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The Amazing Story Of Benny The Barber, A 96-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor

By Linze Rice | September 19, 2016 6:14am
 Ben Scheinkopf reflects back on his life before, during and after the Holocaust, including his long career as a neighborhood barber and friend to many. 
Ben Scheinkopf
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WEST RIDGE — At 96 years old, Ben Scheinkopf's hands shook when he cut his customer's hair.

Why, then, did they keep coming back?

"He knows the whole histories of every customer," said his wife, Emily. "They talk just like us about the family; they gossip. Men gossip. I spoke to people about why they still want to come to Benny even though his hands shake, they said, 'It's not the haircut we are coming for, we're coming for Benny.'"

Benny finally retired from this beloved West Ridge barber shop last month, deciding it was time to take a break and watch his Cubs as they storm into the postseason.

Linze Rice talks about her time talking with Benny.

In his wake, Scheinkopf leaves a remarkable history of survival. Cutting hair saved him from dying in the Holocaust. He survived when so many others from his village did not.

Reduced to just 65 pounds at one point, Scheinkopf lived by staying busy, cutting the hair of others in concentration camps.

Those days still haunt him. He wife confides that he still calls out and screams in his sleep every night.

But now it's time for rest for Scheinkopf.

Benny "the Barber" Scheinkopf learned to cut hair from his older brother in their hometown of Plonsk, Poland, before the Germans sent his family to Auschwitz in 1942. 

His brother, Josef, was 14 years his senior and had traveled far away to later bring back hairstyles not yet being offered by any other barber in town, like alluring waves of a perm. 

Josef bought his own salon and became a stylist known to beautify some of the elite, taking his younger brother, Benny, under his wing. 

That skill would later become the pair's saving grace as they endured life at concentration camps in Poland and Austria during World War II while the rest of their family perished. 

Throughout the Holocaust, the brothers worked as barbers in the camps, shaving the heads and bodies of prisoners each day and earning extra portions of food.

"I was very lucky," Scheinkopf said.

Ben never put his shears down. 

He survived the war, fell in love and came to America, where, before retiring, he spent more than 60 years cutting the hair of friends and neighbors who have come to know him like family. 

Ben Scheinkopf in his home holding a Cubs banner he once had in his barbershop [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

For decades, Scheinkopf cut hair five days a week from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30-5 p.m., and over the years he saw clients turn from grandsons to gray-haired grandfathers themselves. 

When he was first getting started in Chicago, again following in the footsteps of his brother, Scheinkopf had worked hard to obtain his barber license after getting kicked out of several shops for cutting hair without one. 

By the time he started working in West Ridge, he was one of seven Jewish barbers. 

As the years wore on, he again became one of the last few standing, a testament to both his gratitude for the work and fear of the unknown without it, his wife said. 

"Never took vacation, never allowed himself to be sick because he had this concentration camp idea," Emily said. "He said if you can work you are a lucky man. Other people, if they don't work, or they get sick the Germans shoot you." 

That mind-set stayed with Scheinkopf from his days in the camps, when slowing down meant certain death. 

Over his 60-year tenure in Chicago, he took time off only twice: once to visit Israel; another to visit Europe, where Scheinkopf left another kind of legacy behind.

The tattoo Scheinkopf received while at Auschwitz [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Born Oct. 16, 1919, Scheinkopf was one of nine children living in the city of Plonsk. 

They were raised primarily by their father, who had several wives, and an older sister. 

In 1939, the town was invaded by German soldiers who turned the city into a ghetto. By December 1942, the last of the 5,000-6,000 Jewish townspeople had been moved to Auschwitz.

In the end, Scheinkopf and his brother would be two of only 30 from Plonsk who survived. 

He cut hair at the camp until January 1945, when he, along with tens of thousands of other prisoners, were marched through the snow from Auschwitz to other camps in what later became known as the most infamous of the Holocaust's "death marches."

Scheinkopf trudged barefoot through the snow in his striped, camp-issued pajamas, watching thousands behind him fall to their deaths from illness, exhaustion and gunshots. 

With Josef still by his side, the pair wound up at Mauthausen in Austria where they stayed for five months before being liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. 

In the months before American and Allied forces closed in on concentration camps, Scheinkopf had become a delirious and whittled-down version of himself at a frail 65 pounds, eventually losing consciousness. 

His brother loaded him onto a wagon full of dead bodies to hide him from the Germans, desperate to clear as many witnesses as possible. 

When he woke up, he was in a hospital, he said. 

Pictures of the Scheinkopf brothers in 1945 [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

He learned to eat again, slowly at first, then was moved to a camp for those had been displaced before wandering onto an American base and befriending its soldiers. 

He met Emily, a German, and eventually the pair left Munich on a Flying Tiger Line plane in December 1954.

He didn't remember being pulled from Mauthausen camp and taken to the hospital by American soldiers, which could have included the likes of Martin Cowen — a Berwyn-based Jewish-American soldier in the 11th Armored Division of the Army who helped liberate prisoners at Mauthausen.

His daughter, Bonnie Rubinow, said her father, also an amateur photographer, died of cancer at age 63 but donated hundreds of his photos taken during the Holocaust to the memorial museum in Washington, D.C., while it was being built. 

On a recent afternoon, Rubinow and Scheinkopf met and exchanged photos and stories from two points along the same historical spectrum. 

"For the longest time, I couldn't look at [my dad's] pictures again, or look at or watch anything having to do with the Holocaust," Rubinow said. "I felt like I was there, like I had survivor's guilt, even though I wasn't even born at that time."

Neither Scheinkopf nor Cowen liked to talk much about their experiences during the Holocaust, specifically at Mauthausen, in front of their children as they were growing up.  It was too horrific and painful for them to share at the time. 

"I think what he would not tell me, especially, he didn't want to tell me what he saw once he got to Mauthausen," Rubinow said. "I think it changed him forever. He wouldn't tell me, but he took all those photos. He felt that those photos had a place to go. That was where they were supposed to be" [at the museum.]

Ben Scheinkopf compares one of his photos to one of Martin Cowen's. Cowen is Bonnie Rubinow's father and a former U.S. soldier who helped liberate a camp Scheinkopf where Scheinkopf was imprisoned during World War II. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

But as he grew older and began wearing more short-sleeved shirts at the barber shop, his customers began to wonder about the tattoo on his arm. He used to tell kids who asked that it was his phone number.

Eventually, Scheinkopf said he started opening up about his experiences and taking on speaking engagements at schools in the area. 

Slowly, news outlets began churning out articles and special segments on Scheinkopf's life, and he knew he was doing his historical duty: passing his story on to the next generation to honor those who couldn't.

"They should never forget," Scheinkopf said. "I always used to say to Holocaust survivors, 'You should talk about it.' The people should never forget what happened to our Jewish people."

Though he talks freely about his love of working at the barber shop and how it saved his life, he isn't as talkative about the atrocities he experienced during the war. 

Scheinkopf said he visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie once, but he has no need to visit again. 

"I went through my hell over there" already, he said. 

But just because he doesn't talk much about the atrocities doesn't mean its effects have not lingered, his wife said. 

She hears him call out and scream from his sleep "every night," she said. 

But Scheinkopf isn't one to complain. 

"I always used to tell them when somebody was complaining here, I say, 'You are complaining here in this country? You got up from bed, you are feeling OK, you drive a car, you have money in the pocket, you go all the places you want to go — why are you complaining?'" Scheinkopf said.

These days, Benny and Emily like to take walks around their Far North Side block and have been busy keeping up with visitors and fielding phone calls from those checking up on their favorite barber. 

Emily has help taking care of her "hero," as she calls him, from their live-in caregiver son, and Ben said he hopes to see the Cubs clinch the World Series this year. 

Though he's lived through horrors unimaginable to most, Scheinkopf likes to focus on the joy his life in America has brought him: the freedom to have a successful career cutting the hair of Jews and Gentiles alike. 

His secret to living a long life?

"You take it a day at a time," Scheinkopf said. "I open my eyes in the morning, I'm here. When I'm gone, I'm gone. You can't live forever. Every day is a good day, I never complain."

Ben and Emily boarding the Flying Tiger Line from Munich in December 1954. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Ben and Emily in their Chicago home today [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

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