Harold von Oppenheim

1892 Cologne – 29 November 1961 Berlin

Harold von Oppenheim sings Il trovatore: Hab Erbarmen, o Herr, with Elisabeth Ristow
Harold von Oppenheim was born into one of the most famous families of private German bankers – into the family that ran the Sal. Oppenheim bank from 1789 to 2009, no less. Harold's father Simon Alfred von Oppenheim was one of the bank's directors, so he never knew any financial problems. At the will of his father, he studied finance and law and made his doctorate. Actually, on his records, he appears as "Dr. Harold Freiherr von Oppenheim"; the Oppenheims had long been ennobled, hence "Freiherr", a title of nobility.

But Harold von Oppenheim had no intention of working in the bank or in law; his interests were cars, and opera. He studied voice (and acting with Max Reinhardt!), and became a professional tenor. About his career, thorough research is as yet missing (he is not in any operatic reference work, and all informations about his biography come from a very different context, I'll tell in a minute). Anyway, he is reported to have sung at the Berlin Staatsoper, in France and in Italy. The Staatsoper Berlin connection sounds highly plausibel: his recordings are accompanied by that theater's orchestra.

Following the racist Nazi criteria, the Oppenheims were Jewish; but for families like them, who had adopted Christian faith already back in 1860, even the Nazi law defined exemptions from racist persecution; further exemptions applied, during the first half of the Nazi reign, to Jewish bank owners (they needed the Jewish banks for their economy). So the Oppenheims could have stayed in Germany (and some family members actually did, for the entire Nazi period). But low-ranking local party officials did not know, or did not want to know about the exemptions that should have protected them, and the government didn't of course stick to their own exemptions gladly; so everyday life meant running the gauntlet, even for wealthy people like the Oppenheims, the Nazi press campaigned against them, and who stayed had in reality great difficulty to stand their ground. (The last two Oppenheims who abided the storm in Germany were eventually arrested in 1944 on fictional accusations; both survived, but only with good luck.)

Harold von Oppenheim, not being involved in the bank business, had no reason to stay. In 1939, while vacationing in France, he boarded the last ship that left Le Havre for the USA before WWII broke out, and emigrated to New York, where he called himself Harry Hartwell and opened a nightclub, "Chez Harry". In 1951, he returned to Germany.

And here, finally, comes the part of his story that has rewarded us with all this information: Harold von Oppenheim was a luxury car maniac, and in 1938, he commissioned a unique car: a Bentley frame and motor, with a one-of-a-kind body designed for him by the Berlin de luxe coachwork firm Erdmann & Rossi. It was with that car that he traveled France in 1939; he took the car with him on board the ship to New York. When he went back to Europe, the car remained in the US, it still exists, and is today, after longish renovation, one of the most coveted collector's items in the world of vintage cars. Since a photo of Harold von Oppenheim did not turn up so far, at least his phenomenal car is pictured below.

Reference and picture source: Retro Classics Sunday Gazette, no. 370, 4 March 2018

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