The eldest son of Rabbi Yehuda-Arie Olewski and Hannah-Rivka (Nejman), Rafael-Gershon Olewski was born into a highly respected Hassidic family on 19 March 1914, in the small town of Osi?ciny, Poland.
As a youth, he studied in a Yeshiva towards rabbinical ordination, but went on to become a teacher at a religious school, an activist for the Jewish National Fund (Keren-Kayemeth-LeIsrael) and chairman of the local literary circle. He wrote articles in the regional Yiddish magazine, under the pen name “R. Rebus”, and was a reporter for the Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO).
In 1937, he was drafted into the Polish army and served in an elite cavalry regiment, where he was known as Felix. On one occasion, Rafael defended his Jewish faith by hitting a Pole who was harassing him about it, an act that gained him great respect in the eyes of the other soldiers.
In September 1939, the cavalry regiment lost a battle against a German tanks unit. Shot and wounded, Rafael was taken prisoner-of- war. That same night he escaped, facing a death penalty if recaptured.
Returning to Osi?ciny, he lived with his beloved mother in the local ghetto and, in 1941, was deported to several forced-labor camps, eventually reaching Auschwitz III [Buna-Monowitz]. With the Nazi withdrawal, he was deported to additional camps during the infamous “Death March,” finally arriving at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated by the British army on 15 April 1945.
Apart from his brother Rabbi Israel-Moshe Olewski, he had lost his entire family, and the two met by mere chance a few days after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, discovering that, without knowing it, they had been incarcerated in adjacent blocks.
The brothers were prominent figures in the Bergen-Belsen camp and they were both nominated by the Central Jewish Committee to organize Jewish life in post-war Celle (May 1945).
Rafael Olewski was elected the first chairman of the Jewish community of Celle after World War II.
On 15 January 1946, he married an Auschwitz survivor, Rachela Zelmanowicz of Bedzin, Poland, who had played in the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra. The rabbi who married Rachela and Rafael – in the local synagogue of Celle – was his brother, Rabbi Israel-Moshe Olewski, who was the first rabbi of Celle after World War II.
Their first child, Jochi (Jochevet-Rivka), was one of the first baby girls born in the hospital of the DP camp.
In Celle, Rafael Olewski initiated, edited and published (along with his colleagues Paul Trepman and David Rosenthal) the first independent Jewish magazine in the British Zone - UNDZER SZTYME. The building next to the synagogue, which had formerly housed the Jewish school, became the offices of the renewed Jewish community, where Rafael and his brother organized a revitalized Jewish life for the survivors.
This dedicated work lasted for about five years, however, Rafael Olewski was later elected to the Central Jewish Committee of the British Zone in Germany. His duties – which included heading the Culture Department and History Commission – forced him to return to the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, from where he continued supporting the Jewish community of Celle.
Rafael Olewski quickly became one of the leaders of the Bergen-Belsen survivors, dedicating himself to his people and working for their individual and cultural rehabilitation. He initiated the establishment of The Popular University of Bergen-Belsen. He fought to commemorate the lessons of the Holocaust. He was also very active in illegal Aliya-Bet to Palestine and was involved in the events surrounding the ship EXODUS.
As a devoted Zionist, he finally made Aliya to Israel in 1949, with his wife and daughter. His son Arie (Yehuda-Arie) was born in Israel.
In Israel, he was one of the founders, and later the Chairman of the Organization of Bergen-Belsen Survivors in Israel (IRGUN SHE’ERIT HAPLETA BERGEN-BELSEN BE-ISRAEL).
He was the Vice-President of the WORLD FEDERATION OF BERGEN-BELSEN SURVIVORS; a member of the YAD-VASHEM Public Council; Chairman of the BUNA-AUSCHWITZ INMATES ORGANIZATION; President of the AUSCHWITZ COMMITTEE in Israel; Chairman of the control committee of WORLD ORGANIZATION FOR JEWISH FIGHTERS, PARTISANS AND INMATES, and more.
A self-taught expert on compensation claims, he received a special State permit to practice law without having to sit for the Bar exam. The Minister of Justice appointed him to be an official member of the State committee investigating claims of compensation from Germany regarding forced-labor.
Taking an active part in Israel’s political life, he was one of the founders of the Likud, on behalf of the Israeli Liberal Party.
Serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he took part in the 1956 Sinai war, and was awarded the “Decoration of State Warriors” and the “Fighters against Nazis Medal.”
A long-standing journalist, he wrote for Yiddish magazines in post-war Germany and, then later on, in Israel. He also published articles in Hebrew newspapers.
He had a rare talent for organization, which he used to create a new framework for thousands of survivors and their families, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. In the highly active Belsen organization, they found a warm home and an opportunity to influence life in Israel. This new framework included: annual world conferences of Belsen survivors, Hanukah and Purim parties, conferences to commemorate Holocaust memorial days, pilgrimages to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, erecting memorial monuments in Jerusalem and at the Belsen memorial site in Germany, visits to Yad Vashem, inauguration of street names in various Israeli cities, planting trees in the Belsen Forest in Israel, and more. He was known as a true and devoted friend, and as a good-hearted, warm and humane person. He personally knew each and every one of the thousands of Belsen survivors, helping them whenever necessary, usually by anonymous acts of charity. He was a father figure to many and a leader to admire.
He brought up his children on values of tolerance and respect for all people, and taught them to honor Jewish tradition.
Always looking for the good in a person, he treated well-known people in the same way that he treated simple people, giving each the deepest respect.
He had great love for his younger, orthodox brother, Rabbi Israel-Moshe Olewski, even though he himself was not religious.
He was a devoted Zionist and a proud Jew.
As a journalist and a naturally gifted writer, he documented the daily life of his small Polish hometown in his book THE TEAR, depicting both the drabness and colorfulness of its people, the pre-Holocaust days, the horrors of the camps, and the hope and rehabilitation following liberation.
Rafael Olewski died in Israel on 24 November 1981.
His book THE TEAR was published in Hebrew in 1983 by the Israel Organization of Bergen-Belsen Survivors. The Belsen Memorial site and the Culture Ministry of Lower Saxony in Germany are about to publish the book in German.
His important historical documentation of the post-Holocaust Jewish press in Germany and in Israel, which he had collected for many years, was donated to The RACHEL AND RAFAEL OLEWSKI PRESS WING in the MASSUA museum (Tel-Yitschak, Israel), by his children, Jochevet Ritz (Olewski) and Arie Olewski.
In May 2006 his name was commemorated on a plaque at the synagogue of Celle, alongside the name of his beloved brother Rabbi Israel-Moshe Olewski.
The Archives of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau sent his children in 2006 an extraordinary document – "greeting from hell": A page out of the Revier Clinique of Auschwitz documenting Rafael's hospitalizing in 23rd March 1944, exactly as told by him in The TEAR…
In 2008 the ITS sent another document: his post control card from KZ Lager Mittelbau-Dora of January 1945.