Recipes With A Dark Past
Holocaust-related cookbooks tell tragic stories through food.
Holocaust-related cookbooks tell tragic stories through food.
When Florence Tabrys was 14 years old, Nazis occupied her small hometown of Szydlowiec, Poland. Three years later, she and her younger sister were sent to a munitions factory. They were later shipped from concentration camp to concentration camp before they were eventually liberated from Bergen Belsen in 1945. They never again saw their parents or their five other siblings.
Tabrys doesn’t often talk about her experiences during the Holocaust, but she spoke to June Feiss Hersh about her memories for the 2011 book “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival.”
“One of the things that kept me going during the war were memories of my family, and so many of those revolved around family gatherings and food,” Tabrys told Hersh. “We would remind ourselves of the simplest things that we ate at home, especially during the holidays…I can still taste the sweet blintzes that my mother would make. Those memories came with me to America and those are the recipes I still lovingly prepare today.”
Tabrys also shared her recipe for sweet and creamy cheese blintzes in the book, which includes the stories of more than 80 survivors and more than 170 of their recipes. Hersh published the book in conjunction with The Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, which also receives all the proceeds from sales.
It is a somewhat jarring juxtaposition—recipes alongside stories of starvation and terror—but Hersh is not alone with her project. There are now a handful of books that seek to retell the stories of the darkest chapter in Jewish history through the common bond of food. Joanne Caras published the “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” in 2007, and followed it up with a second volume, “Miracles and Meals,” in 2012. And in 1996 Cara de Silva edited “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin,” a collection of handwritten notes and recipes written down by women in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The books are all remarkably different, with unique backstories, compositions and tones. Hersh’s is undeniably a cookbook, with tested recipes ready for any kitchen. “In Memory’s Kitchen” is a jarring historical document, revealing more about the lives of the women in Theresienstadt than it does any culinary heritage. And Joanne Caras skirts that line, offering ostensibly workable recipes from survivors that she did not edit or change.
But what all three books have in common are the memories of better times with family and community, cherished dishes passed down from generation to generation, and almost wiped out by Nazis.
“It’s not a Holocaust cookbook, it’s a cookbook about those who have survived the Holocaust,” Hersh said of “Recipes Remembered.” “These are people who lived through a tragic time, but they are not tragic people and so their food is joyful and it’s uplifting…it’s the ultimate comfort food. This is an effort to preserve the food memories of a community.”
Even the women of Theresienstadt, deprived not only of food but also the ability to provide for themselves and their families, wrote down their recipes “as a form of psychological resistance,” de Silva said. “The whole book is an amazing testament to the power of food to sustain people, not just physically, but also spiritually.”
Today, the recipes from those lost communities sustain so many more.
“I’m not the child or grandchild of survivors,” Hersh told The Jewish Week, “but I do feel like I gained 80 additional grandparents—that their traditions, their foods and their heritages have become a part of my personal history.”
Hersh spent a year interviewing survivors and learning their stories before requesting a treasured family recipe to print alongside. The author tested all the recipes so that they would be “easy to replicate, clear, concise and representative of what they wanted to convey.”
The book is organized by geographical region. Lily Margules, a concentration camp survivor from Poland who lost both her father and her aunt in the Holocaust, shared a recipe for Tsimmes Chicken with Prunes. Evelyn Pike Rubin, who escaped Germany for Shanghai in 1939, gave Hersh her recipe for Sweet Summer Peach Cake.
“In its heart it’s a cookbook, but in its soul it’s a storybook,” Hersh said.
The book is now in its fifth printing and has sold more than 20,000 copies. With each printing, Hersh said, she updated the pages of those survivors who have passed away since the book’s publication.
Caras set out to provide sustenance in a more concrete way, dreaming up the project as a way to raise money for the Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen in Jerusalem. Her first visit to Carmei Ha’ir, which operates like a restaurant, with table service, “touched me to the soul,” she said.
When she returned to the U.S., gung-ho about her project, Caras asked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to send out an email requesting submissions, and sent notes to Jewish publications around the country.
“Six months went by and I didn’t get one story,” Caras recalled. She said she was close to giving up, and felt that “people don’t want to talk about food and the Holocaust.” But her mother convinced her to stick with it, “so I kept asking and asking and eventually they started to come in the mail in handwritten letters, and then they started to come via email, and then we’d get phone calls.”
Eventually, Caras self-published the first book with 129 stories and 250 recipes contributed by survivors and their families from the U.S., Israel, Canada and even New Zealand, South Africa and South America. To date the books have raised $275,000 for Carmei Ha’ir, and Caras has traveled to more than 250 cities around the world to talk about it.
The recipes range widely, from traditional eastern European dishes like mandelbread, chicken paprikash and gefilte fish to more modern takes, including those with ingredients like onion soup mix, pareve cream and store-bought piecrusts.
“I did ask them for family recipes if they had them,” said Caras, “but some of these young children” left their native countries at such a young age that they had few recipes from their parents and grandparents. So Caras also accepted recipes that spoke to the survivors’ newly adopted countries, or those they loved to make for their children and grandchildren, she said.
Caras didn’t edit or test any of the recipes, which garnered some criticism from readers, but she stands by the decision.
“We took these recipes exactly how they were given to us,” she said. “Some of them say gefilte fish—put it in a bathtub. Some will say a bissel of this [Yiddish for a little]. I didn’t want to change them because this was our history, this was the way this recipe was given from a parent or grandparent to the child.”
De Silva, too, was careful not to edit any of the recipes in “In Memory’s Kitchen,” despite the often-glaring errors.
“To alter the recipes would be to violate history and to misrepresent the experiences of the women who produced them,” she wrote in the introduction to the book.
Female prisoners in Theresienstadt concentration camp wrote the original manuscript in the 1940s. Its primary author, Mina Pachter, died there in 1944, but not before she gave the handwritten manuscript to a friend, and asked him to get it to her daughter in Palestine. It took 25 years and changed many hands before it arrived on the doorstep of her daughter, Anny Stern, in New York. And it was many years after that before the book came into the public eye, when it was published in 1996 in a volume edited by de Silva, a journalist and food historian. Even close to 20 years later, de Silva said, the book is “eternally on my mind.”
Although the women wrote down their cherished recipes, this “was not a manuscript that was really meant for cooking, it was not a regular cookbook—no matter what the women thought,” de Silva said. If one were to cook from the book, she said, “it would have to be done with profound understanding of the circumstances under which these [recipes] were recorded.”
After the book was first published, de Silva held a gathering to commemorate it, featuring adaptations of the book’s recipes cooked by chef Rozanne Gold.
“The feeling that I was tasting the food of their dreams was profoundly overwhelming and moving,” de Silva said, “because it was the materialization of something they could only dream and remember. We were celebrating them by celebrating their food.”
For a recipe for cheese blintzes from "Recipes Remembered," click here. For a recipe for sweet and sour tongue from "The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook," click here.
Amy Spiro is a journalist and writer based in Jerusalem. She is a graduate of the Jerusalem Culinary Institute's baking and pastry track, a regular writer for The Jerusalem Post and blogs at bakingandmistaking.com. She also holds a BA in Journalism and Politics from NYU.