Just like Sir Nicholas Winton, Rena Behrman will celebrate her 105th birthday this year. But unlike the well-documented efforts of Sir Nicholas, few know Rena helped rescue 1,000 young Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe and later embarked on a highly-dangerous mission to escort orphaned children to Palestine. Caron Kemp finds out more about her incredible life story.
Born on 23 June 1909 in Riga, Latvia, Rena Behrman was just five years old when the Russian and German empires mobilised against each other, leaving the Jews of Latvia caught firmly in between.
“Their language was German and their citizenship Russian,” explains the St John’s Wood resident. “The German Jews were expelled from Latvia, although the Jews of Riga apparently escaped deportation by bribing the governor general.”
Nevertheless, just six weeks after her youngest brother was born in June 1915, Rena’s mother sensed trouble and organised for the family to escape to Russia.
“Our flat there had previously been an office, so there was no furniture and we had to sleep on work tables and packing cases,” Rena recalls.
“In 1917, the Russian revolution began and order in the streets disintegrated. Our flat, which was above a butcher’s shop, was in the main square opposite St Isaac’s Cathedral, the scene of many killings.
“I can remember when Russian officers were being chased they would rush up to our flat, pull off their insignias, bang on the door and beg to be allowed in to hide.”
With food in extremely short supply, Rena’s family soon became reliant on parcels of brown flour mixed with straw, which were sent from her grandparents in the country. They used it to make buns for the children.
“Eventually, because of the severe shortage of food, the new regime decided to allow the refugees from the Baltic countries to return to their homes,” she remembers.
“But within a few months the war started again when Bolshevik troops captured Riga and supplanted the moderate government that had been established in Latvia. The killing went on and we could see from our window the corpses piling up in the streets.”
Eventually, the Soviet troops were expelled from Latvia and, with business improving, the family moved into a large eight-bedroom flat and went on their first holiday to Austria.
“My mother would travel to Czechoslovakia to buy beautiful china and glass and my father used to journey to England where he would buy textiles in bulk to sell wholesale,” recalls Rena.
Sadly, tragedy struck in 1926, the year of Rena’s brother Sammy’s barmitzvah, when her youngest brother died of meningitis. He was just 11. Following this, Rena moved to London to continue her studies.
She enrolled at the London School of Economics to study for a diploma in journalism, and became actively involved in Jewish groups.
By the time she returned to Riga, Rena was a committed Zionist and set her sights on living in Israel.
After spending a brief period living on a kibbutz, she met and married her husband, Boris, in London.
The newlyweds travelled to Basel for their honeymoon to attend the first World Zionist Congress and Rena remained active in the Women’s International Zionist Organisation for more than 60 years, including a spell as executive vice-president.
The imminent outbreak of the Second World War, however, would see Rena directing her energy into another great achievement – helping 1,000 young Jewish refugees to escape the horrors of Nazi Europe.
Now a young mother with a son, Victor, Rena and her friends Elaine Blonde and Rebecca Sieff organised themselves into providing assistance to young Jews throughout Europe.
“A group of us managed to get permission from the British government for 1,000 young Jewish people from Europe to come and replace the farm workers in Britain who had been called up to serve in the forces,” she recalls.
“These young people, who were called chalutzim, came from all over Europe – from Berlin and Breslau, from Cologne and Vienna – and almost certainly would never otherwise have survived the war. Arrangements had to be made to organise the travel and resettlement of these youngsters, who spoke no English and knew even less about farming.
“Many of them later helped to organise the children arriving on the Kindertransport and eventually became the Pioneers in Palestine.”
Rena’s heroism didn’t stop there, however, as she found herself recruited for Mossad Bet in Europe.
“During the war, I joined a Red Cross nursing course and worked in hospitals in London and Wales,” she recalls.
“Shortly after the end of the war, my friend Moshe Sharett, who went on to become the second prime minister of Israel, introduced me a lady organising illegal aliyah. “I was told to apply for a visa to Palestine and that when it arrived I should travel to Paris in my Red Cross uniform. There, I would accompany a group of 42 orphaned children from Marseilles to Haifa via Alexandria.
“The children, some as young as five, had lost their parents and had been in the camps or had survived the war by hiding in the forests. Many of them were deeply disturbed, even violent, with some refusing to speak.”
Some of the female refugees on board were pregnant or had newborn babies and Rena provided first aid and nursing care to the passengers throughout their treacherous two-week voyage.
Her experiences are recorded in a series of letters, posted home from Alexandria, which detail the dangerous journey and how many similar boats carrying refugees to Palestine were turned back by the British Navy.
Following the war, Rena, Boris and Victor settled in Hendon before moving to St John’s Wood, where Rena continues to live today with her son.
While Rena never made aliyah herself, she was able to travel to Haifa for her 100th birthday where her brother and sister – both of whom did make aliyah – threw a lavish party.
“I think she is quite inspirational and I am immensely proud of her,” admits her niece, Joan Mushin.
“Her life has included some pretty grim times, but it really is an amazing story and although she is less able nowadays following a broken hip, she continues to show great strength. We all have so much to learn from her.”