Isaac Baum, Auschwitz survivor, inveterate optimist, dies at 79

In Voltaire’s “Candide,” the protagonists undergo a series of excruciating foibles and are made to look like fools for the “best of all possible worlds” philosophy of optimism they espouse.

Well, Isaac Baum underwent ordeals far, far worse than anything Candide, Pangloss or any of Voltaire’s heroes dealt with. Baum survived eight concentration and labor camps, including Auschwitz. But he never lost his sense of optimism.

Baum, a healthy man up to the last day who also never retired from his beloved family pearl business, died of a heart attack Jan. 19. He was 79.

“It was always amazing how optimistic he was. He was a man who had tremendous faith in God,” said his daughter, Naomi Baum.

“His optimism and faith were contagious. He really affected a lot of people in his life.”

Baum was born in the town of Slupianowa, Poland (now called Nowaslupia), into a family of highly religious adherents of a Chassidic order that was effectively exterminated during the war.

He was barely a teenager when hostilities broke out and was deported to the first of many camps when he was only 14. Baum was too young to last long in a labor camp, but his father and brother bargained for his life, and were able to have him reassigned to less labor-intensive jobs. In 1944, with the war’s end in sight, Baum’s father, Elimelech, was separated from his sons and later killed. Baum’s older brother, Fred, was also separated but survived, though the two wouldn’t see each other again for nearly 20 years.

As the allies closed in on Baum’s camp, the 17-year-old was forced to undergo a death march to Theresienstadt.

“I didn’t know if my brother and father were alive anymore. I didn’t even know what was keeping me alive,” he told a writer for a jewelry magazine in 2002.

Baum managed to beat the odds and survive the war, and several years later he was chosen for a program in Great Britain in which war orphans were placed in state housing and taught a trade. Baum was taught to be an electrician and made a living selling lighting fixtures.

The Red Cross eventually reconnected Fred and Isaac Baum when the two both wrote to family friends in Israel. Fred, who died several years ago, had emigrated directly from Europe to Stockton, Calif., and Isaac decided he had to leave England to join his long-lost brother.

He told his future wife, Evelyn, he’d marry her if she came to the United States with him, but if she didn’t want to leave her home country, he’d understand. The two were married in 1962 in the playground adjoining San Francisco’s Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim. They were married 45 years and had two children.

The couple joined Orthodox Congregation Adath Israel as soon as they moved into the city, and Baum supported his new family by selling watches. Eventually, one of his sales contacts gave him some pearls to move and Baum sold them so quickly he decided to go into the business.

“He didn’t know anything. He always told me he didn’t even know how to drill a pearl,” said son Anthony Baum, now a partner in the family business.

“Nowadays in the jewelry industry, there’s a book that lists all the retail jewelers in every city. They didn’t have that.”

Instead, Isaac and Evelyn drove from town to town in their big blue Chevy looking for customers. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. Eventually the Baums were successful enough that they didn’t have to travel extensively and could work out of their San Francisco office.

Of course, it would take more than extensive traveling to get Baum’s spirits down.

“One of the things I drew inspiration from was that my father knew such hardships and he kept his faith in God. And the traditions he kept from his father, he passed those traditions to his family,” said Anthony Baum.

“One of the things I told people while we were sitting shiva was that he had an emunah pshutah, a simple belief. It was just a simple belief in God and whatever [God] put his way, that’s what he wanted.”

Anthony Baum spent a dozen years studying Talmud in yeshiva and Naomi attended a women’s seminary in Israel. Both are bringing up their children as religious Jews.

Baum had told his son that he was thinking about retiring from the family business and studying Torah and Talmud full time, but that never happened.

“He loved to work. He was a very hard-working man and we used to travel together to Asia [on business] even until recently,” said Anthony Baum.

“Jewish life was extremely important to him. But at the same time, he felt it was important to make a living. And he used to tell me, whatever you do, do it with your whole heart.”

Isaac Baum is survived by his wife of 45 years, Evelyn of San Francisco; daughter Naomi Baum of Silver Spring, Md.; and son Anthony Baum of Passaic, N.J.; as well as five grandchildren. Donations in his memory can be sent to Adath Israel, 1851 Noriega St., S.F., CA 94122.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.