Survivor Profiles: Rena Olenick
Don't postpone things... Live today, don't postpone for tomorrow.
Rean Olenick was born in Baranovicze, Poland. Her grandfather, Grandpa Aaron, owned a factory and a flower mill. September 17th, 1939, the Soviets invaded Poland as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This caused Poland to be split into two different zones: Nazi Germany occupied the West, while the USSR occupied the East. Rena lived in the East. Upon the Soviets taking over, the Soviet police chief in Baranovichi nationalized Rena’s house and Grandpa Aaron’s factory. They had to move all of their possessions into a garage and ended up moving in with her father’s brother in Baranovichi. Four of them occupied one room.
The Soviets accused Rena’s father of exploiting the working class, which resulted in the Soviets deporting Rena and her family to Novogrudok, Poland (now Belarus). Grandpa Aaron, who once owned a factory and a mill, became a street vendor, while her mother started stockpiling food. Rumors began to circulate around Novogrudok that Rena’s father was a member of the bourgeoisie, the property owning class, which meant that the Soviets labeled her father an enemy of the state. As a result, the Soviets stuck Rena and her family on trains and sent them to the USSR. Her father ended up in a Soviet prison in Tashkent, Uzbek SSR, while Rena, her mother, and sister found themselves working on a Kolkhoz, a Soviet collective farm, in Siberia. On the Kolkhoz, Rena helped pick potatoes. After spending time on the Kolkhoz, the Soviets sent Rena, her mother, and her sister to Achinsk, Siberia. Three days before the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR, the Soviets released Rena’s father from the prison in Tashkent. He was sick and beat up. A doctor in Achinsk had to heal him back to health.
Rena and her family spent the war in the USSR. While the Soviets did persecute them, they also inadvertently saved their family since after the war, Rena learned that the Germans killed the Jews of Baranovichi. Upon reaching Baranovichi, there was nothing left of their old life. The house Rena grew up in became a park. As a result, their family traveled West and eventually found themselves in a Displaced Persons Camp (DP Camp). There, they got in touch with a Jewish organization that offered to take Rena and her sister to British controlled Palestine. Rena’s mother and father planned to sneak with their children into Palestine when the kids began to move. However, they ended up traveling West at night, slipping across national borders. Eventually, Rena and her family found themselves in a DP Camp in Ulm, Germany. A Jewish organization asked her family if they would like to move to the United States or to British controlled Palestine. In both countries they had relatives. Rena’s father was fine with whatever option came up first, which resulted in them trying to immigrate to Palestine, but illegally, since the British had a lot of restrictions on the amount of Jews they would accept into Palestine.
In 1946, Rena and her family set sail for Palestine from Marseilles, France on board the Exodus. The Exodus was attacked by the British, who were trying to prevent an influx of Jewish immigrants. Three people died during the attack as the British rammed the ship. The British put Rena’s family on a return ship that would take them back to Marseilles; however, upon reaching Marseilles, the French forced the returning Jews to wait three weeks outside the dock. The British eventually took the Jewish immigrants to British Occupied Germany and settled them in a DP Camp near Hamburg. The Exodus incident caused much controversy in the international papers, because the British forced fleeing Jews to return to Germany put them into Displaced Persons camps that had been converted from concentration camps. Rena and her family ended up residing for a period of time in the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen.
On May 15th, 1948, Rena and her family landed in the newly formed state of Israel. The United Nations granted Israel its independence a day earlier. Celebrations were muted, as war soon began with neighboring Arab nations. At age 17, Rena began nursing training and worked as a nurse for the Israeli air force from 1951-1954. From 1954-1956, Rena served as the chief nurse of the medical corps. Her experience as a nurse in Israel would lead to Rena pursuing a long nursing career in the United States. In 1955, Rena got married on the eve of Passover, and eventually, Rena and her husband moved to the United States. They settled in Peoria, Illinois, where Rena worked as a nurse for 43 years.
Learn More:Chicago Reader article
Photo credits: John Pregulman