In the annals of Petaluma’s Jewish chicken farmers, Charles Baum was a superstar.
The Polish-born Holocaust survivor made his way to Northern California after the war, started out small, and eventually built his business into one of Sonoma County’s largest poultry processors.
A true American success story, Baum died of congestive heart failure on Jan. 26 in Sebastopol. He was 91.
Born Kalman Baum in Radom, Poland, he grew up in an Orthodox household with a large extended family. He had hoped to become an engineer, but the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 ended those dreams.
The Jews of Radom were herded into a ghetto. Baum found work as a slave laborer in a German munitions factory. One day after work, he returned to the ghetto in time to see his parents and siblings being put on a cattle car. His mother screamed to him, urging him to find a family friend, a respected dentist who had some sway with the German occupiers.
“The dentist saved my uncle from the cattle car,” said his daughter, Estelle Baum. But “the rest of the family was taken to Treblinka. My father never saw any of them again.”
Tragic as that was, Baum had one fortunate experience in the ghetto: He met Anni Bloch, the young woman who would become his wife of 60 years.
Anni was sent to Auschwitz, while Baum was transferred to Dachau and, later, Mittenwald, which became a displaced persons camp after the war. There, miraculously, he and Anni were reunited.
The young couple lived in Germany for a while but immigrated to Northern California in 1947, thanks to the sponsorship of Anni’s American relatives. Though he spoke little English at first, Kalman changed his name to Charles and, in 1950, bought a 10-acre farm in Sebastopol.
“Dad started in the chicken business,” Estelle Baum said. “The business was raising and collecting them, then transporting them to San Francisco and San Pablo.”
Thanks to his customers in San Francisco’s Chinese community, Baum’s business thrived. Eventually he moved his family to the city, but he continued to commute to the Sonoma County farm.
“He would get up early and go to Sonoma to pick up the chickens,” Estelle said. “He had open-air chicken trucks, which he would park in the Sunset District. Finally the neighbors complained about the big stinky truck.”
Eventually Baum expanded the business to include a feed mill, hatchery and processing plant. Dubbed Petaluma Poultry Processors, the company is still going strong.
Baum sold the business in the early 1990s. He tried other ventures and also devoted more time to travel. The family made several trips to Poland and Israel. Baum was a donor to the Anti-Defamation League and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and was a member of the B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma.
He also told his story to the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide at Sonoma State University.
“After his experiences in the war, he questioned the existence of God,” Estelle Baum added. “But he was first and foremost a Jew and a very strong Zionist.”
As a father and grandfather, Baum was very generous, she said. He encouraged his children and grandchildren “to look forward and look for the next step to improve yourself.”
That attitude explains why he never allowed the trauma of the Holocaust to dictate the terms of his life.
“In spite of his experiences as a young man, he trusted people,” Estelle Baum said. “He believed in the goodness of people. He believed you could do business with a handshake.”
Charles Baum, predeceased by his wife, Anni, is survived by daughters Paulette Miller of Saratoga and Estelle Baum of Oakland, brother Michael Baum of San Rafael and four grandchildren.