Like many other German Jews who escaped the country in the run-up to World War II, Eric Oppenheimer fled Nazi Germany in 1938, heading with his family to New York when he was 14.
Just a few years later, he chose to return to Germany as an enlisted American soldier with the 35th Signal Battalion under Gen. Courtney Hicks Hodges, commander of the First Army in the Western Europe campaign, to help defeat the Nazis and liberate the Nordhausen concentration camp.
Oppenheimer’s return to his war-torn homeland to fight his oppressors was just one chapter in his remarkable life, said his daughter Deborah Oppenheimer, of Los Angeles.
“What he witnessed and what he was part of — only to come back with the American military — he was acutely aware of the value of life,” she said. “Just innately he was a positive person.”
Oppenheimer died Jan. 12 of natural causes in hospice in Boca Raton, Florida. A longtime resident of Valley Stream, he was 93.
Born Erich Oppenheimer in a small Bavarian town, Oppenheimer lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan after his family fled to America.
His father had run a successful wholesale hardware operation in Germany, and in 1939 took a train to see a hardware store for sale near what he thought was Rockefeller Center — but disembarked instead in Rockville Centre, where he decided to start the family business, called Central Hardware.
Oppenheimer left his postwar architecture studies at Pratt Institute to help run the hardware store. In 1948 he married Sylva, a Holocaust survivor who had fled Germany on the Kindertransport to London. Her story inspired Deborah Oppenheimer to produce the Academy Award-winning documentary “Into the Arms of Stran gers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”
Sylva died in 1993. In 1995, Oppenheimer married his neighbor Gloria, who had lived across the street from him in Valley Stream for decades.
Oppenheimer’s family hardware store was a Central Avenue mainstay for 72 years until it closed in 2011. His technical mind was also evident in his personal life through the meticulous care of his cars and personal Cessna Skylane plane.
But his greatest joy was his family, upon whom he lavished affection, his daughter said. “Everybody felt valued by him,” she said. “For us, he really led a model of way to conduct ourselves.”
“The night before his funeral the extended family was gathered in the living room telling stories about him,” she added. “Nothing would have made him happier. These children and grandchildren truly knew their father and grandfather and had genuine relationships with him.”
He is survived by another daughter, Wendy Oppenheimer, of Woodmere, and a son, Alan Oppenheimer, of Malverne.
Oppenheimer was buried Jan. 14 in Wellwood Cemetery in West Babylon.