Rena Behrman

Cen­te­nar­ian WIZO founder who launched the first Jerusalem Baby Home

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JOAN MUSHKIN

WIZ0 LEG­END, Rena Berhman, who has died aged 107, founded the first Bri­tish WIZO group for young women in the UK. In 1931, she at­tended the First World Zion­ist Congress in Basel and later rep­re­sented the Fed­er­a­tion of Women Zion­ists at the World WIZO Con­fer­ence in Prague.

The el­dest of four chil­dren born in Riga to Hein­rich, a hab­er­dasher and Re­becca Elia­sohn, Rena was just five when the Rus­sian and Ger­man em­pires mo­bilised against each other, leav­ing the Jews of Latvia caught in the cross­fire.

Fear­ing a Ger­man in­va­sion, the fam­ily moved to St Peters­burg, then gripped by the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion. Their flat over­looked the main square op­po­site St Basil’s Cathe­dral, the scene of fight­ing and killing. Food was so scarce that they re­lied on parcels of brown flour mixed with straw sent by their grand­par­ents.

The fam­ily even­tu­ally re­turned to Riga, where Rena at­tended a Rus­sian school. Fol­low­ing the death of her brother aged 11, from menin­gi­tis in 1926, Re­becca brought Rena to Lon­don to learn English. She later en­rolled at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics to study for a Diploma in Jour­nal­ism, where she be­friended stu­dents from all over the world. Her first job was to write a re­port for a Rus­sian news­pa­per on the case of a Riga fi­nancier who was be­ing sued in the High Court in Lon­don!

Rena then spent six months in Pales­tine study­ing He­brew, worked on a kib­butz and in­ter­preted for a group of vis­it­ing Bri­tish of­fi­cials. Re­turn­ing to Riga, she formed a Zion­ist group with friends, which later be­came af­fil­i­ated to Young WIZO in Vi­enna. She mar­ried engi­neer­ing stu­dent Boris Behrman in Wies­baden in Germany and they set­tled in Lon­don, where he launched a tim­ber busi­ness. Rena’s par­ents and sib­lings, who had re­mained in Riga after the First World War, then moved to Pales­tine. But many fam­ily mem­bers were mur­dered in 1941.

When war was de­clared Rena and her seven year old son Vic­tor moved to Llan­dudno in Wales. Boris joined the anti-air­craft ser­vice and was sta­tioned at night on Hamp­stead Heath, work­ing dur­ing the day in his fac­tory. Rena re­turned to Lon­don, and qual­i­fied as a Red Cross nurse, vol­un­teer­ing at Manor House Hospi­tal, where she be­came known as the “Rus­sian nurse”.

On Is­rael’s In­de­pen­dence, she be­came WIZO UK’s first Tourist Chair­man hold­ing the post for 25 years, and for which in 1967, she re­ceived the Jerusalem medal from Mayor Teddy Kollek. The orig­i­nal Jerusalem Baby Home she had founded was re­named the Re­becca Si­eff Cen­tre for the Fam­ily, which pro­vides a lo­cal day cen­tre and vo­ca­tional school. Rena be­came Honorary Vice Pres­i­dent of WIZO UK and served on the Honorary Coun­cil, at­tend­ing events well into her 90’s.

In 1939 Rena with Elaine Blonde and Re­becca Si­eff re­ceived per­mis­sion from the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment to bring 1000 young Euro­pean Jews to Bri­tain to re­place the farm work­ers who had been called up. She un­doubt­edly saved their lives. She­joined the Red Cross and nursed in hos­pi­tals in Lon­don and Wales dur­ing the war. Not all her work was le­gal — at one point, at the re­quest of Teddy Kollek, she hid an il­le­gal ra­dio in her Hen­don house, enabling mes­sages from Pales­tine’s un­der­ground move­ment to be passed on to the Jewish Agency in Lon­don.

Soon after the war, Moshe Shar­rett, later the sec­ond Prime Min­is­ter of Is­rael, re­cruited her in her Red Cross uni­form, to ac­com­pany a group of 42 or­phaned chil­dren on a two week cross­ing in a leaky boat from Mar­seilles to Haifa. The chil­dren, some as young as five, had been liv­ing in camps or sur­viv­ing in the forests. Many were deeply dis­turbed, vi­o­lent or re­fused to speak. Rena pro­vided first aid and nurs­ing care on a haz­ardous jour­ney, where many sim­i­lar boats car­ry­ing refugees were turned back by the Bri­tish Navy.

The high point in her life was at­tend­ing the cel­e­bra­tions for the In­de­pen­dence of the State of Is­rael, and for the first time driv­ing through the streets of Tel Aviv with an Is­raeli flag fly­ing on the front of the car. In Lon­don, Rena and Boris be­came per­sonal friends with Is­raeli cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures. In the 1950s she or­gan­ised an­nual pro­grammes bring­ing in­jured Is­rael sol­diers to Lon­don, pro­vid­ing en­ter­tain­ment and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties.

Dur­ing the com­mu­nist era, Rena sent food parcels to rel­a­tives in Rus­sia, smug­gling clothes and goods on vis­its to fam­ily in St Peters­burg. An el­e­gant, re­mark­able, de­ter­mined and in­spi­ra­tional lady, Rena was highly cul­tured and spoke flu­ent Rus­sian, Ger­man, English and He­brew. Boris pre-de­ceased her in 1974. She is sur­vived by Vic­tor.

Rena Behrman: born June 23,1909. Died Jan­uary 27, 2017

Rena Behrman: sur­vived -Rev­o­lu­tion­ary cross­fire to found Bri­tish WIZO

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