Part of a year-long series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California
Rena Victor remembers the bombs falling on Hamburg. She was only 4, but to this day she still startles at loud noises.
“Way back in my head there are memories,” she said. “And lots of fear.”
Rena, 80, lived through one of the most terrible bombing runs of the war. She survived the Holocaust hidden on a farm with her mother and sisters, in constant fear of being sent to the camps. But for Rena, as with most survivors, the trauma of the war didn’t end when the fighting did.
“It stays with you for life,” she said. “There’s no question about that.”
Rena, an elegant white-haired woman with a gentle German accent, was born in Hamburg to a Jewish mother, Margarete Singer, and a non-Jewish, left-wing father, Emil Oestreicher. The couple met when Margarete snuck off to go dancing with a friend. They courted and eventually married, with Emil even offering to convert to Judaism.
“Good thing he didn’t,” Rena said. “He probably saved all of our lives.”
Under the Nuremberg Laws, enacted in 1935, her parents’ relationship became a crime, but her father, as a non-Jew, was able to protect his family for a time.
“He was constantly told to divorce my mother because it was against the law,” she said.
But her father stood firm, even as his business, a small shop, was targeted.
“It was constantly vandalized,” Rena said. “He was ordered by the Gestapo to close the shop.”
Although Rena’s maternal family members had been deported and killed, her father’s protection meant that the family was still living in Hamburg when it was bombed in the summer of 1943. Operation Gomorrah, as it was called by the Allies, deliberately targeted civilian areas; an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 people were killed, more than in the bombing of Dresden, and some 125,000 more were injured.
“The Americans bombed during the day, the British bombed at night,” Rena said.
Her father had been drafted and sent to Belgium by then. During the raids, Rena and her two sisters, as the daughters of a gentile, were allowed in the apartment’s bomb shelter. But not her Jewish mother.
“They didn’t let my mother go into the bunker,” Rena said.
Eventually, more clear-headed residents prevailed, allowing Margarete to join her children. In the aftermath, the family was among those evacuated from the ruins of the city to a safer area (in Bavaria). But it was out of the frying pan, into the fire, Rena recalled. They were placed in the home of a Nazi who didn’t know they were Jewish.
“That’s where we were for six to eight weeks,” she said.
Their host would invite Margarete to join her as she listened to Hitler’s speeches on the radio.
“Of course, it was the last thing my mother could bear, and she would say, ‘Oh, I’m busy with the children,’” Rena said.
Meanwhile, Emil, not knowing if his wife and children were alive or dead, was searching the rubble of Hamburg. Once he did track them down in Bavaria, he used his political connections to find a hiding place for his family on a remote farm near Meiendorf, a district of Hamburg. Harrowing months followed, in what Rena called “primitive” conditions and with the constant fear of discovery. But they survived. The rest of their Jewish family was almost completely wiped out by the Nazis.
Way back in my head there are memories. And lots of fear.
Immediately after the war, Rena and her sisters, Helga and Marion, spent time in a Jewish home for orphans and displaced children in the Hamburg suburb of Blankenese, a rare period of serenity and beauty that still makes her smile in remembrance.
The war was over. But the effects of the war were not.
“There came another tragedy,” Rena said.
She cries even now when she remembers how, at age 11, she was separated for a time from her beloved older sister Helga. The two were only 18 months apart in age and very close. Her parents had divorced and her mother was determined to make a new life, but relatives in the U.S. only agreed to sponsor Margarete and one child. Rena’s father didn’t want to part with Helga, so it was Rena who left for New York City with her mother in 1947.
Once in the U.S., Rena faced both anti-Semitism and anti-German sentiments.
“Sometimes you would hear terrible things and then you’d have to say — and I said it! — I’m not your enemy,” she said.
Eventually the girls were reunited. They moved to Santa Monica, where Rena graduated from Santa Monica High School and married Walter when she was 17.
But she still wasn’t free from the trauma of the Holocaust: her husband, a survivor of the camps, had nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. He harbored a deep fear of people in uniform and official documents in the mail — fears that Rena said she shares to this day. That paranoia led to the couple never discussing the Holocaust with their daughter, Susan.
“We never talked about it,” Rena said. “We completely kept that quiet.”
It was kept so quiet that Susan didn’t even know she was Jewish until she was 23. Asked about that omission, Rena just shrugs.
“I always thought you must have known,” she said, turning to face Susan, who sat nearby during the interview. “But you didn’t.”
The truth came out when Susan’s father opened up to her from his deathbed.
“Did it change my life?” Susan said. “It completely changed my life.”
Susan, a former German teacher and now a lecturer in education at Sonoma State University, delved deep into her family history and encouraged her grandmother and mother to start speaking in classrooms about their Holocaust experiences. Her son recently graduated from UC Davis with a minor in Jewish studies and she is a board member of the Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide. Susan schedules her mother’s talks and estimates that Rena spoke to more than 600 students in the 2019 spring semester alone.
After all the silence, speaking feels freeing.
“I think it makes it feel good to do this with Susan and with my grandchildren, too,” Rena said. “It’s very meaningful.”
Rena now lives in San Rafael with her second husband, whom she met in a Hebrew class at Congregation Rodef Sholom, where she’s been a member since 1985.
As someone whose identity is both German and Jewish, Rena faces a strange dichotomy in talking about her family’s history. Among other survivors, she’s faced people who are uncomfortable hearing her German accent. And she has her own ambivalence within her, as well, when thinking about German culture.
“It’s different for German Jews. It always will be,” she said.
But she thinks it’s important to be a piece of living testimony for students today. Rena and her daughter visit three or four schools each month, mostly in the Sonoma area, to share her story — one that only she can tell with all the emotion and detail of someone who lived through it.
“One death is as terrible as millions,” Rena said. “But the Holocaust was unique. And it was unique to the Jewish people.”