S.F. WWII refugee gives reparations check to Hadassah

On March 14, 1938 — the day after the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria — someone came to the stationary and print shop that belonged to Fritz Oplatka's parents.

"Go home, you own nothing," his parents were told. "Everything belongs now to the Germans."

In one day, "we went from wealthy people to paupers," said Oplatka, who became Fred, once in America.

On Dec.14, the San Francisco resident received a $7,000 check from the Austrian government as reparations.

A paltry sum, Oplatka believes, as "it's absolutely nothing to compare to the losses we suffered." Nevertheless, Oplatka managed to make a good life for himself in the United States, and did not need the money. On the very same day he received the check, he wrote out another one for the same amount, to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.

Oplatka and his wife, Frances, are not Hadassah members, although they had given money to the organization before.

But with everything going on in Israel now, Oplatka felt Hadassah's hospitals could use the gift more than any other organization, and he directed it to the residential treatment center.

"It just came to my mind that hospitals could do the most with that amount," he said.

Oplatka hasn't been sleeping well since the heightened violence took root in the Middle East. "Since the trouble started, I had one idea, which is to support Israel as much as I can."

Oplatka was born in Vienna in 1917. Since his family was in the printing business, he learned how to become a printer himself.

Soon after the Anschluss, Oplatka's brother Irwin was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. His parents were arrested shortly after.

"Day after day I went to the headquarters of the Gestapo to see the status of my parents, and usually after a few hours, they chased me away," he recalled.

On the day of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, Oplatka was again at Gestapo headquarters, when he bumped into his former elementary school teacher.

"He was famous in my time as an ardent socialist, and now he turned around and joined the SS." Oplatka told his former teacher that his parents were in jail.

His parents were released immediately.

Unfortunately, though, that kind of luck was not to last. Oplatka's parents eventually died in a Polish concentration camp, and he has proof that they were tortured.

He decided to leave Austria, and was able to get to Belgium illegally, where he stayed until Germany invaded. From there he was arrested and sent to several detention camps in France.

Meanwhile, Irwin Oplatka had been transferred from Buchenwald to Dachau and then released on the condition he leave Germany. He ended up in the Dominican Republic and immediately sent for Fred.

"He saved my life," said Fred of his brother. "On Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Americans declared war, I was on the last ship that left Europe."

The Oplatka brothers worked and stayed in the Dominican Republic until 1949, when they got visas to come to the United States.

They first went to Miami and then lived in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Both married and then moved to Long Beach, Calif., where Irwin Oplatka received a job offer.

Fred Oplatka and Frances moved to San Francisco in 1958, and Fred went to work as a printer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He worked there for 25 years, retiring in 1982.

Now 85, and expecting his first grandchild, Fred Oplatka believes the reparations came to him and other Austrian survivors only because of world pressure. While there is a movement on behalf of Austrian survivors to try and up the amount, Oplatka has no intention of joining. At his age, he doesn't have the energy for such things.

And while the amount is small, he said he thought it was "fabulous" that he could turn the money over to a Jewish charity. "I felt so good to be able to give it to a Jewish organization."

Andrea Rouah, director of the San Francisco chapter of Hadassah, said to her knowledge Oplatka's gesture is the first of its kind. She was especially surprised to receive the check since she had never met Oplatka, and he wasn't a member.

"He returned his $7,000 survivor check, in its entirety, to do some good in the world," said Rouah. "To take from something so villainous to do so much good in the world, that was what we were so moved by."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."