Out of the ashes

In 1993, historian Fred Rosenbaum led a group of Bay Area Jews on a tour of Eastern Europe. Among the sojourners: Joseph Pell of San Francisco and his wife, Eda.

One night in Budapest, the three went out for a quiet dinner together. At the restaurant, after some prodding, Pell told Rosenbaum a little about his life.

He was born Yosef Eppelbaum and grew up the son of a kosher butcher in the Polish countryside. But all too soon, his childhood came to a horrific halt with the start of World War II.

After fleeing to Ukraine, his family was trapped in a Jewish ghetto. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis murdered them all. Young Pell escaped to the woods where he joined the Resistance along with scores of other Jews, Russians and Ukrainians. From their forest hideout, the partisans fought with legendary ferocity.

Pell survived the war and made his way to San Francisco. There he started an ice cream business and later Pell Development, a San Francisco real estate company.

Rosenbaum could hardly believe what he was hearing. He had known the Pells for years. Eda was a former president of Lehrhaus Judaica, the Bay Area adult school that Rosenbaum founded. Joseph was an admired community figure. Who knew the soft-spoken senior citizen was also a hero of the Resistance?

Many years later, while touring New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, Pell experienced an epiphany. “Joe was disturbed that there was nothing on the Jewish Resistance,” recalls Rosenbaum. “Towards the end of that trip, he asked if I would join him in writing a book about his activities as a partisan.”

The book, “Taking Risks,” is now for sale in bookstores across the country. Rosenbaum himself will be on hand to talk about Pell’s remarkable life on Saturday, Nov. 20, at the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival in Walnut Creek.

The writing experience left Rosenbaum in awe of his friend.

“This is a guy who was dealt the worst hand a person could have,” says the historian. “To be 18 in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, to have one’s entire family murdered, to scrounge for potatoes and live in the forest for two years, and to make the most of it. It shows a kind of competence in the world.”

For Pell, delving back to those terrible days opened up old wounds. “It was sad,” he says. “There was crying at times. There isn’t a moment when I don’t think about what happened.”

Adds Rosenbaum, “Joe was reticent. The process included pain. He had to go back and relive the trauma he kept locked inside for almost 60 years. But he wanted to do it because as he has gotten older, he became more reflective.”

For Rosenbaum, Pell’s account stood out from other survivor stories. “This is not a typical Holocaust memoir,” he says. “It goes against the grain, against the stereotypes we have of Jews in Eastern Europe, and uncovers hidden corners of modern Jewish history.”

Pell starts out life as a rural farm boy, not a Polish city dweller. Early chapters are filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. “Joe was a guy that got his hands dirty,” adds Rosenbaum. “He has a rough quality.”

Moreover, Pell was much more than a victim. He fought back. “Taking Risks,” notes Rosenbaum, captures the daily life of the partisans, their encampments, their battles and their strategies for victory.

And the violence. When the need arose, Pell and his comrades executed captured German soldiers and anti-Semitic informers without mercy. Given what the Nazis had done to his family, who could blame him?

“At times you read in the paper about some people denying the Holocaust,” says Pell. “It usually made my blood boil. So that was another reason I wrote the book.”

Of course, the story of Joe Pell doesn’t end with the defeat of the Nazis. Pell started over in San Francisco, working his way up in classic Horatio Alger fashion.

“His upward trajectory is stunning,” says Rosenbaum. “Within a year he had an ice cream store which became very successful. Then he dabbles in real estate development and becomes one of Northern California’s leading developers. “

Pell lived the American dream, marrying fellow survivor Eda Kuflik in 1953 and raising a happy family. The couple became pillars of the local Jewish community. But Pell’s past was always with him.

“I felt I had to do this book,” he says, “in memory of my parents, my brothers and sisters and a lot of relatives. Then there was the family name, Eppelbaum. I felt that should be preserved. But without Eda’s help and encouragement I could not have done this book.”

Now that the book is done, both Pell and Rosenbaum look forward to sharing Pell’s story with the world. But any emotional closure for having told the tale may prove elusive.

“Joe would say, ‘You never heal from this,'” notes Rosenbaum. “This has no closure, no endpoint. I believe he is healthier for having told the story rather than having it locked inside him. But for all his accomplishments and his family, nothing can ease the torment he still feels

Fred Rosenbaum will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, 2071 Tice Valley Road, Walnut Creek. Information: (510) 839-2900, ext. 253, www.jfed.org/bookfestival/bookfest.html or [email protected].

“Taking Risks” by Joseph Pell and Fred Rosenbaum (228 pages, RDR Books and the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, $14.95).about what happened.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.