A former inmate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp who, together with his brother, survived the Holocaust by cutting the hair of other prisoners and then went on to work as barber for 60 years, died last week aged 98.
Benjamin Scheinkopf, known in Chicago as “Ben the Barber,” was 97 when he finally retired, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Scheinkopf was born in Plonsk, Poland, the hometown of David Ben-Gurion, one of the founding fathers of Israel who declared the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
Although his father, a shoemaker, urged him to take up the same profession, Scheinkopf decided to be a barber, a choice that later saved his life.
After 1939, when Germany invaded and occupied Poland, Scheinkopf was sent to Auschwitz where over a million Jews were murdered. Inmates were starved and forced into slave labor, and then ultimately killed.
However, Scheinkopf and his brother Josef, also a barber, were tasked with cutting other inmates’ hair, a measure the camp guards hoped would prevent the spread of lice which they feared catching themselves. The position gave them marginally better conditions, separated from other inmates, that enabled them to survive.
Scheinkopf gave a videoed testimony of his experiences to the USC Shoah Foundation. As he cut the hair of prisoners, he recalled, they would ask him if he had any information about other members of their families.
Under no illusions about what was going on around him, Scheinkopf gave his honest, if tragic, opinion.
“I said, ‘Family, you’re not going to see it anymore,’” he said in his testimony.
After the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945 he was sent to Germany, where he met his wife Emily. They moved to Chicago in 1954 and were married for 66 years.
Scheinkopf died on November 18. He is survived by three sons and three grandchildren.
His son, Jeffery, told the Chicago Sun-Times that his father would scold him and his siblings if they didn’t eat their dinner, telling them that he had to eat the bark of a tree during the Holocaust.
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, of the 5,000 Jews in Plonsk, only a few dozen survived. Of Scheinkopf’s nine siblings, only two survived the war: Josef, who moved to Israel, and a sister,Brana, who lived in France.