber and a small group of other descendants of Holocaust survivors met in D.C. where they welcomed a historian to give them insight.

Descendants Of Holocaust Survivors Meet In Washington, D.C.

When you do genealogical research, sometimes you find family secrets.

"I found out only after my mother's death what her life was like, and that she was in concentration camps," said Richard Oppenheimer. 

Oppenheimer found his mother's diary, what she called her "banishment to the east." 

"She did wake up in the middle of the night many times screaming because she would have nightmares, but she would never tell me what those dreams were about."

Richard Oppenheimer's mother Erika and grandmother Lina were two of just three survivors from their German town, called Bad Wildungen. Research led him to the fates of other family members.  

RICHARD OPPENHEIMER: I'm going to break down and cry any minute now.

NEWSY'S SASHA INGBER: Thinking about your mother? 

OPPENHEIMER: Yes. Thinking about my mother. The horror of my aunt being raped, having to hide her pregnancy from her parents, having a baby that was four years old that was killed by the Nazis. And I'm the only one in my family that knows this. 

INGBER: It's a big burden.

OPPENHEIMER: It certainly is a big burden. And I think without Johannes, I wouldn't be able to carry it alone.

This is what bonded a wounded group that could have been strangers: We were waiting for Johannes Groetecke, a German historian visiting the U.S. for the first time. He's researched our family members for years. Their lives were forever changed by the Holocaust. They all happened to have lived in Bad Wildungen. It's the same obscure town where he lives. 

Germany: Former Nazi Guard, 101, Jailed For Aiding Murder
Germany: Former Nazi Guard, 101, Jailed For Aiding Murder

Germany: Former Nazi Guard, 101, Jailed For Aiding Murder

The man, who was identified by local media as Josef S., had denied working as an SS guard at the camp and aiding and abetting the murder of thousands.


INGBER: Can I give you a hug? 

JOHANNES GROETECKE: Yeah. Hello Sasha. Nice to meet you.

Groetecke first contacted me by email in 2017. He wanted to know more about my grandparents: Toska Klein and Leo Oberman. Toska fled the Nazis and Leo was forced into German concentration camps, where Nazis beat his head, then put him under x-rays for experimentation. By the time I was born, Toska had died and "Poppy Leo," as I called him, had less hair than me. Sometimes he'd wear a wig to cover up the skin cancer he'd developed. The cancer and ensuing operations must have been a constant reminder of the genocide. He died when I was 12 and I got older wishing I could have asked him more questions.  

The day we met, our little consort headed into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum together; first taking group pictures, then walking into the dark past, led by one man.  

My mother and I found Bad Wildungen on a long list of towns where the Nazis sent Jewish residents to their deaths. 

We watched footage of Nazi medical experiments. 

And then we stopped in a tall room filled with broken families, like our own. 

Through records, Groetecke discovered an aunt I never knew — a daughter my grandfather had kept secret, with a wife who had been secret too. Maybe that was why he would cry when he spoke of a young niece named Lollie. He said he dressed her up and put makeup and jewelry on her to try to make her look older. But Nazis still took Lollie away.  

Even historians stumble on family secrets.  

GROETECKE: My grandfather worked at a railway station, and I think he was a small Nazi. And during my research, I found out that they lived in a house where Jewish family was and this family was murdered. And this was a family secret. 

INGBER: Why is doing this work important? 

GROETECKE: Yes, I think we can't change the past. And I was born after the war. But I think it is our duty to make the future better again. And that means working together with the descendants of former Jews who lived in Bad Wildungen in order to create a better future. That's our task.

The group also visited the German embassy, where an official told us applications for German citizenship rose during former President Trump's term. 

INGBER: Do you feel less safe in the United States today?

OPPENHEIMER: Oh, absolutely. I feel like, you know, the Nazi power, the White supremacists, are rising again.  

He said some people in this group have, ironically, obtained German citizenship. 

OPPENHEIMER: Maybe we're going to have to leave someday and I want to be better prepared than my parents were.