When Florence Tabrys was 14, the 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 saw their parents or five other siblings again.
Tabrys doesn’t talk about her experiences during the Holocaust often, 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,” she 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 over 170 recipes. Hersh published the book in conjunction with The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 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. 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. Joanne Caras published the “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” in 2007, and followed it up with a second volume in 2012, titled “Miracles and Meals.”
The books are all remarkably different, with unique backstories, compositions and tones. “Recipes Remembered” is a straightforward cookbook, with tested recipes ready for any kitchen. “In Memory’s Kitchen” is a jarring historical document, revealing more about the horrific lives of the women in Theresienstadt than cherished family recipes. And “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” skirts that line, offering ostensibly workable recipes from survivors that Caras did not edit or change.
But what all the books have in common are recipes not from the terrible deprivation of the Holocaust, but from the memories of better times with family and community, cherished dishes passed down from generation to generation, and almost wiped out by the Nazis.
“It’s not a Holocaust cookbook, it’s a cookbook about those who have survived the Holocaust,” said Hersh 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 of people who survived the most horrific and challenging times any group of people have had to endure.”
Even the women of Theresienstadt, deprived not only of food, but also of the ability to provide for their families, wrote down their tried-and-tested recipes “as a form of psychological resistance,” said de Silva. “The whole book is an amazing testament to the power of food to sustain people, not just physically, but spiritually.”
And today, the recipes from those lost communities are sustaining so many more — both physically and spiritually.
“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 and their foods and their heritages and their background and the lives they had have become part of my history.”
Hersh spent a year interviewing survivors before requesting a treasured family recipe to print alongside their stories. The author tested each recipe she received to make sure it would be “easy to replicate, clear, concise and representative of what they wanted to convey.” The book is divided not by course but by geographical region. Lily Margules, a concentration camp survivor from Poland who lost her father and 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,” said Hersh. The book is now in its fifth printing, having sold more than 20,000 copies. With each printing, said Hersh, she updates the pages of those survivors who 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, “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 explaining the project.
“Six months went by and I didn’t get one story,” recalls Caras, who said she was close to giving up, thinking that “people don’t want to talk about food and the Holocaust.” But her mother convinced her to stick to 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, she said, contributed by survivors and their families from the US, 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 on them, which can include 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, they had few recipes from their parents and grandparents. “So then we took also foods that were connected to” their 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 her 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 was very careful not to edit or change 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.
The original manuscript was written by female prisoners in Theresienstadt concentration camp 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 many changes of hands before it arrived on the doorstep of her daughter, Anny Stern, in New York. And it was many years after before the book came into the public eye, when it was published in 1996 in a volume edited by de Silva. The journalist and food historian told The Jewish Week that even close to 20 years later, the book is “eternally on my mind.”
Although the women were writing 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.”
“If you were to do it [cook from the book],” she said, “it would have to be done with profound understanding of the circumstances under which these [recipes] were recorded.”
When the book was first published, de Silva said, she held a gathering to commemorate it, and chef Rozanne Gold adapted a number of the recipes to serve to the guests.
“The feeling that I was tasting the food of their dreams was profoundly overwhelming and moving,” said de Silva, “because it was the materialization of something they could only dream and remember, and it was in my mouth and in the mouths of others. We were celebrating them by celebrating their food.”
For recipes of Florence Tabrys’ Sweet and Creamy Cheese Blintzes (from June Feiss Hersh’s “Recipes Remembered”) and Bubby Ida Malnick’s Sweet and Sour Tongue (from “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook”) visit the Food &Wine section of The Jewish Week’s website, thejewishweek.com.