Rica Penn was born on December 15, 1921 in the thriving town of Suwałki, Poland, where her father worked as a builder. The family lived in a large house with indoor plumbing—a rare feature in those days—and Penn recalled a happy life with her parents and two younger sisters. She went to school in Suwałki and spoke several languages. As a teenager in the 1930s, Penn planned to go to Palestine with Zionist leader Menachem Begin (later Prime Minister of Israel). However, the trip was cancelled due to the political instability of the time.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland inciting World War II. Penn’s parents sent her to the city of Vilkaviškis, Lithuania for safety. There she met her future husband Joseph Penn. Rica was 18 years old when the couple married in a private ceremony in December 1939. 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 their business.
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.
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. Meanwhile, Rica’s parents and sisters were sent to Auschwitz. Only her sister Pola survived.
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 ORT vocational school and Rica taught Hebrew lessons. In 1950 the Paine family sponsored the Penns’ immigration to the United States, where the Penns’ 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.
Jacob Kramarski, d. Auschwitz, 1942
Gitle Kramarska, d. Auschwitz, 1942
Lea, d. Auschwitz, 1942