Aviva Cohen – Holocaust Survivor and all round Wonder Woman

Holocaust Survivor and all round wonderwoman Aviva Cohen answers Ten Questions.

Miriam Hechtman

my 73rd birthday dinner 013To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day today, I thought it fitting to ask this month’s Ten Questions to Aviva Cohen – a woman I admire and respect immensely and whom I was privileged to meet in 2010 in New York whilst working on a Holocaust photography project. Though I was only able to spend a short time with Aviva in New York, we have stayed in touch and I have gotten to know her a lot better as we have shared our family milestones and love for the arts via Facebook. Aviva has kindly answered Ten Questions via email in time to honour this important day.

Some background on Aviva:

Aviva was born September 8,1939 in Southern Poland near Katowice, to Henry and Lunia Reichmann Messing.

Aviva’s father had to leave her pregnant mother and grandmother and escape the Nazis’ list of ‘activists’ (aka Zionists). In 1943, after being herded into a local ghetto, at her mother’s urgent request to her Uncle Sevek’s fiancee, Anna Rosenberg (aka Anna Smierczalska), Aviva was smuggled out of the ghetto and ‘passed’ as Krysia Miedzinska – a ‘Catholic child’, until the end of the war. Both Aviva’s mother and grandmother perished in Auschwitz. (Her uncle Sevek had immigrated to Palestine in January ’39 and Anna never saw him again.) Aviva was reunited with her father in 1945; he remarried in 1946, and he, Aviva’s new mother Ella Wolkenberg Messing, who had survived Auschwitz, and Aviva, left Poland to escape the continuing waves of dangerous anti-Semitism. Their goal was Palestine, but there was no direct route. They left by train to France, with Aviva’s parents first working in an orphanage outside of Paris (Bellevue) with Polish war orphans, then in Brunoy (also a Paris suburb) with orphans from the French colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Aviva’s sister was born in Paris in 1947. The family never made it to Israel, and her parents, both ardent Zionists, immigrated to the US in 1951.

Aviva completed high school in the US and went on to receive a BA in English, MA in English Education and some credits towards a PhD in Drama. She married her husband Shelly in 1960, and is the proud mother of three sons, David, Aaron and Daniel. She has worked for an off-Broadway theatre company, in the fashion industry and finally with her husband at his civil law practice as an office manager. She technically retired in 2005 but still works occasionally. (like today!!)Aviva was reunited in 2001 with Anna (her uncle’s fiancee whom she had not seen since in 1946) due to the herculean efforts of Edward Sendur, who lived upstairs from Anna in the same house as Aviva during that time.

Says Aviva: He ‘considered me his ‘little sister’ and searched for me for decades, and finally ‘found’ me through the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.’ So … Edward (Edziu), his wife Marysia, Shelly and I, went to Copenhagen where Anna and her husband Emanuel, a professor of history, had lived since the late 1960’s when another wave of anti-Semitism swept through Poland and he lost his job, but because he was fluent in English, he was able to relocate to Denmark. Anna is now 92, Emanuel 91. We speak on the phone, and I have been back in 2006 and then 2010 for her 90th birthday, bringing with me my son Daniel and his family – he and his wife Dafna had wanted to meet her – to say ‘thank you’.


What is the essence of being a woman?

Strength and flexibility – being able to adjust to whatever unexpected changes life brings you.

What do you feel unites women?

Sharing the same burdens and joys we experience.

How do you stay strong, assertive and feminine?

By the encouragement and support of my husband, my children and my close friends.

What and who inspires you? 

my 73rd birthday dinner 015Acts of courage, acts of selflessness … thinking for one’s self and not running ‘with the pack’. Who in particular inspires me? There is not a specific individual, but I must confess I AM inspired by the journey taken by my dear friend Jock Soto – born on a Navajo reservation, motivated by a dancer he saw on TV, encouraged and accommodated by his parents (father Puerto Rican, mother full Navajo), driven since childhood by his extraordinary natural talent, and accomplishing a major career in dance; subject of a documentary (Water Flowing Together 2007) and a memoir (Every Step You Take 2011) – dancer, teacher extraordinaire.  I was his #1 fan, and eventually transitioned to friend. He has inspired so many artists to be the best they can be.

How do you live your life so it has meaning?

By being true to myself, listening to my inner voice and following my instincts.

What contribution would you like to make to benefit humankind?

I do not have such a capability, but I would dearly like to see hunger vanish.

How do you stay calm under pressure?

I find it difficult, but in a crisis I am calm and in control, and when it’s over, then I collapse! What helps me stay calm? Music, music, music … reading a good book, and the joy of watching dance.

How do you move from dream into action into completion?

Not always successful, but as I age, I seem to plan better, and use my resources to fuller advantage. How do I plan better? Actually, I have become so forgetful that I write everything down. I have pads and pens in almost every room. I make a list of what I am doing each day on a sheet in the kitchen, including what I am cooking for dinner!  There is a large calendar on my kitchen wall, another calendar in my home office, and of course one calendar/diary in my handbag… and no, I do not have an iPhone.. still use my flip phone…still use a digital camera, still make phone calls.. and of course email, etc.

Three words to describe how you maintain a life balance.

Love. Art. Spirituality.

If you could ask any woman one question, what would you ask?

What constitutes joy in your life?