Oma & Bella is a documentary about two elderly Jewish friends in Germany, Regina Karolinski and Bella Katz. (“Oma” isn’t a name, but is a word meaning “grandma” or “granny.” Regina is filmmaker Alexa Karolinski’s grandmother.) Doing the math from a few things that are said in the film, Regina is probably 80 or so, and Bella a few years older. Regina is from Lithuania, and Bella is from Poland. Both spent much of World War II in concentration camps, and I believe met during the chaotic immediate postwar period when people from the liberated camps were being relocated.
Cooking is a major theme of the film, and of their lives. At most 10% of the film consists of the two of them sitting in chairs, facing the camera, doing a conventional interview. Over half has something to do with food (much more the preparation, with only a little of the actual eating). We also see them walking around their neighborhood, shopping, entertaining friends and family, etc., but the bulk of it is cooking.
This film was shot and edited very well. The visuals are consistently just right. Most striking are the shots of the cooking. These are the sort of matronly Old World women whose answer to everything is, “Here, have some more chicken soup! You’re skin and bones! Have one of these cookies!” Cooking is their habitual way of adding something positive to their families’ lives, to the world. There’s a beauty to the elderly hands in close up so meticulously and lovingly crafting each dish from scratch.
And I say that as one of the minority of viewers who would have no interest in eating most of what they’re shown preparing. I’m a finicky eater and not much for the overwhelming majority of ethnic foods, so I wasn’t thinking the whole time, “Wow, that looks so good, I’m getting hungry just watching this!” I was drawn in more in the way you might be drawn in watching a serious artist lovingly working on his art, even if it’s a type of art that happens to have never had much meaning for you.
Certainly friendship is another theme of the film. Regina and Bella live together, and are seemingly never apart. They’re as close as sisters, indeed closer than most sisters. They are very supportive and caring toward each other.
I did find the older Bella’s sometimes dominating style a bit off-putting at times. She’s the type who has to have the last word, who even when she is affirming something Regina says will typically do it in a tone as if she’s correcting her. It doesn’t lead to conflict, because Regina consistently defers to her. But especially with Regina’s granddaughter doing the filming, I would like to have seen Regina step up a little more, and Bella to show some respect and allow her to do so.
But it never bothered me more than a bit. They just have different personalities, and like an old married couple in a very comfortable relationship, they’ve figured out a way to make those contrasting styles mesh that evidently works for them.
I read a little bit about the film, and evidently the ladies were only cooperative in certain limited ways. It was hard to get them to sit down and do a formal interview and really open up about their lives. It was more a matter of: if you want to film us just living our lives, we won’t object, but as far as what we talk about and how we talk about it, it’ll just be what happens to come up organically. Also, apparently they didn’t always go along with the notion of Alexa acting as filmmaker or cameraperson rather than granddaughter. So it was: OK, put down the camera and come join us for this meal. Or, enough with the movie for now; let’s just visit.
So, she got what she got, but it wasn’t like they were going to take direction and present themselves in whatever way was best for a film. There were snippets where they got deep about something from the past, but these could come at any time, and not always when they were being filmed. They weren’t willing to systematically tell the story of their lives from start to finish for the benefit of the camera.
So their Holocaust stories are quite incomplete and impressionistic, more a matter of scattershot vivid memories that happen to come up.
Really there’s very little about that past for the first half or so of the film, and even after that it’s still limited. To some extent, that left me wishing the filmmaker had gotten more out of them, gotten them to open up considerably more about their lives. But then again, I also like the fact that there’s less of a temptation here than with most Holocaust stories—in both fiction and nonfiction—to see their status as Holocaust survivors as making up most or all of their identity. Instead, it’s well established that these are whole, multi-dimensional people—kindly, family-oriented, elderly Jewish ladies who love to cook, etc.—not just two of an undifferentiated mass of folks who got shipped off to concentration camps.
I think this would have been at least a somewhat interesting documentary with no Holocaust stuff at all, because they’re interesting women that it’s a treat to spend some time with.
But certainly the little bits and pieces of their past that they do talk about contain some of the most striking moments of the film.
Regina speaks of humiliating incidents in the camps. Bella speaks of the suicide of her father when the Nazis came for the family. They talk about how, after their experiences of the war, they did a lot of partying, dating, enjoying night life, etc., trying to make up for all the youth and normality they had missed out on.
Bella describes how in Soviet-liberated Germany, the former camp inhabitants were told that they had 48 hours to do as they wished to Germans and the Soviet soldiers would look the other way, but that after that it was back to normal life. So a two-day holiday from any legal or moral constraints on revenge or whatever they chose to do. She indicates that advantage was certainly taken of that opportunity, that plenty of people were slaughtered, but she’s a bit coy, a bit evasive, about what precisely she did versus what she saw versus what she heard about. Nor is it clear if vengeance was wreaked upon only those who were identified as having individually, directly participated in the killing and atrocities, or included random German people in general.
Bella and Regina both established families after the war, but of course they also had had families before the war, families that basically ceased to exist, necessitating starting over. As Bella notes wistfully, she had had such a large family she couldn’t even list them all now, but uncles, aunts, cousins, on and on.
By war’s end, there was only her.