Gela Baser Percal, our lovely Mom and Grandma, passed away peacefully at her home in Santa Barbara on the morning of August 15, 2022, at the age of 97. She went on her own schedule and slept comfortably as she transitioned to the other side. Gela was beloved by many and respected by all for her kindness, wit, generosity, humor and intelligence. She was a fantastic cook, bringing with her some of the traditional Eastern European flavors and techniques she grew up with, while adopting new flavors and styles popular in the culture of her adopted American home. A firm believer and advocate of living healthy, she was very disciplined about keeping a nutritious diet along with a rigorous exercise routine; she practiced yoga daily, followed by long walks on Mountain Drive into her mid-80’s.
Gela was born in in 1924 Rakow, Poland, a small town where she lived with her loving family of 4 siblings and devoted, hardworking parents, Asher and Malka (Betel) Baser. Her father was an artisan furniture maker; her mother raised and tended to the large family. Gela told many stories of her family and childhood: how the children would go to the forest to pick blueberries that her mom would bake into kuchen, a simple cake studded with the delicious fruit; how the girls would scrub and clean the copper cooking pots with the sand at the riverbank; how her younger sister would play with the goats kept by her best friend’s family. Her talented oldest brother was accepted to study architecture at the university in Warsaw on full scholarship but couldn’t attend because he was needed in the family business to make ends meet.
The idyllic childhood came to a halt with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi invasion of Poland in September of 1939. Gela witnessed mounting restrictions on the Jewish population under Nazi occupation: Jewish children were expelled from public schools, as were Jewish teachers. Access to higher education was denied. Use of public transportation, and even the use of bicycles was forbidden. By the end of 1939 all Jews in Poland aged ten and above were forced to wear badges with a Star of David on their sleeves and display signs in their windows; by 1941 it was everyone over the age of 6. The government adopted hundreds of laws, decrees, directives, guidelines, and regulations that increasingly restricted the civil and human rights of the Jewish people as well as other minorities.
The family was forced to flee from their home when Gela was 17 years old, hiding in the forest under the harshest of conditions. Gela and her sister Rachel survived miraculously after the rest of the family were killed. The sisters then fled to Germany under false identities, posing as Catholic girls working as forced laborers in Nazi households where they managed to escape detection until the end of the war. Finally liberated, Gela and her sister were able to leave Germany with the help of the US Armed Forces and became displaced, stateless persons in Brussels Belgium. Gela emerged deeply affected, carrying the effects of her experience for the rest of her life, but was determined never be defined as a victim.
Gela met her future husband, Fred Percal, an American soldier from Santa Barbara, at a USO officer’s dance in Brussels. Neither could speak the other’s language, but the spark was there. She asked him, with her limited English, “Are you on Hollywood?” meaning to ask if he was on holiday. They married 3 months later, waiting until she became of legal age at 21 because her parents were not alive to give their permission. Several months later she followed Fred to the US on a War Bride ship, then took a train across the country to Fred’s hometown.
Gela spent the rest of her life in beautiful Santa Barbara with the family she lovingly created, raising two daughters, along with a couple of family pets over the years, and became very involved in her community. She and Fred created a business in real estate together, slowly transitioning out of Percal’s Poultry, the longtime family business on Montecito St, started by Fred’s father. The couple were active members in Congregation B’nai Brith, participating in the wonderful barbeques at Tucker’s Grove every summer, where the kids played while dads barbequed huge batches of Percal’s Poultry Market chickens and moms created all the side dishes. Gela also loved the garden and raised dozens of beautiful cymbidium orchid plants on the patio under the oak trees. She invited her close friends for lunch there when the orchids were in bloom, a delightful paradise-like setting.
Although deprived of her early education in Poland at the age of 14, she attended classes at SBCC credit and adult ed departments, studying writing, music, psychology, and languages. Always wanting to give back, she volunteered as a reading tutor for children at Adams Elementary School. In her later years, she found the courage to speak about her Holocaust experiences in presentations for college students and local school children. A short film about her Holocaust experience can be seen at ‘Gela Percal Portraits of Survivors’ on YouTube, a video series made through a program of the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara.
Gela was pre-deceased by Fred, her husband of 68 years. She is survived by daughters Susan and Malka Percal, grandchildren Primo Lasana and Galite Jimenez Percal, sister Rachel Freisleben, and niece and nephews Marilyn, Alan and Jerry.
She will be greatly missed by all of us but will be carried in our hearts forever. Contributions in her memory can be made to Congregation B’nai Brith (www.CBBSB.org)