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Obituaries

Henry Oppenheim, 86; empathy, humor endured through dementia

Dr. Oppenheim spent most of his career at the VA Medical Center in Northampton.

Dr. Oppenheim spent most of his career at the VA Medical Center in Northampton.

As a young Jew in Germany on the cusp of the Holocaust, Henry Oppenheim barely escaped a vicious attack by an older student who was part of the Hitler Youth.

He was 11 when his family left the country and traveled by steamer boat to New York City. A few years later, he wrote that while gazing from the deck over sparkling waves, the United States seemed like “a wonderful sanctuary of good will after the turbulence and heartaches of troubled European life. I fell in love with the new world at first sight.”

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In the decades since, his childhood and immigrant experience amplified the empathy he felt for outsiders, such as the mentally ill veterans he treated as a psychologist in Northampton. And he carried the rich life of the mind that defined his work into his final years as he gradually slipped into dementia.

“When people would hear about Henry’s dementia, they would typically respond with sympathy,” his daughter Lisa Berzins of Farmington, Conn., said in a eulogy at a memorial service earlier this month. “But the reality was that his connection to family lived on and the relationship between my parents grew to a new and totally amazing level. Since my mother knew him so well, she could tap into his essence and extraordinary imagination so that they shared an exciting and joyful array of virtual experiences.”

Dr. Oppenheim, who had been a clinical psychologist at the VA Medical Center in the Leeds section of Northampton and chief psychologist at the former Northampton State Hospital, died March 2 in Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. He was 86.

His other daughter, Jody Gastfriend of Newton, chronicled Dr. Oppenheim’s experience with dementia in online articles for The Huffington Post.

“If, like my dad, I end up getting dementia one day, I hope I am blessed with his perspective on life, his good nature, and his sense of humor,” she wrote in a Nov. 25 posting. “Dad has not forgotten how to engage with those he loves, even though he often forgets our names. And he continues to laugh, almost daily, and bring joy into our lives.”

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The dementia “sort of developed slowly,” recalled Dr. Oppenheim’s wife, Adele. “We admired his ability and determination to adapt, which also went back to his experience as an immigrant boy. There was a point where he knew this was happening. When he realized it, he never complained. There were times when he showed some sadness, but emotionally he adapted to it in the most extraordinary way.”

By the time illness arrived, Dr. Oppenheim had considerable experience adapting to life’s surprises.

He was born and grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, where his father was a successful businessman until the Nazis rose to power. The younger of two sons, Dr. Oppenheim was expelled from school when the order arrived to “cleanse it of Jews,” his wife said.

After the family moved to New York, Dr. Oppenheim’s father washed dishes for long hours every day and died in his late 40s. Dr. Oppenheim, meanwhile, shined shoes for a nickel, delivered dry cleaning, and still managed to jump from fourth grade to fifth a couple of weeks after starting school, despite knowing no English upon arrival. Noticing his intelligence, a seventh-grade teacher said he was college material, and he never forgot her name even after slipping into dementia. Based on that teacher’s encouragement, he went to the competitive Bronx High School of Science and City College of New York, which he called the “Harvard of the proletariat.”

Just before heading to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s degree, and to the University of Kentucky for a doctorate in psychology, Dr. Oppenheim accompanied his mother for a week’s vacation in New York’s Catskill Mountains. There he met Adele Swing, who was vacationing at the same resort with her stepmother.

“He still had that European perspective on the world,” she recalled. “We had a whole week together in this idyllic setting and we fell in love, and then he left the following week.”

They stayed in touch and married in 1950. After he completed his training, they settled in Northampton, where he spent most of his career with the VA hospital. After retiring, he became chief psychologist at Northampton State Hospital until it closed in the early 1990s.

Dr. Oppenheim also was an astute graduate adviser at Smith College, where one of his students was Penny Freedman.

“The thing that so amazed me from the beginning was that he related to my thesis on so many different levels,” said Freedman, now a psychoanalyst in Miami. “He related to it emotionally and in a literary way. I had so many readers read it, and he caught errors they never caught. He focused on questions I hadn’t even raised. The training was better than the analytic training I got years later. It was really incredible.”

While Dr. Oppenheim’s daughter Lisa was in college, en route to becoming a psychologist herself, she volunteered for a brief time at the VA hospital where her father worked.

“For me, it was a real turning point, because my father was very self-effacing,” she said in an interview. “He didn’t at all let on how brilliant he really was. I saw a completely different side of him than I saw at home, and how much respect he had from the patients and staff.”

Dr. Oppenheim also “had this little-kid quality to him,” Jody said, which was apparent in everything from the zeal he brought to riding bumper go-carts with his children at amusement parks to the way he led Passover Seders.

“Infused with his spirit, they were raucous and legendary,” Lisa said in a eulogy.

It seemed to follow, then, that when dementia took hold, Dr. Oppenheim spun tales of an imaginary mistress or took on the persona of silent film star Erich von Stroheim.

“Often, my mother would engage him in song, and ‘dance’ the Hora with him holding his hands in the wheelchair,” Lisa said in her eulogy. “One could not help to feel the magic in their relationship.”

In addition to his wife and two daughters, Dr. Oppenheim leaves a son, Keith of St. Joseph, Mich., and six grandchildren.

As his illness progressed, Dr. Oppenheim’s imaginative life seemed to expand, and he shared his lessons with others.

“Personally, I’m not so afraid of aging and infirmity these days — perhaps thanks to my father,” Jody wrote last year for The Huffington Post. “Despite suffering with dementia for more than 10 years, he is remarkably sanguine about life in the nursing home. My father has taught me that quality of life can persevere despite a devastating illness, and that the profound capacity to give and receive love need not be extinguished by dementia.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at
bmarquard@globe.com.

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