Jewish love stories: Living Jewish history

“They started in the same place, were ripped apart by the Holocaust, found their way to the exact same city, and fast forward well over 70 years later, their grandchildren have been married for nearly three years."
Avi and Illana at the Kotel in Jerusalem, Israel [Photo Courtesy: Avi Posen]

Avi thought he knew everyone in Jewish Winnipeg. As a lifelong Winnipeger, an active member of the community, and a teacher at the only Jewish high-school, he was pretty certain he had crossed paths with most people at some point or another.

That is, until almost eight years ago. 

“One of the [Chai Folk Ensemble] dancers was injured, so I was a replacement,” he says. “When I came to the first rehearsal, I saw this one girl and immediately thought: ‘who is that?!’”

It was Illana. His now-wife.

Though we can all imagine how their story continued from that chance encounter, it’s not the only thing that makes Avi and Illana’s union so special.

“We found out soon after that, even before we started dating, that our zeides grew up in the same shtetl in Poland called Sanok,” Avi tells me. “They went to the same (cheder) school in Sanok, they were the same age, they were in the same class… And later, they both survived the Holocaust.”

As it happens, in the aftermath of the Shoah, after both Illana and Avi’s Zeides had experienced great loss, they both ended up in Winnipeg, Canada of all places.

“We need to remember that they could have ended up anywhere! Australia, South Africa, England, America, Israel, Argentina… Of all these places, they ended up in the cold city of Winnipeg,” explains Avi. “They started in the same place, were ripped apart by the Holocaust, found their way to the exact same city, and fast forward well over 70 years later, their grandchildren ended up meeting, and now, they have been married for nearly three years.”

How’s that for Jewish geography?

After meeting Illana, Avi had the opportunity to visit Poland with his Zeide Sol and walk through the same streets his and Illana’s grandfather’s once inhabited. Illana’s Zeide Morris had passed away several years prior.

We shared Zeide Sol’s story on Instagram this year on Yom HaShoah:

“Meet Sol Fink, the oldest Chazan in Canada and the man who finds the positive in everything.

“In 2013, I had the privilege of visiting Poland with my zaide, Sol. We went to his shtetl, his hometown. It was the first time he’d been back in 73 years. It was a powerful, emotional, upsetting and inspiring trip in many ways. Something I noticed throughout the trip, was that wherever we went and in all the pictures I took of him, he held up the peace sign. 

At the end of the trip I asked him, ‘Zaide, why are you holding up the peace sign in all these pictures and in all of the places that we’ve been? And he said, ‘I’m not holding up a peace sign. I’m holding up V for victory. Its the victory sign because we survived and we are here. And I have Jewish children and grandchildren. Am Yisrael Chai.’”

“Since Illana’s Zeide died when she was only seven years old, she never got to hear the stories the way I have,” explains Avi. “My Zeide’s three sisters, all in their mid to late 90’s, remember all these details about Illana’s family that was killed in the Holocaust: her aunts and uncles, cousins, Zeide, his siblings. It’s been amazing for her to learn about her own family, some of which she had never even heard of, because so much of her family was completely wiped out.”

Avi doesn’t see his story as luck, chance, or serendipity. 

“It says in Judaism that when you’re born, God already knows who your B’sheret [soulmate] is, it’s already been planned out,” he says. “So when you find your person, it really inspires you, it makes you feel really connected to that person, your people and to your faith.”

Today, Avi and Illana live in Haifa, Israel with their dog, Kobe and a baby on the way. Their family history frames their relationship in a powerful way.

“As a Jewish educator, it really makes me feel a part of the Jewish story. Jewish history isn’t something we just read about in a textbook. It’s something we’re living all the time,” says Avi.

“Our families were ripped apart and murdered, but today, they’re reunited. We live in a Jewish state in 2021. The big picture of Jewish history is incredible, and we’re living it. We’re all a part of it, and it’s a powerful thing.”

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