(JTA) — Benjamin Scheinkopf, a Poland-born Jew who worked at his Chicago barbershop until he was 97, has died. He survived the Holocaust by cutting hair.
Scheinkopf, who moved to the United States in 1954, died last Saturday at the age of 98 after working for more than 80 years as a barber, the Chicago Sun Times reported in an obituary. He was known by many in the city as “Ben the Barber.”
He and his brother Josef, who also trained to be a barber, were assigned to cut other inmates’ hair at Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp in Poland, he recalled in testimony he gave to the USC Shoah Foundation.
“Everybody asked the same questions. . . Everybody wants to know where [their] family is,” he recalled.
“I said, ‘Family — you’re not going to see it anymore,’” he said in his testimony.
He grew up in the Polish city of Plonsk, birthplace of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. His father Avrum was a cobbler.
His father wanted him to be a cobbler because he thought it would provide security. “You always need shoes,” he told young Ben. But Scheinkopf and his brother wanted to cut hair.
“The fact he and his brother chose to be barbers saved their lives,” Jeffrey Scheinkopf, Benjamin Scheinkopf’s son, told the Sun Times.
Being a barber meant Scheinkopf was not beaten by the Germans as other prisoners were. But his weight dwindled to 65 pounds on starvation rations at the camp.
“They’d work you to death and then they’d gas you,” he told the Shoah Foundation.
His brother tried to camouflage his emaciation. Once, “he hid him on a stack of dead bodies” so they wouldn’t send him to the crematorium, said Jeffrey Scheinkopf.
After the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, Benjamin Scheinkopf lived in a camp for displaced persons in Germany, where he met Emily, who would become his wife of 66 years.
He had an older brother, Moishe Aaron, who’d ventured to Chicago in 1920. He sponsored Scheinkopf’s immigration to America in 1954.
Of nine Scheinkopf siblings, only two others survived the war: Josef, who wound up in Israel, and Brana, who settled in France.
After a haircut, he’d tell customers, “There — now you weigh less,” according to a 2016 essay by Barth Landor in Hippocampus magazine.
He rejoiced when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last year. And every night, he enjoyed a shot of Canadian Club whisky before dinner.
In addition to his wife Emily and son Jeffrey, he is survived by his sons Danny and Joe and three grandchildren. His granddaughter Jennifer, who had a brain tumor, died before him, as did his siblings who perished in the Holocaust: Herschel, Chayim, Yosef-Behrl, Yiddis and David.