Rena Olenick

The traveling exhibit “Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” officially opened on Sunday afternoon at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center with a screening of Ahead of Time, a documentary about Gruber’s remarkable life, and a Q&A session with Gruber herself, via Skype from her New York apartment. Gruber can’t hear as well as she used to, or speak as forcefully, but a cousin of IHM curator Arielle Weininger had volunteered to sit at Gruber’s side in order to interpret.

The Q&A session turned out to be a bit anticlimactic. Maybe the crowd was tired after sitting for an hour and a half, or maybe people had been intimidated by the museum staff’s request that all questions be as simple as possible so as not to confuse Gruber. Whatever the case, after less than five minutes, the supply of audience questions had been exhausted.

But there was one person in the room who had a special message. Besides being old Jewish ladies, she and Gruber had a couple of things in common: they’d both spent time in the Soviet arctic and on the deck of the Exodus. They had never met. Nonetheless, the museum staff thought it would be a nice thing if Rena Olenick sat down at the Skype mic to say hello.

Their conversation was short. Olenick read from a prepared statement thanking Gruber for bringing attention to the Exodus. Gruber thanked Olenick for coming. And that was it.

Before the screening, though, Olenick told me a little more of her story.

My name was Rosalia. I changed it to Rena when I moved to Israel. A lot of immigrants chose Hebrew names. I was born in Baranovichi in White Russia in 1931. Life was very good. My family was very well to do. My father married my mom because she was the oldest. He liked her sister better, but their marriage was like heaven.

When the war came, my father was sent to prison in Tashkent. They sent my mother, my sister, and me to Siberia. I was 10. When we were sent to Russia, the train was for animals. There were Russians on it, too, not just Jews. We lived in one room with another family with two kids. We all shared a bed. There was a wooden divider. There was a kerosene stove on the floor. My sister fell on it and was burned.

We went to school, and we worked in the fields making hay. Our pastime was looking for lice. My mother never complained. My father wrote us letters and found us before the end of the war. When he lived with us, we moved to a town. My parents were a good crutch.

After Siberia, we crossed borders at night and ended up in an Austrian DP camp. We’d walked the whole way. My father was elected secretary of the camp. They chose him because he was very intelligent and because he was an accountant. He planned for us to move to the U.S., where we had an aunt, or Israel, whichever came first. My sister and I went to school in the camp. We went skiing. People drank a lot of beer.

We sailed on the Exodus from Marseilles. Before it was Exodus, it flew under the flag of Honduras. It was terrible on the Exodus. It was very hot and very crowded. We slept on the deck. There were cabins, but the doors were gone. I had three dresses, and I wore them all at once. I had one pair of shoes, but I didn’t wear them; I wanted to wear my shoes in Israel.

The English saw us immediately. They knocked the boat. The boat was taken to Haifa and we were transferred to three military ships. I was on the Empire Rival. [Gruber photographed another ship, the Runnymede Park.] I worked in the kitchen. We went back to Marseilles and stayed there for 24 days. The English wanted us to be taken by the French, but they didn’t want us. We were transferred to Germany. We stayed in Bergen-Belsen for a year.

I don’t remember very much. I never complained because I’d had experience. I never wanted more in life. I was very prudent. I didn’t want luxury. Family was important. Money was not. The brainwashing by the Soviets made me not care about material things. It made me resilient and not preoccupied with things that don’t matter.

Olenick and her family arrived in Israel in 1948, as soon as it became an independent country and started letting refugees in. She became an RN and, eventually, the chief nurse of the Israeli air force, where she met her husband, also a Holocaust survivor. They immigrated to the United States in 1956 and settled in Peoria, where their two sons were born and where Olenick continued to work as a nurse.

She was unfamiliar with Ruth Gruber and her work, although she had a copy of Exodus 1947, Gruber’s account of the ship’s abortive voyage, in her bag, along with a small photo album of pictures and clippings of and about the Exodus, all assembled after the fact. She seemed politely interested in Gruber—she was at an exhibit of Gruber’s photos, after all—but more interested in talking about her husband and her grandchildren and her life in America.

During the screening, I started to feel a little angry at Gruber. The Exodus was her big story. The day after she filed her famous photo of the Runnymede Park, she flew back to Paris. It was true she did travel around Europe taking pictures of inmates in DP camps, and that her photos helped influence public opinion and probably helped pave the way for the establishment of the state of Israel—and a way for Olenick’s family to become citizens instead of DPs. But at the end of it, Gruber always had a home to go back to if she wanted. She got the glory. She got to be considered a hero. And Rena Olenick and the other Exodus refugees had to spend yet another year in a camp, after all the years they’d spent in camps during the war. It didn’t seem fair.

I probably should have asked Gruber about it, but I didn’t. Maybe she would have said she was just a journalist being a journalist, that the job is about dropping into people’s lives and getting their stories, that getting her photo into Life did far more good than if she’d spent three weeks lying on the deck of a British prison ship, and, as a journalist myself, I should know this already since I’ve likely done the same thing. I’ve never covered anything as dramatic, but, yeah, she’d be right. And maybe she did do a service to Olenick, who, after having the full Exodus experience, chose—probably correctly for the sake of her own sanity—not to remember it.

It would have been interesting to hear what kind of conversation Olenick and Gruber might have had in a more natural setting. Or even if there was anything left to be said at all.