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Commentary: Ukrainian WWII survivor and friend to Gentry made most of American life

Sometimes people pass through our lives quickly but leave a lasting mark. Such was the case when I met Oleks Rudenko just three years ago. 
 
Oleks and his family entered my life quite unexpectedly, and just as unexpectedly Oleks left Dec. 30, 2013. But what I gleamed from him the few times I saw him will leave a lasting impression on me.
 
Oleks wasn’t a celebrity outside his circle of family and friends; but he was a man to be admired. He epitomized the American spirit and all who walked through his life felt the spirit he carried within.
 
We met on Nov. 11, 2010 in Jimmy Gentry’s art studio at his Pleasant View Farm. That day was almost like a family reunion for the two octogenarians. 
 
Although that was the first time they met face to face, Jimmy and Oleks had crossed paths 65 years earlier on a cold April day and both were shaped by the impact of that day.
 
To his family Oleks was a husband, a father and a hero—not for what he lived through during World War II—but for the man he became, in spite of what he lived through. 
 
To his friends he was a humble man, special and inspiring with a smile that lit up his face and a deep appreciation and love of life and family. 
 
Born on March 26, 1925 in a village in the Ukraine, Oleks, was only 17-years old when the Nazis nabbed him from his family’s home and loaded him into a cattle car with hundreds of other youth sent to be slave laborers at Dachau in Germany. 
 
He was a Christian but the Nazis’ goal was to exterminate the Ukrainian population by putting the young into slave labor camps in order to work them to death, leaving the adults home to starve to death.
 
Before Oleks was taken, he recalled what his father told him, “Don’t come back.”
 
He never did.
 
On April 29, 1945, after three harrowing years as a slave laborer in Dachau, Jimmy Gentry—then a young foot soldier—walked into Oleks’ life as part of the U.S. Army 42nd Infantry Battalion to liberate the camp and then walked out of his life…until that November day in 2010.
 
Although many were being shipped back to the Soviet bloc, Oleks’ yearning for freedom was as strong as his determination to heed his father’s words. 
 
He remained in Germany for five years as a “Displaced Person,” finished high school and waited for the German Lutheran church to arrange for him to immigrate to the United States. 
 
That happened in 1950. 
 
According to his daughter Larissa Rudenko Wright, when Oleks landed in New York City he was met by Lutheran church members, handed a sandwich, $15 and a train ticket to Los Angeles.
 
Alone and unable to speak or understand English, Oleks climbed aboard that train filled with hope, anticipation and ambition. 
 
He left the memories of fear and depravation behind ready to begin a new life. 
 
Oleks learned English, the American way of life, earned a college degree and a Masters degree. 
 
He was so proud the day he became an American citizen, his daughter Larissa said.
 
“He was so patriotic.” 
 
He loved his homeland and he loved his new homeland. 
 
During the Cold War, Oleks used his linguistic skills to teach German, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian to soldiers at the 101ST Military Intelligence Battalion UA Foreign Language Lab in Fort Riley, Kan. 
 
He was determined that the horrors he experienced never come to his new country. 
 
Oleks married, Katherine, a former German student he met at the University of Arizona in 1965.They raised their daughters Larissa and Irina and enjoyed a very happy life, filled with love and laughter, according to Larissa. 
Oleks Y. Rudenko died Dec. 30, 2013.
 
He is survived by his wife of 48.5 years, Katherine Rudenko; daughters, Larissa Rudenko (David) Wright and Irina O. Rudenko (Sean McWhortor); grandchildren, Katherine and Jacob Wright and Isabelle, Mason, Bentley and Oakley McWhortor; and several nieces and nephews in the Ukraine.
 
He is missed by many more.
 
One lesson I keep with me.
 
It’s not what happens during life that builds character, it’s what one does afterwards. 
 
It’s never too late to remember that lesson.
 
Contact Carole Robinson at crobinson@williamsonherald.com

Posted on: 1/16/2014

 
 

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