Saturday, March 09, 2013

A Tale of Loss, A Tale of Love

The crowded vessel lurched atop the Black Sea, a Red Cross flag flying high above the mast to disguise the Jewish refugees it carried within as Isadora Rosen climbed on to the deck of the 130-foot cargo boat to escape the groping hands of strangers. The skinny 20-year-old girl from Romania, one of 600 orphans aboard the ship, could not have known what the future would hold for her.

She could not have known that on that cold December night aboard the ship she would meet a Czechoslovakian man named Joshua Benanav, himself an escapee of a Jewish slave camp, and that despite their language barrier she would marry three days later.

She could not have known a decade later they would emigrate to America, that her husband would become a real estate developer and she a top saleswoman at Lord & Taylor in Scarsdale, N.Y., that together they would raise a family. And she couldn’t have imagined that nearly 70 years after her journey of escape from the Nazis across the Black Sea that her grandson would visit a university in Saratoga Springs to share her story of survival. 
“It's unbelievable,” says her grandson, Michael Benanav, a New York Times travel journalist and photographer, who penned the couple’s story in his book, “Joshua and Isadora: A True Tale of Loss and Love in the Holocaust.”

“I've been re-reading the book to get ready for this (at Skidmore College) and it’s still an unbelievable story how they survived and met each other,” he says. Benanav returned to Eastern Europe to visit the places where his paternal grandparents suffered during World War II and escaped the Nazis. Musician Howard Fishman, Benanav’s Connecticut childhood friend and former little league teammate, accompanied the travel journalist on the month-long trek and recorded a 13-song album, “No Further Instructions,” based on the journey.
Fishman’s haunting and hypnotic musical odyssey recalls “the strange and beautiful adventures we had there,” the musician says, about the sonic document which teeters between the Romanian revelry of the wonderfully unknown to the avant-minimalism of “Baia Mare,” in an explosive orgy of melancholic strings.

 The Brooklyn-based songwriter with 10 albums to his credit says what he saw during the journey was a people who despite lacking material possessions were rich in soul, warm, complete, and who didn’t seem to be lacking anything at all.

Benanav as an author and freelance photographer has immersed himself in foreign cultures and brought compelling images and stories back from distant lands. His work has appeared in The New York Times, and on CNN.com, among other places.

He caught the travel writing bug at an early age. “A lot of it started when I was a kid. My dad would read these classics - “Around The World in Eighty Days,” “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” – in those stories it was easy to place myself in the title role. I thought if some people can do this stuff, then why can’t I? And, in a practical sense being a wilderness instructor, I love wilderness and walking place to place, so it’s a natural fit to be pursuing those subjects.”

His work began primarily as a writer and increasingly gravitated toward photography out of necessity since his travels to remote locations meant a photographer wasn’t usually available.

We are different, but there are things which unite us, Benanav says. “Basically there are vast cultural differences and vast differences in world views, but in most places people have a sense of humor.”
The humor is evident on the faces of the people in his captured images whether it comes from simple joy, or as an act of defiance in difficult circumstances that says: we are alive. It is captured on the faces of the people along the camel caravans in Timbuktu to the nomadic water buffalo herders of the Van Gujjar tribe; from the Himalayas to Kenya and Egypt to Romania.

“If you can connect to people on that level, laughing together, a kind of connection is made.”

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