Joseph Penn was born in Vilkaviškis, Lithuania, at a time when nearly half the town’s population was Jewish. He remembered that Jews and non-Jews got along well and that he and his family had a good life. Joseph’s parents, Mordechai and Zlata Penn, owned a dry goods store. As the oldest of four siblings, when Joseph was old enough he worked in the family store alongside his parents. After he graduated from school, Joseph served in the Lithuanian army.
In December 1939 Joseph married Rica Kramarska, originally from Poland, in a private ceremony. The next year the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. Although Soviet forces nationalized the Penns’ dry goods store and stationed troops in their home, the family continued to run the business as before. Everything changed after the German army invaded Lithuania in the summer of 1941. A Nazi reign of terror began in which torture and murder became commonplace. Joseph witnessed the brutal shooting of his father and brother. He quickly realized the family needed to leave.
Joseph and Rica went into hiding along with Joseph’s surviving brother Morris. They moved from place to place, hiding in barns and forests to escape Nazi forces. Many of Joseph’s non-Jewish friends helped them survive. Joseph also helped other Jewish families find safe hiding places. One night the family listened as bombs fell around the houses where they were hiding. The next morning they saw that all the surrounding houses had been destroyed. Joseph and Rica felt for the first time that they would survive the war.
After the war Joseph and Rica lived for a short time in Austria, where their daughter Sandra was born in 1945. The Penns walked over the Alps into Italy and settled in the city of Cremona. Joseph taught in the Jewish Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades (ORT) vocational school and Rica taught Hebrew lessons. In 1950 the Paine family sponsored the Penns’ immigration to the United States where their son Jeffrey was born in 1955.
Joseph and Rica survived the nightmare of World War II and went on to make a wonderful life for themselves and their children in Houston. At the time of Rica’s death in 2011, she and Joseph had been married for 72 years. They were fortunate to have five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Joseph and Rica live on through their family.
Mordechai Penn, d. Vilkaviškis, 1941
Zlata Pajewonski Penn, d. 1942
Refael, d. Vilkaviškis, 1941
Rivka, d. 1942