Eda Pell wisely says, "It's important that people learn to live with each other, and the best way to do that is through knowledge.” Eda and Joe Pell have exemplified that ideal all their lives.
A man of exceptional resilience, Joe Pell has a vivid memory for detail. He recalls his childhood in Biala Podlaska, the busy Polish town he grew up in. His family, the Epelbaums, were kosher butchers. "All of our water for cooking and washing had to be pumped from a communal well and brought home in buckets. We had no plumbing, heat or electricity." But Joe remembers a happy childhood.
As World War II neared, there were increasing crackdowns on Jewish life. It became impossible for the Epelbaums to run their business, and then in 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Biala Podlaska was on the border between the German-occupied and Soviet-occupied territories. The 8,000 Jews there believed that Soviets would be a preferable alternative to the Nazis. The Soviets offered to evacuate any Jews who wanted to leave, and about 600 did abandon their homes and businesses. The rest eventually perished.
Pell's family opted to head east and were relocated to a town called Manievich near the dense Polesie forests. But in June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most of the Jews there were shot by Nazi soldiers or rounded up into ghettos. Pell's entire family —three brothers, a sister and his parents — were killed over a period of months.
At 18, Pell was spared because he hid in a barn when the Nazis came to his family's home. He fled into the thick forest behind the town, and soon found others who had also escaped. They met a larger band of people — Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviets — living in the woods. Committed to resistance, they carried out dozens of missions to disrupt the Nazis by blowing up train tracks, bombing bridges, cutting telephone lines and damaging highways. They also fed and housed a group of about 500 refugees in the woods.
After the war ended, Joe spent several years in Europe. In 1947, he managed to get immigration papers for the United States and headed for New York and eventually San Francisco, where he arrived with little money, no English, and no family. Working several jobs, he and a friend saved enough to buy Shirley's, an ice cream store at 44th Avenue and Judah. Later, they built a bigger shop, Moo's, in Richmond, and Joe earned enough to start investing in real estate. Over the last decades, he became a prominent real estate developer in the Bay Area.
Although reluctant for many years, Joe ultimately teamed with Bay Area historian and Lehrhaus Judaica founder Fred Rosenbaum to write Taking Risks, a riveting account of his life. "I wanted my children and grandchildren to know where I came from, that there was an Epelbaum family," Joe says.
Eda Pell’s story shows the same strength and resilience. In 1941, Eda arrived in California with her sister Henni. They had miraculously received visas to the United States as “wartime orphans” after being smuggled out of Germany to France. Recalls Eda, “San Francisco sounded like the end of the earth to us!” The sisters settled into life at Homewood Terrace, a child-care campus that was set up like a family home instead of a sterile dormitory. Children lived in a community of cottages and participated in music, sports, and outings.
Eda was one of only three members of her family to survive the war. After enduring so much, Eda built a new life—learning English, attending secretarial school, and marrying Joe in 1953. They have stayed close to their Jewish roots and lovingly raised four children. Inspired by their own stories of struggle and success, Eda and Joe have given generously to multiple institutions that support Holocaust studies, Jewish community life, and social services. “It’s very gratifying to know that our children have found their own ways of meaningful giving,” Eda says. Joe and Eda are justly proud that their children continue their legacy of generosity.