Ellen Kamaras: A Child of Survivors

Ellen with her parents, Israel and Malcia Geller.

It was finally time. Over six months I had interviewed almost all of my relatives who hailed from the small town of Podkamien and survived the Holocaust: from those who were teenagers at the time and had performed heroic acts beyond their years to those who were just young children, whose brief glimpses of the war have had lifetime impacts.

And now it was time for what I considered one of the most difficult interviews: my mother’s. Although my mother, Ellen Kamaras, isn’t a Holocaust survivor, she and my uncle, Marty, are the key links to uncovering my grandparents’ story.

My relatives have provided me with more than I could have imagined. Their stories of struggle and survival have given me a clear sense and timeline of what life was like for a Jew in Podkamien once the war broke out, therefore bringing me one step closer to understanding what my grandparents, Malcia and Israel Geller, experienced during the Holocaust. However, besides for one miraculous story that a relative told of my grandfather and his cousin hiding in a monastery, so far no relative was able to reveal much more about my grandparents’ time in hiding.

My mother knew the basics, she knew about my grandparents’ families and shared a few anecdotes that my grandparents always told during her childhood and stood as their representation of WWII. But to my mother, that wasn’t enough.

“There are a lot of missing pieces,” my mother, Ellen, said, “I do know other children of survivors who have told me their parents refused to talk about the war. My parents were not like that. They talked about it and yet I am sad and a little embarrassed that I don’t have more facts.”

Still there was something to be said about being the child of survivors and the importance of my mother’s second-hand accounts, though somewhat scattered. My mother emphasized how she felt my grandparents’ experiences in the war affected both them as well as my mother and uncle. It was clear that even though my grandparents never delved in to great detail about what they went through, the Holocaust was something that shaped their lives and the lives of their children, sometimes in the best of ways and sometimes not in the best of ways.

(Video: Ellen Kamaras discusses the effects of being a child of survivors)

Hearing how my grandparents’ experiences still resonated after all of these years made me gain a new appreciation for their stories, although there aren’t many. Moreover, it made me consider that maybe they didn’t want to dwell on the pain. Maybe this was how they wanted to be remembered, in the same way that they had described themselves during the war- courageous: my grandfather, Israel, bartering a fur coat for his life, my grandmother, Malcia, overcoming the deathly cold and lack of food.

For two people who lived humble lives in America, maybe all they wanted was to be remembered for what they were and always will be: heroes.

Fay Brandwein: “My Mother, the Hero.”

Interviewing Fay Brandwein. April 2012. Forest Hills, NY. (left to right) Sarah Kamaras, Fay Brandwein, Harrison Geller.

Today we commemorate the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day or “Yom Hashoah,” marking over 70 years since the horrific events of the Holocaust occurred.  Yom Hashoah is twofold: a day to remember those who were murdered and also to appreciate those who have survived.

This year I have felt that appreciation more than ever through my relatives that I have interviewed over the past five months. Hearing about their fight to survive has reminded me that without their persistence, courage, and will to live, not only would they not be here today, but I, as well as my family, would not be here today.

My cousin Fay Brandwein’s stories really emphasized this notion. Last Sunday, I sat down with Fay for what would become almost three hours of stories of struggle and survival. While Fay was only a young child during the war, she was able to recount her experience in the Holocaust through the stories her mother told her.

Fay’s appreciation for her mother was boundless. Her father, Aaron Geller, was taken to a labor camp and never returned and her mother, Sarah, was left to care for Fay and older brother, Josh. Fay told myriad stories of how her mother, who she referred to as a hero, helped save her and her brother, always ensuring that her children had what to eat and where to sleep as they fled from bunker to bunker.

(Video: Fay recounts one of her mother’s many heroic acts)

“She could’ve said, ‘I’ll never make it, I might as well give up.’ But she didn’t,” Fay said.

Sarah’s perseverance not only helped her and her children survive but also had a lasting impact on Fay. Fay continues to share her mother’s stories by speaking about her family’s experience to various schools and organizations. “The most important thing in my opinion is not to give up and say ‘Well my parents are gone so let’s forget about the Holocaust,” Fay said, “No, on the contrary. Get involved, do good by letting the world know and don’t give up.”

Isidore Shapiro on Life in Podkamien Pre-WWII

Interviewing Isidore Shapiro. February 2012. Photo Credit: Ari Salomon.

Last month I flew out to Lakeside, California to interview my grandfather’s cousin, Isidore Shapiro.

Isidore provided an inside look into life in the small town of Podkamien, Poland pre-WWII. Isidore explained that he didn’t have too many problems being Jewish before WWII broke out. While the Polish government was anti-semitic, it wasn’t nearly as anti-semitic as Hitler’s regime. Marshall Pilsudski (1926-1935), who was the Polish leader at the time, treated the Jews better than most other Polish governments.

Isidore continued to delve into the nuances of Jewish life in Podkamien. The 1,000 Jews that lived in Podkamien at the time were divided amongst three casts: the top layer consisted of intelligentsia, such as doctors and lawyers; the second layer consisted of merchants; and the bottom layer consisted of artisans. Isidore added that in Podkamien as well as other Polish towns, almost 100% of businesses were owned by Jews.

Check out a clip from Isidore’s interview for more on life in Podkamien pre-WWII. You can also read about Isidore’s story by visiting his profile page.

Israel Geller: 15 Years Later

My grandfather never traveled.

After arriving in New York by boat in 1949, my grandfather, Israel Geller, barely left New York. He traveled by plane once, to visit his nephew, Josh Geller, in Detroit. Otherwise my grandfather carried on a humble life in New York until he passed away in 1997.

Over the past few months, I have traveled across the coast and across the world to interview some of my grandfather’s relatives. My relatives built up a portrait of my grandfather’s life in Podkamien, a talented grain merchant who was a patriarch to both his family and his community. Moreover, they explained how my grandfather’s presence resonated long after he emigrated to New York and his family members scattered across the world.

My grandfather wrote letters. Not only did my grandfather consistently write letters to his family from the time he emigrated, he wrote them in Hebrew. His penmanship was beautifully crafted and his use of the language was richly poetic. He would use phrases that even veteran Israelis found unique and clever.

He wrote about the simple things, about his life, his family and his eventually declining health. But the mere fact that he kept in touch across all of those miles and for all of those years is what made my grandfather’s letters special.

Every relative that I visited had something to say about my grandfather’s letters. Aviva Salomon recalled the excitement of receiving a letter during her childhood in Israel. “Whenever a letter came in, it was a holiday,” Aviva said. Aviva, who now lives in San Diego, described how her family would sit around the table while her father would read the letter, afterwards passing it around so that everyone could take a look.

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Even more outstanding was how my grandfather managed to maintain a strong relationship with relatives that he would never see again and some that he never even met. While in Israel I spoke with Yocheved Sarid, whose husband Yitzchak was my grandfather’s distant cousin. Yocheved shared two letters that my grandfather had written to her and Yitzchak. She explained that through these letters, my grandfather and her husband remained friends even though the two never saw each other after the war ended.

These letters not only allowed their friendship to thrive, but also created a lasting impact on Yocheved and the couple’s four children, who viewed my grandfather as an important family friend and shared intimate war stories about my grandfather and Yitzchak during their time in hiding.

Yesterday marked 15 years since my grandfather passed away. After 15 years my grandfather’s memory shines brighter than ever. He’s remembered for the learned, warm and caring individual that he was. He’s remembered for setting the foundation for strong family relationships for generations to come. He didn’t just leave a lasting legacy- he created one with his words.

A Note from the Producer…

(clockwise: Israel Geller, Ellen Geller, Malcia Geller, Marty Geller)

I always knew that my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Even as I child, I heard my mother’s stories of how my grandparents survived WWII by hiding in the forest, living on nothing but potato skins. My grandparents emigrated to the US from Poland after the war and worked as sweat shop workers to provide my mother and uncle with the simple life that they could afford.

But in my eyes, my grandparents did not represent the stereotypical image of “Holocaust survivors.” At the time all I knew of were the Bubbis and Zeidis (Yiddish for grandmothers and grandfathers) that would speak at my Yeshivah on the annual Holocaust Memorial day. They had numbers tattooed across their arms and told outstanding stories of their depravity in the concentration camps and their even more outstanding survival. I knew how I would shield my eyes from the slide shows of graphic stock footage and photographs of bodies piled up in a ditch. However, from what I knew, my grandparents were none of these things. They had never spoken to me about their lives during the Holocaust and had barely a picture to show of their lives before the war. My grandfather passed away in 1997, and my grandmother followed in 1999.

(left to right: Jacob Kamaras, Sarah Kamaras, Malcia Geller, Israel Geller)

Some might say that this project is about 15 years too late. However, I believe that now is the perfect time for this project to come to fruition. I knew my grandparents for the strong, genuine and caring individuals that they were. I am now ready to learn how they came to be that way. With this documentary, I hope to amass story upon story to build up an image of what my grandparents lives were like in their hometown Podkamien pre-WWII. I hope to capture the strength and persistence it took to survive years in the ghetto and in the woods. I hope to learn even the simplest anecdote about my grandparents – as Podkamieners, as individuals and as Jews.

This documentary is not just about my grandparents – it is about my family as a whole. My family is a tight group that thrives from the remnants of Podkamien, a small town that was left with barely 100 Jews after the war. They are the few that have survived and have now multiplied across the world.

I would like to thank my uncle, Marty, for inspiring and supporting this wonderful project as well as my mother, Ellen, for all of her historical insight. I invite you to come along this journey with us as we delve into my family’s story.