For anyone who craves one more hug from a grandma long gone, one more of her chocolate turtle cookies or another whiff of her apple strudel baking in the oven, there is “Oma & Bella.”
Scenes from the new documentary about two octogenarian friends living together in Berlin are warm, but the hunger to learn more about their past as Holocaust survivors creates a suspenseful undercurrent throughout the film, which is being released on iTunes and Amazon in the United States on Tuesday.
The sometimes jarring shifts from cozy kitchen scenes of chopping and sauteing to starkly lit interviews in which they reluctantly reveal some of the horrors they survived as Jewish girls in World War Two are purposeful, filmmaker Alexa Karolinski said.
“In the beginning, they basically said, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t ask us about then,’” Karolinski said of the agreement with her grandmother — or Oma — Regina Karolinski, and her friend Bella Katz, who moved in to help with Oma’s recovery from a hip operation in 2007 and never left.
“I wanted to make a film that was as fragmented as the reality of not talking about the Holocaust,” Karolinski said.
“Even if they say they don’t want to talk about it, they do. In the weirdest moments. If you go through something so traumatizing, it informs everything you do in your life.”
The 75-minute film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, grew out of Karolinski’s effort to create a cookbook of Oma and Bella’s delicious Eastern European Jewish meals.
The cookbook, available on the film’s website, omabella.com, took longer to put together than the film itself since “handfuls” had to be translated into measurable cups and “as long as it needs” into a finite cooking time.
The women stick with recipes from their childhood, from the days before Oma, at age 14, was sent from her home in Poland to a Nazi work camp and Bella fled the liquidation of her Lithuanian ghetto home to join the Jewish resistance.
At the end of the war that annihilated their families, they arrived separately in Berlin, where they met. They were displaced persons without so much as a photograph of their parents.
“For Oma and Bella, cooking has become their therapy,” said the 28-year-old German-Canadian filmmaker, explaining food keeps their family history alive.
“Food is the only materialistic thing they have from their lives before the war; they don’t even have a photograph. They say their chicken soup tastes exactly like their mothers’ chicken soup. It helps them remember their homes because they were orphaned by the war.”
The Registry of Holocaust Survivors lists 195,000 survivors and family members from 59 countries, although each year an increasing number of them are deceased, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
Oma & Bella, in German with subtitles, is Karolinski’s first feature film. It started as her thesis project at the School of Visual Arts in New York and gained momentum with $44,000 in financing from Kickstarter.com.
Slathered with Oma and Bella’s zest for life, the film offers an uplifting and intimate glimpse into the lives of these two feisty and lovable friends and reveals the joy that can be found in a leafy cabbage or a perfectly rolled cheese blintz.
“Have you ever seen anything this beautiful?” asks Bella, opening the oven like a treasure chest to reveal glistening vegetables in a pot.
As rich and satisfying as their lust for life is, it is the sinewy thread of the past that keeps the film taut and constantly plumbing the depths of their past.
After Bella reveals in a choked voice the nightmarish recollection of her father’s suicide when Nazi soldiers stormed their house to seize him, Oma offers soothing words about his bravery in taking his life before the soldiers could.
“These things you don’t want to admit are true. It hurts,” Oma tells the camera held by her granddaughter. “Now you see, Alexa, why we don’t like to talk about it.”