Holocaust survivors publish cookbook of recipes that helped them endure horrors of Auschwitz
The miserable rations of food prisoners received at Germany’s extermination camp Auschwitz were poor quality, insufficient for life and often withheld from starving inmates for even minor infringements of petty camp rules.
According to the Auschwitz Museum, prisoners received three meals per day. In the morning, they were given only half a litre of a liquid euphemistically called coffee.
The noon meal consisted of about a litre of thin ‘soup’ with a few chunks of vegetables normally used to feed animals.
Supper might have consisted of about 300 grams of camp bread, served occasionally with a bit of margarine, or a tablespoon of marmalade.
The Germans calibrated the meagre diet with Teutonic diligence to keep the prisoners alive only long enough for them to perform work for Hitler’s Reich.
However, it was a death sentence just as much as the gas chambers, the wall of death or the gibbets.
“Insufficient nutrition with hard labour contributed to the destruction of the organism, which gradually used up its stores of fat, muscle mass, and the tissues of the internal organs,” the museum writes.
So it may seem unusual that an Auschwitz cookbook has been published by 29 of the camp’s survivors.
But, Honey Cakes and Latkes: Recipes from the Old World is not about what prisoners were forced to eat in the camp.
Rather it is an affirmation of life, before and after the camp, told through the unifying medium of food recipes.
The book is the brainchild of Ronald S. Lauder, the son of Josephine Esther Mentzer, more commonly known as cosmetics baroness Estée Lauder.
“[Food] was a way of remembering a murdered mother or grandmother. It was a way to feed their children and grandchildren when food was and will always be precious to them. It was a way to hold on to the past and pass it down to our future,” Lauder wrote in book’s introduction.
The idea for the book was born after Lauder, through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation which he heads, took a group of 120 Jewish survivors back to Auschwitz in January 2020 for the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
Three months later, on a Zoom call amid the isolation of the pandemic, Lauder asked the group to share recipes for gefilte fish, a Passover staple.
The survivors and their families flooded Lauder with over 20 versions of the classic dish, leading Lauder to realise the importance of food in memory and community.
The idea of creating a classic cookbook with lists of ingredients, instructions and illustrations seemed like an obvious next step.
The heart of the book are the introductions to each recipe in which the survivor recalls where and when they ate it and what it means for them.
In the case of Kraków-born Eugene Ginter, whose chocolate sandwich recipe opens the book in the Breakfast & Brunch chapter, the memory is from the period immediately after he left the camp.
He was just five when he was liberated. After a stay in a hospital he was moved to a Jewish orphanage. Miraculously, Eugene’s mother, who was saved by Oskar Schindler, found him in an orphanage.
Eugene was desperately under-nourished, but he was not interested in food. To help him put on weight, she created a sandwich made of things she knew he liked.
“I liked chocolate. Who doesn’t? She would take a slice of black bread, put a lot of butter on it, then take hard chocolate and shave it down and pat it into the butter. She was trying to fatten me up.
“So, I would bite into this thing. How bad can black bread be with butter and chocolate?” Ginter says in the book.
The book contains 110 recipes from 29 survivors divided into chapters that include Holiday Dishes, Noshes and Sides and Soup and Dumplings.
It also contains inspiring stories from the survivors as well as archival and contemporary photographs.
Several of the survivors feature throughout the book making many of the recipes together.
The recipes are a guide through Jewish cuisine and feature classics such as blintzes, matzo ball soup, goulash, gefilte fish, latkes and challah.
Others may be less familiar. The family of Anneliese Nossbaum, who was born in Guben, Germany in 1929, shared a recipe for cherry soup with dumplings made from egg whites.
Meanwhile, David Marks shared shlishkes, a savoury or sweet Hungarian potato dumpling.
The book was edited by Warsaw-born Maria Zalewska, who is the chief executive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
“[W]e were inundated with recipes. Some were long and detailed; others were informally scribbled and incomplete. All of them captured something essential about each person, their family history, and their story through food,” she wrote in an editor’s note to the book.
With the youngest survivor aged seventy-six and many in their nineties, time was of the essence.
Lauder and Zalewska had to work quickly so that as many survivors as possible would see publication day.
“We spent […] months conducting multiple interviews with survivors and their families, weaving a unique tapestry of sensory tales of flavors and smells from the old world, accounts of loss and trauma, as well as heart-warming and poignant stories of new beginnings and healing.”
A highlight is the recipe contributed by Marion Wiesel, widow of the late Nobel Laureate for literature Elie Wiesel, who wrote one of the most moving prisoner accounts of the Holocaust, Night.
Marion shared her husband’s personal latke recipe, which opens the last chapter of the book. Never shared before, the potato pancakes were a favourite amongst his family and friends.
In summing up the essence of the book, Lauder said, “You generally can’t wear your ancestors’ clothes or visit their homes. But you can prepare the same food.”