Morris Penn was born in Lithuania where the Jewish population built a vibrant cultural and religious life before World War II. Nearly half of the people in Morris’s hometown of Vilkaviškis were Jewish. He recalled that they generally lived in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors.
In August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania which had been an independent country since the end of World War I. Although the Soviets nationalized his family’s dry goods store and stationed troops in their home, Morris and his family never feared for their lives under Soviet occupation. That changed when Germany overran Lithuania in the summer of 1941. During the reign of terror that followed, torture and murder became commonplace. Morris vividly remembered the day in July 1941 when the SS forced him and his oldest brother Joseph to help dig several huge pits. Then, nearly 900 Jewish men, including Morris’s brother Refael and his father Mordechai, were forced to line up in front of the completed pits. As the SS units shot them, they fell into the waiting graves.
After the massacre, Morris and his remaining family members went into hiding. Morris’s mother and sister were betrayed and murdered in the beginning of 1942, but he and his brother Joseph managed to evade capture. For the next three years, Morris lived a nomadic life. Sometimes, he posed as a Lithuanian Catholic and worked as a farm laborer. Other times, he crouched in cramped hiding places. “Every day and every night you dream,” he remembered. “I had a dream I will get liberated.” In October 1944, his dream came true: Russian troops recaptured Lithuania on their westward advance and Morris and Joseph were free.
After the war, Morris made his way to a camp for displaced persons in Austria. Through a distant relative, he learned that he had an American aunt who was willing to sponsor him. Morris settled in Houston in 1949. His brother Joseph, together with his wife and new baby, joined him the following year. In December 1951, Morris married Linda Kremer, whom he had met in Austria. After working as a traveling salesman for several years, Morris bought a dry goods store in Newgulf and he and Linda ran it together. They subsequently bought stores in League City and La Marque, where they brought Joseph into the business with them. The Penns moved to Houston in 1965 so that they could raise their three children as part of a Jewish community.
After retirement, Morris served as the treasurer of the Houston Council of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He returned to Lithuania several times to visit the family who saved his life, and regularly sent them care packages. Linda died on February 3, 2001 from kidney failure and complications of cancer surgery. In 2009, Morris passed away only two days after attending the graduation of his son, Hy Penn, as an HMH docent.
Mordechai Penn, d. Vilkaviškis, 1941
Zlata Pajewonski Penn, d. 1942
Refael, d. Vilkaviškis, 1941
Rivka, d. 1942