As a teenager during World War II, Anita Rowden narrowly escaped a Nazi work camp, traversed several European countries on foot and finally managed to reunite with her mother, who had just been liberated from a concentration camp. She credited her Christian faith with giving her the strength to continue.
To her family, however, Rowden was simply a caring mother and grandmother who occasionally happened to share her unbelievable story.
"She was just my Nana," said granddaughter Gina Smith of Montrose, Minn. "A wonderful, loving, attentive grandma."
Rowden, 93, previously of Ham Lake, died Oct. 13 of natural causes at Comfort Residence in Blaine.
She was born Anita Dittman in Breslau, Germany, in 1927 to a Christian father and a Jewish mother. Her childhood was shaken when her parents split up, forcing her mother, Hilde, to move her and her sister Hella to a small apartment.
According to her daughter, Jeanette Lynch of Apple Valley, Rowden attended a Lutheran elementary school, where her faith took root, and began attending church after the family met a pastor who protected local Jews. The next years brought a move to the ghetto and the start of the war.
While her sister received a visa and moved to England, Rowden had to quit school and work in a factory. With the borders closed, Rowden and her mother "were basically trapped," Lynch said.
The Gestapo moved Hilde to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, in 1944, and Rowden was sent to Barthold, a work camp for people who were part Jewish. After several months there, she and some other women escaped when the guards weren't looking, bribing passersby in a carriage with money and cigarettes for a ride.
After walking miles in wooden shoes, Rowden developed a blister that became infected. The infection traveled up her leg and put her in the hospital. After accidentally revealing her Jewish background while under anesthesia, her nurse began withholding treatment and tried to harm her, but Rowden recovered and made it to Theresienstadt just after the Russians liberated the camp and saved her mother from a trip to the gas chambers.
Rowden and her mother spent a year in a displaced persons camp before taking a ship to the United States in 1946. She settled in New York, Missouri and Iowa before following her husband's work to Minnesota in 1953. She held several jobs in the early-childhood field, which was her passion, said her son, Floyd Nagler, of Prior Lake.
In 1979, Rowden told her survival story to Jan Markell, who wrote a book about her titled "Trapped in Hitler's Hell." She shared her experiences in hundreds of churches, focusing on the power of her Christian faith to help her survive.
"It's one miracle after another," said Markell. "It's inspired people to keep the faith."
Nagler said his mother's faith was "every common denominator in her life," and that her openness was unique. "I could talk to her about anything," he said. "She was an unbelievable listener."
Lynch said the war traumatized her mother and left her paranoid at times, but added she was a loving parent who made sacrifices for her children.
Smith said that her grandmother read books to her and was "very into playing with kids on their level." She didn't know Rowden's whole story until high school, when she read her book and realized, "Wow, Grandma really went through a lot."
Besides her daughter and son, Rowden is survived by four grandchildren. The family plans to hold a small ceremony next year.