As a kid, Yosel Epelbaum probably thought that wearing his swimming trucks underneath his Sabbath suit was about as risky as things would get. Back then, he enjoyed the risk and relished the feeling of diving headfirst into the cool waters of the rolling river that swept through Biala Podlaska, the small, farming town of his youth.
Never, even in his worst nightmares, did Yosel imagine that his long days of tending to livestock, working in his family butcher shop, pumping water from the well, riding horses, playing soccer and swimming in that river would be interrupted by an unthinkable period in human history and one boy’s life.
Never could have foreseen himself hiding in the loft of a barn as SS-backed Ukrainian soldiers looked for the last few Jews to take away, or living on his own for months and months in the woods during a particularly cold Polish winter, or seeing his brothers and father betrayed by neighbors or that he (the little guy in the family who was always told he’d never amount to anything) would have to become a hero.
More than fifty years later, Yosel returned to Biala Podlaska. He carried with him a case of Marlboro cigarettes. Such offerings had gotten him out of trouble before when he spent years smuggling leather and coins and anything else throughout post war Europe. It couldn’t hurt to have them now. The town, once a bustling center of culture and activity, looked like it had been stopped in time. On the street where he used to live, people still pumped water from the same well.
And the locals in that corner of Biala Podlaska knew that Yosel must be Jewish. The only tourists who ever came to this part of the Poland were survivors. An elderly couple emerged from a house and began to dramatically explain, in Polish, that the Germans had given them the house. They never knew anything about who owned it before and they didn’t want trouble.
They didn’t have to worry. Yosel hadn’t returned to reclaim his childhood home. By now he was living in America, a self-made millionaire who often found himself staring out across his view of the Golden Gate Bridge (he had seen it in a poster once and decided to get on a bus to San Francisco) and joylessly wondering out loud: “Imagine if they could see little Yosel now.” No, Yosel had not returned for his father’s house. He had returned these many decades later to reclaim his own personal history and face the horrors of a past that for so long he thought he had to repress.
By the end of that day in Biala Podlaska, the one he had avoided for most of his adult life, Yosel found himself running from place to place to show his family where the butcher shop was, where he went to school, and the road along which he would walk the cows to and from their daily feedings. He realized that examining this past would not — just as nothing else ever had — break him.
And then there was the dusty walk across a bridge over that roaring river. Only the river, as it turned out, was more of a creek. And his wife and his daughter laughed with Yosel about what his childhood memory had created out of this creek. And I laughed too. I was there with Yosel. By then, he had changed his name to the more American sounding Joseph Pell. His is, by any standard, a remarkable and heroic life. Today is his 90th birthday. And the river roars.
Read Joseph Pell’s incredible life story: Taking Risks: A Jewish Youth in the Soviet Partisans and His Unlikely Life in California.