Joe Pell (Liz Harris)
Joe Pell (Liz Harris)

Joseph Pell, 95, reflects on a life of struggle and triumph

Part of a year-long series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California

Sitting in the living room of his Marin home, Joseph Pell recalls a life of persecution, loss, struggle and resilience.

As a teenager, he lost his mother, his father and all four of his siblings in the Holocaust. He lived in the woods for nearly two years, fighting the Germans with the partisans. After the war, he wandered Europe, carousing and dealing in the black market as he tried to find his footing in the world.

In 1947, he finagled papers pronouncing him a German instead of a Pole, which eased his immigration to America. He was 23.

Today, at 95, Pell — born Yosel Epelbaum — still remembers. “Things like that you don’t forget,” he explains as he tells his life story.

In September 1939, shortly after German tanks rolled into Poland, it became clear to Pell’s mother and father, a kosher butcher and cattle trader, that the family faced grave danger should they remain in their town. Under the protective wing of the Soviets, they headed east with hundreds of other Jewish families.

That was a wise decision. Nearly all of the Jews who remained in the town — more than 5,000 — would be murdered by the Nazis.

That was the first leg of Pell’s arduous journey. Next, the family was resettled in the town of Manievich, near the dense Polesie forest that straddles the border of Ukraine and Belarus. Residents were a mix of Jews and non-Jews, many of them Ukrainians.

Though far from easy, everyday existence was bearable. That is, until the Germans attacked in June 1941. Before long, the Red Army dissolved into disarray and the Nazis took control.

That spelled disaster for the Jews — and the beginning of the end for Pell’s family.

Joe Pell in 1944
Joe Pell in 1944

The Ukrainians proved complicit with the Germans. “They were instrumental in digging the ditches and killing the Jews in open pits,” Pell says forcefully, adding, “I cringe when right now we are giving money to the Ukrainians.”

Pogroms and mass killings ensued, ultimately leaving Pell and brother Sol, whose skills as a furniture maker had provided work for the two, the only remaining family members.

The brothers planned to hide in a nearby hayloft should they hear the dreaded “Juden Raus” [Jews, get outside] on the bullhorn — knowing it meant certain death.

When that day arrived for them in 1942, “My brother, he didn’t make it,” Pell says quietly.

Following the roundup, Pell and another fugitive who had hidden in the hayloft “crawled to the woods after [things] calmed down,” he says.

Their first priority was finding food. They soon met a few more fugitives, and then armed partisans who accepted them into their unit.

Pell does not consider himself particularly brave. Before joining the resistance, he says, “I didn’t know which end of the gun shoots. But when I had a gun, I figured it out.” Though partisan life was fraught with danger and hardship, it did offer comradeship and a measure of protection.

Reflecting on those days, Pell says, “I don’t know if I was smart, but common sense, instinct, told me what to do.”

At war’s end, he was footloose — traveling and trading illicit goods (“you had to eat”), before ending up in Munich and immigrating to America in 1947.

I cringe when right now we are giving money to the Ukrainians.

He wasn’t enamored with New York, and soon enough Pell and a close friend from Munich were on their way to San Francisco. They worked, saved money and bought Shirley’s, an ice cream shop in the Outer Sunset. After proving adept at running the business, they sold it and opened Moo’s ice cream in Richmond, which they also sold for a profit.

In the meantime, Pell had met and married Eda Kuflik, who was smuggled out of Germany as a child and arrived in the U.S. as a war orphan.

With Eda’s assent, Pell shifted from ice cream into real estate, partnering with a contractor to develop properties. “I liked what he was doing,” Pell says, “but he wasn’t a businessman, so I told him, why don’t you build for me? And that’s how it started.”

“It” became Pell Development Co. Five years shy of 100 (Eda is 91), Pell still goes to the office, now run by his daughter Karen, in San Rafael.

Pell officially changed his name from Epelbaum after becoming a naturalized citizen in 1952. It was easier to spell (“I just dropped the ‘e’ and the ‘baum,’” he says) and less Jewish-sounding.

Though he didn’t experience anti-Semitism in the Bay Area, Pell is keenly aware of its existence here and abroad. Things could get worse, he fears. “We never know what the future holds. The world in general is unstable.”

The Pells talked to their four children about the Holocaust, and he decided to write the 2005 memoir “Taking Risks,” co-authored by Bay Area historian Fred Rosenbaum. It was Pell’s way of confronting the deniers.

“I lived it,” he says. “There’s nothing there that isn’t true.”

The Pells support a number of nonprofits, including S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and they are members of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

But Pell admits his faith in God is shaken. “Well, God was supposed to protect us. He didn’t. We are the chosen people, you know.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.