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‘Ben the Barber’ Scheinkopf survived Nazi death camp by cutting hair

Ben Scheinkopf's skill as a barber helped him survive Auschwitz because the Nazis wanted the hair of their captives shorn to reduce lice at the camp. | USC Shoah Foundation

Benjamin Scheinkopf’s skill with a scissors helped him survive the Nazis’ biggest concentration camp.

His captors decided the young Jewish man’s barber training made him useful at Auschwitz. They thought short hair might control the vermin that had people contorting and scratching.

“They didn’t care about the inmates,” said his son Jeffrey, “but they didn’t want lice.”

Ben Scheinkopf cut hair for more than 80 years. | Provided photo

As Mr. Scheinkopf once put it: “The lice were eating you up alive.”

When he became a barber, he said, “nobody beat you.”

He and his brother Josef, who also trained to be a barber, both worked at Auschwitz. And as prisoners came before them to get their hair cut, whether they were from France, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Greece, they all had the same worry, Mr. Scheinkopf said. “Everybody asked the same questions. . . .Everybody wants to know where [their] family is.”

“I said, ‘Family — you’re not going to see it anymore,’” he recalled in testimony he gave to the USC Shoah Foundation.

Mr. Scheinkopf, who earned the nickname “Ben the Barber” during a career of more than 80 years, died Nov. 18 at 98.

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. Avrum’s first two wives died of illness. Then he married Chaya, the sister of his second wife. But she died of polio when her son Ben was about 4. He was raised by his father and siblings, relatives said.

Ben Scheinkopf wearing a bib with the logo of his beloved Cubs. | Provided photo

His father wanted him to be a cobbler because he thought it would provide security. “You always need shoes,” he told young Ben. But Mr. Scheinkopf and his brother wanted to cut hair.

“The fact he and his brother chose to be barbers saved their lives,” Jeffrey Scheinkopf said.

Ben Scheinkopf’s shoemaker father Avrum wanted him to be a cobbler instead of a barber. But cutting hair saved his life in a Nazi death camp. | Provided photo

After Germany invaded Poland, “they decided to bring the train cars and take people away,” his son said. Many of Plonsk’s Jews were shipped to Auschwitz.

Out of a Jewish population of about 5,000 in Plonsk, “Only a few dozen survived the Shoah,” according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Israel.

Mr. Scheinkopf’s 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.

Ben Scheinkopf received this identification tattoo at Auschwitz. | USC 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, he 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 Mr. Scheinkopf’s immigration to America in 1954.

Ben Scheinkopf met Emily, his wife of 66 years, in a displaced-persons camp in Germany after World War II. | USC Shoah Foundation

Of nine Scheinkopf siblings, only two others survived the war: Josef, who wound up in Israel, and Brana, who settled in France.

In the 1950s, Chicago had about 200 Plonsk refugees who formed a mutual aid association to help each other navigate their new country and language. They networked for jobs and bought cemetery plots together at Westlawn in Norridge and Waldheim in North Riverside.

“My dad was the last one [alive] out of that whole group, out of 200,” his son said.

Ben Scheinkopf and family. | Provided photo

Mr. Scheinkopf raised his family near Peterson Park on the North Side. And like many refugees, he couldn’t understand it when his American-born kids sometimes didn’t like what was served for dinner. To him, “wasting food was horrible,” said Jeffrey Scheinkopf. He’d tell them: “We were starving. We would eat bark off the tree.”

A man from Plonsk, Sidney Miller, hired him at his barber shop at Touhy and California. In that clean-cut pre-Beatles era, when men got their hair cut every two weeks, there were seven barbers working there. After Miller died in 1981, Mr. Scheinkopf took over and renamed it Ben’s Barber Shop. Many of his customers were third-generation clients.

“He finally had to retire at 97,” his son said.

Emily and Ben Scheinkopf in his Cubs gear. | Provided photo

After a haircut, he’d tell customers, “There — now you weigh less,” according to a 2016 essay by Barth Landor in Hippocampus magazine.

Mr. Scheinkopf rejoiced when the Cubs won the World Series last year. And every night, he enjoyed a shot of Canadian Club before dinner.

Services have been held. 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.

Ben Scheinkopf’s legacy in America: his grandchildren. | Provided photo