Eric Oppenheimer, a graduate of Valley Stream Central High School, whose family owned and operated Central Hardware in Valley Stream for three generations, died in Boca Raton, Fla., on Jan. 12. He was 93.
Born Erich Oppenheimer in Aub, Germany, on April 16, 1924, he was one of two children of Regina and David Oppenheimer, a successful wholesale hardware merchant. As a Jew, Erich was ostracized as a child with the rise of the Nazi party, as local boys marched in uniform and sang the song, “Lied der Sturmsoldaten,” with its chilling lyrics, “when the blood of the Jews flows from the knife.”
His parents sent him away for his protection to the progressive boarding school, Landschulheim Herrlingen, near Ulm, Germany. In school, he played soccer and excelled in the high jump and the long jump. Oppenheimer set a record in the 100-meter race, earning an Olympian-style wreath to wear around his neck.
Meanwhile, the Nazis made it difficult for Erich’s father to conduct his wholesale business, and eventually David was forced to close it and leave Germany. To garner enough money to help his family emigrate to the United States, David smuggled money in the Nivea tins sewn his coat lining to open a bank account in London. The family emigrated to the United States in 1938, and a 14-year-old Erich recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking it was just a statue. Only later would he learn of its significance.
One day in 1939, Eric’s father saw an advertisement for a retail hardware store near what he thought was “Rockefeller Center.” He got on the train to see it and wound up near Rockville Centre in Valley Stream. Thus began the family business in the United States -- Central Hardware. The hardware store benefitted from the building boom taking place throughout Long Island, and became a fixture in Valley Stream until it closed in 2011.
Eric enlisted in the American military when he was still a teenager, where he proudly served with the 35th Signal Battalion under General Courtney Hicks Hodges. He landed at Normandy at D-Day, and was present at the concentration camp Nordhausen at the time of its liberation.
Upon his return, he studied architecture at Pratt Institute before being drawn into the family store. The store motto was, ‘You name it, we have it.’ During the worst of snowstorms when there was a shortage of salt to clear the sidewalks, Eric and his son Alan divided a large bag into many small ones so that more customers would have access to the salt.
Eric’s wife, Sylva, with whom he raised three children, and all of whom attended Valley Stream South High School, was also a Holocaust survivor. They were married for 45 years until her death in 1993. She escaped Germany shortly after her eleventh birthday to arrive in London via the Kindertransport, in August 1939, and never saw her parents again. Her story of rescue inspired their daughter, Deborah Oppenheimer, to produce the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”
He since remarried to Gloria Oppenheimer, who had previously lived across the street from him in Valley Stream. They were married for 23 years. He is survived by Gloria, his son and two daughters. He is also survived by stepdaughters Robin Krinsky and Beth Tarica, and 10 grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton, Florida; and Temple Gates of Zion, in Valley Stream, New York, which his father helped to build in 1939 as the family rebuilt their life in the United States, and where he was an active member for nearly 80 years.