Obituary: Rena Behrman

Born in Riga - now the capital of Latvia - in 1909 Rena Berhman found her way to London and founded the first British WIZO group for young women


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

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