Remembrance with a Difference: Oma & Bella

27 January is ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Day’, designated by the United Nations in 2005. The international memorial day commemorates the genocide of an estimated 6 million Jewish people, 2 million Roma and Sinti, the deaths of 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and of 9,000 homosexual men, who were murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated by the Soviet Army. In Germany, 27 January has been commemorated officially since 1996 as ‘Tag des Gedenkens an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus’ (Day to commemorate the victims of National Socialism).

On this day, I want to share a most unusual and delightful story of remembrance I have come across:

Oma & Bella (Director: Alexa Karolinski; documentary, 75 minutes, 2012; German with English subtitles)

Alexa Karolinski, Oma & Bella: das Kochbuch – the cookbook (in German and English), 2012

Regina Karolinski (Oma) and Bella Katz are best friends who live together in Berlin. Oma (Granny), filmmaker Alexa Karolinski’s grandmother and her friend survived the holocaust in the camps as teenagers, and then stayed in Germany after war and displacement. It is through the food they cook together that they remember their Eastern European childhoods, their survival, the trauma of losing their families in the holocaust, and their celebration of life itself after the war, and in the present. Their deep fondness for food is at the centre as the film follows them through their daily lives, visits to various sites around Berlin, strolls through the market, trips to the hairdresser. In their kitchen they lovingly keep alive a heritage, which they had to learn, often from scratch, after their survival, and which they celebrate with the younger generations in elaborate feasts, and while marking the Shabbat.

Oma & Bella is a tremendous departure from the countless holocaust films I have seen, obsessed from my early teens with the painful German legacy. The horrors of the two women’s lived experience is not spoken of much, the power is in the silence. Yet the horrible memories are palpable, underlying a film that vibrates with friendship, cooking, laughter, humour and witty cracks.

This is an unforgettable film, warm, moving, gentle, charming, and incredibly well-made. Oma & Bella has been an inspiration during my past year in Berlin, the captivating German capital, buzzing with creativity and cosmopolitanism. Europe’s most left-wing capital, a city with a long history of vibrant working class culture, socialist and radical politics was also the locale where the genocide of the European Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was planned. This film is, not in the least, about the beguiling paradox that is Berlin.

In the first place, however, Oma & Bella is about the love that comes with cooking and feeding, with chicken soup and borscht, chopped liver, potato latkes and rugelach. And because the food was so good, there is a lovingly illustrated cookbook to be had alongside the film.