Aviva Benanav was freed from a child concentration camp in Romania, married an escapee from slave labor and headed to what was then called Palestine.
At the hands of the Nazis, Aviva Benanav had lost everything dear to her. The Romanian Jewish teenager had survived a death march across a frozen sliver of land in Ukraine known as Transnistria, winding up in a concentration camp for children. By December 1944, all she had left was one brother and the dream that somehow she would still flourish.
Perhaps that is why in the worst of circumstances she was so taken by the young man she met on a boat steaming across the Black Sea, each having escaped the Holocaust, together sharing in the hope that there would be better days ahead if they were lucky enough to reach what was then called Palestine.
On Sunday, the woman born Isadora Rosen and known as Aviva died in St. Paul. She was 87. Recognized across Israel as a founding pioneer, she and her husband spent nine years rebuilding their lives there before moving to the United States.
In December 1944, just three days after their ship slipped past British warships blocking entrance to Turkey, they found themselves crammed into a freight car rattling south toward Lebanon. There, Joshua Benanav, formerly a slave laborer in a Hungarian army unit, proposed marriage. She said yes to the man she barely knew, and a rabbi on the train car took it from there.
Out of their experiences during World War II would come the 2008 book "Joshua & Isadora: A True Tale of Loss and Love in the Holocaust," by her grandson, Michael.
Aviva Benanav went on to become a top saleswoman at Lord & Taylor in New York, widely known for her vibrancy and sense of humor.
Gary Benanav said his parents kept many stories of their serendipitous journey deeply buried until his own son interviewed them and traveled much the same route that brought them across Eastern Europe, through Lebanon and into Israel. Out of his own son's reporting, he said, the family watched the broken pieces of those war years being put back together.
"He [Michael Benanav] learned how if they'd taken a little twist to the left or a little twist to the right, they'd have been dead," Gary Benanav said.
As a young man, his father had escaped from the Hungarian army while in Romania, eventually finding himself running into the arms of Russian tank soldiers. Soon he was heading toward a port on the Black Sea.
"My mother was marched off to a camp in Romania in what was akin to the Bataan March," Benanav said, referring to the march by U.S. soldiers captured by Japanese in the Philippines. "She was eventually freed from a children's concentration camp by the Romanians -- they knew the war was coming to an end and they wanted to look as if they weren't complicit with the Nazis."
Of her wedding, she shared the moments that formed this narrative from her grandson's book: "They exchanged vows and Joshua gave Isadora a first tentative kiss -- on the forehead."
They couldn't speak the same language, but there was warmth layered with love in that problem: "Something blossomed in their silence. They'd have to wait a year until Isadora learned Hebrew; before they could really communicate. My grandmother likes to say it was the happiest year of their marriage."
In addition to her son Gary, she is survived by two other sons, Jay, formerly a St. Paul City Council member, and Dan; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2007. Services were held Thursday.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745
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