At Auschwitz, Ben Scheinkopf's hair-cutting skills helped him stay alive. After World War II, they were his ticket to a better life in America.
On Aug. 26, at age 96, the beloved California Avenue barber put away his clippers and shears for good.
For more than 60 years, the Holocaust survivor and owner of Ben's Barbershop, woke up every day happy to have a job he loved. "If you get up in the morning and nothing hurts you and you can go to work, then you are a lucky man," he would tell his customers.
He worked six days a week and often served three generations of customers in one family. His shop at Touhy and California, an intersection with an Irish bar and 7-Eleven, was like a time capsule from 1950s; photos with his customers and newspaper clippings decorated the walls. In between customers, he'd read the newspaper or watch the Cubs on a small TV.
Some customers like Chicago author Patrick T. Reardon found inspiration just from sitting in his barber chair. "He's this bright light in the room," Reardon said. "When I was down, I'd go see Ben for a haircut."
In March when 19-year-old Chicagoan and Israel Defense Forces soldier Joshua* needed a barber, there was only one who would make the cut.
"Wouldn't it be cool if I got my first army buzzcut from Ben?" Joshua told his mom. So they paid a visit to Scheinkopf. As Ben clipped Joshua's hair, the former Auschwitz barber and young soldier bonded over stories about Scheinkopf's Israeli Army experiences during the 1948 War of Independence and visits with David Ben-Gurion who came from his town of Plonsk, Poland.
In May 1941, Scheinkopf, then 21, watched as German soldiers turned his town into a ghetto. Within a year, his family was on a train to Auschwitz. "I never thought I'd survive. The crematoriums were burning day and night," said Scheinkopf, 97, during an interview from his Chicago home. "But I told myself I have to stay alive to tell people what happened."
Like the numbers tattooed on his arm, some bad memories cannot be erased. "The Nazis brought over these young girls," he recalled. "We had to cut off all their hair with clippers. It was terrible. How can you forget that?"
After the war, he didn't speak about the Holocaust. The Nazis killed his father and four of his eight siblings. And older brother Josef was separated from his wife and two young sons, and he never saw them again.
In January 1945, as U.S. forces closed in and the Germans realized they were losing the war, they shipped the remaining prisoners, including Scheinkopf and Josef, to Mauthausen concentration camp.
When American soldiers liberated the camps on May 5, Josef brought them to Scheinkopf who lay on a wagon with dead bodies. He was unconscious and weighed only 60 pounds.
He woke up the next day at a hospital near Bad Ischl, an Austrian resort town, and had no idea where he was. "I see the sun is shining and there are windows," he recalled.
After that day, other rays of hope appeared in his life.
He and Josef became barbers for American soldiers in Patton's Third Army. "One day I said to the cook, a Swedish-American fella, 'You throw away so much food. Why don't I bring it to my people in the DP camp?'" he said.
Every day, he drove in the jeep to drop off the leftovers until his army unit was transferred to a small town in Bavaria. The brothers opened up a little barbershop, and that's when Scheinkopf met his future wife, Emily.
By 1954, the couple, along with three-year-old son Danny, had started a new life in Chicago.
In recent years, Scheinkopf opened up about his past and became somewhat of a celebrity. He has granted interviews to local news stations and Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, appeared in two documentaries, Barberland and Hillel Torah's Names, Not Numbers , and spoke to local schools.
His story has moved some kids to tears and others to honor him with handshakes and letters. During a 2014 talk to mostly Latino students, he spoke about the ghettos and gas chambers.
"I told them that, out of 6,000 Jews in my town, only 30 survived. A few friends here survived, but now they are gone. I'm the only one left," he said. "The kids were crying, they couldn't believe something like this could happen."
After the talk, over 100 letters arrived at the shop. "The kids all wrote, 'Dear Mr. Scheinkopf, we love you.' I still have that bag of letters," said Emily.
Sitting in their living room, the Scheinkopfs, who have been together for 65 years, have reasons to be thankful. They were able to afford a home, raise three sons, and put them through college, an opportunity Ben Scheinkopf himself never had.
"We came from a place with nothing to this wonderland America, and we made a beautiful life," said Emily, 91. "To this day, we think it's the best country in the world."
Jennifer Brody is a former associate editor at JUF News and a freelance writer living in Chicago.
*Name changed to protect privacy.