Castro Valley couple, married 59 years, die on same day

She was an unconventional, outspoken girl from Brooklyn who excelled in school, the motherless daughter of a working-class produce-store owner. He was a soft-spoken, dapper young man who fled anti-Semitism in Germany and came to San Francisco to become a dentist. Three months after meeting through a relative, they married and went on to spend 59 years together before dying on the same day, less than six hours apart.

Dr. Peter and Mrs. Sylvia Oppenheim passed away on April 9, she at 2:10 a.m. and he at 8:35 a.m. He was at their longtime home in Castro Valley and she was just a mile away at Eden Medical Center. They were both 88.

Near their death, the two were asked by their daughter if they wanted to Skype, write a note, or communicate in any way with each other. Both told their daughter the same thing: After 59 years, they probably had said it all and knew what the other one was thinking.

“I’m sure that your sweet and gentle dad and non-conformist mom would have had it no other way than the way it appears the end occurred,” cousin Sheldon Kaplan wrote to the family.

Mrs. Sylvia and Dr. Peter Oppenheim

Dr. Oppenheim was born May 2, 1923 in Hamburg, Germany. Mrs. Oppenheim was born Sylvia Kaplan about six months later, on Nov. 8, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York.

Before meeting in San Francisco when they were about 30, they led widely divergent lives. Peter Oppenheim, the youngest child and only son of a doctor and a mother who was part of a successful family department-store chain, was sent by his family from Germany to Sweden in 1935 to live with relatives. In the ensuing years, one of his sisters was sent to England and the other stayed with her mother in Germany until they escaped in 1938 and the family reunited in Sweden.

At age 17, Peter traveled through Siberia, Japan and Hawaii before landing in San Francisco, where he worked in the shipyards and, at age 20, enlisted during World War II and became a U.S. citizen. He requested front-line European duty so he could personally fight the Germans, which he did for nine months driving tanks and serving as a sharpshooter. He fought at Utah Beach and in the Battle of the Bulge, finishing out his service as a POW interrogator under Gen. George Patton. He was the recipient of numerous medals, including the Purple Heart, and his oral history resides in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He attended Cal and UCSF’s School of Dentistry.

Sylvia Oppenheim (“Sibbie”) lost her mother at age 12 and soon became the keeper of the house while her older siblings went to work to support the family. She earned a degree in social welfare from Brooklyn College and a master’s degree in education from U.C. Berkeley.

As a social worker who also spoke Yiddish, she helped resettle Holocaust survivors in New York. In 1951, she hitched a ride cross-country to San Francisco where, two years later, she met her future husband through a cousin. They married three months later.

Sylvia Oppenheim was a classic baleboosta who sent her most popular recipes to family and friends alike. She adored art, collecting beautiful glass pieces and soapstone sculptures and visiting art exhibits. Unable to walk well during her last few years, she used a wheelchair-equipped van to see the Monet and more recently the Pissarro exhibit in San Francisco. She was a voracious reader, especially of mysteries.

The Oppenheims had three children in just over three years, two sons and a daughter — all three received their undergraduate degrees from U.C. Berkeley and went on to earn advanced degrees.

After the children left home, the couple, known as Pete and Sibbie, spent years traveling: by cruise ship, plane and, for a while, by motorhome that they kept in the back yard. Their interests kept them busy and sharp until their deaths.

“They lived large, always planning and looking forward to the next big thing,” son Don said.

Becoming fixtures in the community, they were longtime members of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, had dozens of friends and were blessed being surrounded by their three adult children, who remained in the Bay Area. In the past two decades, they also delighted in the growth and adventures of their four beloved granddaughters, Sarah, Mahaliyah, Hannah and Zoe.

They enjoyed the company of dozens of relatives in the Bay Area amd  across the country. They looked forward to five-year reunions with extended family at places such as Asilomar, Santa Cruz and San Diego.

Besides being loving parents, grandparents and relatives, they were generous donors to small and large causes alike, quietly contributing to 40 charities ranging from the Southern Poverty Law Center to B’nai B’rith International and a host of other Jewish organizations, including Hebrew Free Loan Association and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Although they seemed like a match made in heaven, in some ways they could not have been more different. He was quiet, she was outspoken. He was formal, she had no use for pretension. He accompanied her on her global trots around the world, even though he was just as happy to stay at home and tinker or fix things with what Sibbie described as his “golden hands.” Son Al said his father “never met a gadget he didn’t like.”

Both of them had deeply rooted and similar values: education, love of family and a dedication to tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

They shared something else, too: resilience. In the past two decades they faced medical challenges gracefully, nearly miraculously. He survived multiple heart and back surgeries before developing cancer five months ago. Through health challenges of her own, Sylvia Oppenheim did not slow down for much.

The Oppenheims are survived by their three children, Dr. Alfred Oppenheim and his wife, Dr. Terri Slagle, of Mill Valley; son Donald Oppenheim of Berkeley; daughter Deena Oppenheim of Orinda; their beloved granddaughters and grandson-in-law, Robert Ganister; several nieces, nephews and cousins; a loving extended family; and dozens of friends.

They were interred by the Neptune Society and, at their request, will have no funeral. They will be remembered at a party celebrating their lives.