In Memory's Kitchen
December 17, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth looks at recipes and resistence in a cookbook from the Holocaust.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In this month of religious holidays, memory and food become especially important. In that spirit, we look now at an unusual book, In Memory's Kitchen, which was published earlier this fall. The book is a collection of recipes compiled by women in the concentration camp Terezin, or as the Germans called it, Terezianstat. This was the camp in Czechoslovakia to which many prominent Jews were taken, among them a 70-year-old art historian named Mina Pachter. Before she starved to death at Terezin, she compiled a handwritten book of recipes and entrusted it to a friend, imploring him to get it to her daughter in Palestine if "he" survived. Here to tell the story of the book is its editor, Cara De Silva, a journalist and culinary historian. Thank you for being with us.
CARA DE SILVA, Editor, In Memory's Kitchen: Thank you for having me here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about Terezin. It was an unusual concentration camp, wasn't it?
CARA DE SILVA: It was completely unique in the camps of the Third Reich largely because Hitler somehow managed, in a ploy that would make Madison Avenue executives gasp, to position it as paradise ghetto, a model ghetto, a city for the Jews. And it was used to deceive the world, or he intended it to deceive the world, about what was actually happening to the Jews.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this was a place where "some" liberties were given--people gave plays and operas--but at the same time, Jews were dying at the same rate as in any other camp.
CARA DE SILVA: Yes. This was not a death camp. It was a weigh station to the death camps. Of 144,000 Jews who were sent to Terezin, 88,000 were sent to death camps. Thirty-three thousand, though, died in Terezin, itself, which is a great number of people. At times as many as a hundred people a day were dying in this camp. Yet, at the same time, people were allowed, partly because it helped to perpetuate this hoax, to engage in the most incredible artistic activities. It was a cultural ferment of a kind that's almost impossible to describe.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The people who died, many died of hunger, is that right?
CARA DE SILVA: Yes. Hunger and disease.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hunger was a huge part of life in this ghetto, and Mina Pachter, among other people, made hunger, or dealt with her hunger partly by gathering recipes.
CARA DE SILVA: Yes. Mina Pachter and the few friends who wrote this book. Hunger was particularly a problem for the elderly because they were actually--for reasons I won't go into here--they were given less food than others because they were closer to death to begin with. And so they were--they are described in the literature as being in a terrible state, as scavengers. And we can't know for sure that Mina Pachter and her friends were in this condition but it seems very likely. We do know she died of starvation, and, therefore, we can assume that things were not going well, and that they did have to find other ways of dealing with their hunger.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She called it platonic cooking at one point.
CARA DE SILVA: In a poem, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where the women would fantasize about the things they used to cook. And this was--they came from a culture in Central Europe that--the women--for whom food was a very important part of their lives.
CARA DE SILVA: I think to a degree that it's very hard for a contemporary woman to understand when we buy everything already chopped in the supermarket that for these women, cooking was a source of immense pride and importance. And it was a thing from which a woman very much took not all her identity but a great part of her identity was how she laid her table and what she put on it, and so for these women, the dishes they are remembering are part of that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And their recipes for a potato herring dish, for goose necks stuffed with farina, for liver dumplings, would you read one of the recipes?
CARA DE SILVA: Sure. It's always--it's always very hard to choose, but there is one with a line in it that I find particularly moving. I should explain, by the way, that these women were largely assimilated, that the Jews of Bohemia, however Jewish they felt themselves to be, were largely not kosher, so don't be surprised at the presence of one of the ingredients in this recipe. I read it largely because there's one line in it that is just so heart rending when you think about what these women were doing at the time these were written. "Cold Stuffed Eggs," Pachter. "Hard boil 10 eggs. Cut them in half. Remove yolks and press them through a sieve. Ad five decagrams butter, two anchovies, press through a sieve. A little mustard. Three to four drops magi"--which is a liquid seasoning--"1/8 liter whipped heavy cream, parsley, lemon juice. Now put eggs on a platter. Pour aspic over. Before pouring on the aspic, let fantasy run free." And the eggs are garnished with ham, smoked salmon, caviar, capers. "One can put the eggs into paper cups and serve them with hot, sliced rolls." Even the paper cups is a detail of a kind of fineness of cooking and imagining when you know what the slop that these women were living on, and how starved they were, it just--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The recipes are in some cases not complete.
CARA DE SILVA: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you've left them that way. Why?
CARA DE SILVA: Well, I left them that way, first of all, because this is a historical document, obviously, but also because the story of this book is as much or more in the mistakes than it is in the actual recipes because these women--and it shows particularly in the German--two translators have looked at it and told me that--but also just in the writing of the recipes that steps are reversed, things are served before they're cooked, ingredients are left out, and it's not enough to assume that they didn't have to say things because they were talking to people who "knew" all these recipes so that they could leave things out; these are mistakes. They're not just things that they had in common, so they didn't have to say them. And they're mistakes, I think, and others have thought because these women were in a state of decay, I mean, mentally, and the German--these were women, all of whom grew up speaking and writing German. And the German is just peculiarly troubled. And one has to assume that in old age, when you have no food, that your decline is precipitous.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did this--how did this--these were recipes written by hand on paper. How did they finally get many years later to Mina Pachter's daughter?
CARA DE SILVA: It's the most dramatic and amazing story. These are hand sewn. They're written in faltering handwritings, and just before she died of starvation in Terezin, Mina Pachter apparently handed this--or we know through her daughter, who ultimately received it--she handed the manuscript to a friend of hers, a man, and asked that if he survived--she apparently felt that she was dying--that if he survived, he please get them to her daughter, who had gone to Palestine. She has refused to go with her daughter, saying, they'll never hurt an old person. And, of course, she was very shortly to find out how wrong she was. So the problem was that she didn't have an address for her daughter because of the war. You know, they occasionally communicated but very rarely. And so he was left with a manuscript and no way to find her. He took--he did survive, and he took it home to--or took it to his shop, which was in a small town in Czechoslovakia, and kept it for 15 years. And in the 15th year, a cousin of his came into the shop and said she was going to Israel. And he gave it to her. He made her the custodian. And she took it along, and only to find out that they had just moved to New York, when she got word of them. Another 10 years went by, and suddenly, a stranger, nobody knows who it was, a man from Ohio, suddenly showed up at a meeting of Czech Jews in New York, carrying this astonishing, important parcel with this unknown form of Holocaust literature. And he asked if anybody at the meeting happened to known Anny Stern, which was the name of the daughter. And one woman raised her hand. And she said, "Yes, I think I do." And she became the final custodian of the manuscript. And 25 years after her mother died--I can still hardly say it--after her mother died of starvation in Terezin, Anny's phone rang, and a stranger's voice said, "Hello. Is this Anny Stern?". And she said, "Yes." And the voice said, "Then I have a package for you from your mother."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did she do then?
CARA DE SILVA: She said to me that--she died last year, but we came to know each other quite well--she said to me that she couldn't touch it, that it was like something holy, that she was afraid of it, that it was like her mother's hand was reaching out to her from the past. And she put it in a drawer. And she didn't look at it for years and years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did it come to be published?
CARA DE SILVA: A friend of mine, Dalia Carmel, is a collector of cookbooks, and she was a friend of Anny's. And one day out of nowhere, Anny opened the drawer, and she said, "I have something to show you."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you all who have worked on this, you as editor, you've all worked free, pro bono?
CARA DE SILVA: Yes. Everybody did it pro bono. It was so important--I mean, we all felt such a mission to let these women's voices be heard again after 50 years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You see this as an act of resistance, don't you?
CARA DE SILVA: Oh, without question, as a very profound act of psychological resistance. Food is such a powerful identity marker that when you remember, when you remember what you fed your husband, and what your grandmother fed you, and your celebrations of what went on around your table, you are reinforcing who you are. And in this situation, you are reinforcing who you are in the face of those who want to annihilate you and your culture and your traditions, and everything about you. We all have food memories that recall for us our childhood, our adulthood, you know, our marriage feast, whatever it was. And when we do, it's in a central part of who we are. And by writing this down, they were using these as weapons. They were using, you know, potato doughnuts and dumplings and stuffed eggs and caramels from Bonn, instead of bombs and bazookas.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Cara De Silva, thank you very much for being with us.