Ida Gelbart, Holocaust survivor and baleboosta, dies at 82

She survived nearly four years in a Nazi labor camp during the Holocaust and never stopped fighting against injustice. She was an artist, inventor, master chef and a vocal advocate for Israel.

Ida Gelbart, an all-around Renaissance woman, died June 4 at her Corte Madera home. She was 82.

Gelbart (née Faigenblatt) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, on June 18, 1925. She was taken from her home by the Nazis in November 1941 during a campaign to put young, healthy Jews to work in prison labor camps. She toiled in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia until she was liberated at the end of the war.

Despite losing her parents, grandmother, two brothers and numerous other relatives — and being witness to genocidal atrocities — Gelbart never lost her fighting spirit.

“The last time she spoke to her mom was the day they took her,” recounts son Sam Gelbart. Although she did see her mother from a distance a day later, both her parents ended up being killed in concentration camps.

That Ida Gelbart survived certainly is not something to be minimized by her descendants, “but more important is what she did with the rest of her life,” Sam Gelbart said. “She was a gatherer of community and a voice against injustice.”

After the war, Gelbart was a refugee in a displaced persons camp in the German state of Bavaria. In 1947, she met fellow survivor David Gelbart at a social hall in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He asked her to dance, and despite her observation that he wasn’t a very good dancer, a whirlwind courtship was followed by marriage that same year.

The Gelbarts had sons Norman and Sam and remained in Germany until 1955, when they immigrated to the U.S. They settled in Baltimore, where Gelbart served as local president of Pioneer Women (now known as Na’amat USA), raising money and advocating for Israel.

After moving to Marin County in 1989, Gelbart quickly got involved with Congregation Kol Shofar and soon became a much beloved and revered member of the entire Marin Jewish community.

“She became very active in the Kol Shofar community and Kol Shofar politics … Just about everything Kol Shofar, she lived it and breathed it,” Sam said.

Gelbart authored a memoir, “Usurped,” that was published in 2006, recounting her four years of captivity from her perspective as a teenager at the time.

She also wrote an unpublished play, “The Coat,” that was performed last year at Kol Shofar. The story gave voice to possessions that had been left behind by those killed in the Holocaust.

She gave an annual seminar at the Yom HaShoah remembrance event sponsored by Congregations Rodef Sholom and Kol Shofar and was a member of Hadassah’s Marin chapter, which honored her this past January for her lifelong advocacy for the state of Israel. She also lectured about the Holocaust at area schools.

At the 1998 Yom HaShoah event, she said, “This is a lesson in history, a base and most bitter one for us. But by remembering it, we make sure it will not be repeated. But remembering it is not enough; we must teach it.”

Sonia Orbuch, another Holocaust survivor, became fast friends with Gelbart at Kol Shofar. The women also bonded over both being caretakers for husbands with Parkinson’s disease.

“I never had a sister, but if I would have one, it would be someone like Ida,” Orbuch said, adding that she is already missing her regular Saturday afternoon conversations with Gelbart.

Paul Orbuch, Sonia’s son and the chairman of the S.F.-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, recalls Gelbart as an artist and inventor.

“Ida was a person who could do just about anything she set her mind to,” he said. “She was an artist — at her house you could see modern art pieces with menorahs up on the wall. This is not the sensibility of an Old World person. This is a very modern mind. She was not afraid of change.”

Paul said Gelbart “always had ideas” and would often invent things. Many of her inventions didn’t take off, but she did earn patents for some of her ideas, such as table corner protectors and a seat-bound exercise system.

Gelbart was also quite active in Kol Shofar’s ongoing battle with the Tiburon Neighborhood Coalition over the synagogue’s expansion plans.

“She got up in front of the town council of Tiburon on several occasions and made the case forcefully and articulately on why the plans were tasteful, well-considered and worthy,” Paul said.

He remembers that one Tiburon neighbor opposed the size of the syangogue’s expansion, making the statement, “If you can’t cut the size [it] down, then get out of town.”

“Ida approached her afterward, in a gentle and kind way, and said, ‘I’m a Holocaust survivor and we will not be told to get out of town again,'” Paul said. “She’s feisty, she stood up for us and herself and made sure she was thinking of others.”

He called Gelbart “a towering presence in the community” and “an inspiration to all the younger women [of the congregation], anyone under 70 … they all looked up to her more than you can believe.”

He also praised her for being a baleboosta, Yiddish for perfect housewife or homemaker. Moe Rubenstein, current president of Hadassah’s Marin chapter, echoed that praise.

“She was the best cook in the world,” Rubenstein says. “She could wine and dine you into doing anything. All the kids [in the community] felt like Ida could be their mother or grandmother.

“You really, truly felt like you were the only person she cared about, because she always remembered your kids’ names and what you were doing,” Rubenstein adds. “Ida was always trying to get people to grow, saying, ‘Look for the thing inside you that will make you stronger’ … She mentored me at Hadassah and now I’m president, only because of Ida.”

Wife of the late David B. Gelbart for 52 years, Ida Gelbart is survived by sons Norman and Samuel, and grandchildren Chelsea and Claire. Donations can be made to the Ida Gelbart Tolerance Project, Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon, CA 94920.