This past Chanukah was filled with candle lightings, latkes, matzo ball soup and gelt. My parents went to Highland Park’s main grocery store, Sunset Foods, to bring home pre-made latkes, and kept a constant supply of matzo ball soup in our fridge thanks to our favorite deli, Once Upon a Bagel – I was sick, so that absolutely hit the spot. When we gathered with more family members over the weekend, we ate brisket, kugel, more latkes (I really love them), and a fantastic icebox cake that my mom made. My cousin’s girlfriend and roommate both celebrated with us as well, and got to learn about our Jewish traditions. It was as effortless as a family gathering could be, which is something that’s easy to take for granted.
Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with two incredible women who have both made it their mission to make sure that Jewish American families don’t take such gatherings for granted.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Midwest Regional Director Jill Weinberg shares the story of “In Memory’s Kitchen,” a collection of recipes written down by starving women imprisoned in Theresienstadt, and the museum’s role in preserving their memories and preventing future genocides. I also speak with the owner of the Midwest’s largest Kosher Supermarket, Lynn Shapiro, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, who shows me how she’s preserving her family’s history, and pulling back the curtain on a once-vibrant Jewish culture in Hungary, through an incredibly well-researched cookbook of her own.
“Food is the great equalizer.”
It’s a phrase that I’ve thought about often since sitting down with USHMM Midwest Regional Director Jill Weinberg.
It’s simple, but poignant.
And in the framework of the Holocaust, it’s devastating.
“We cannot imagine the conditions that these women were under when they were striving to maintain memories and they were starving for food themselves,” Weinberg explains. “Yet, their way of helping themselves to get through these difficult days was to think about the recipes that they would make and families they had, and they would share them with each other.”
In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, is a collection of dozens of recipes written by the starving prisoners of Theresienstadt, a Czechoslovakian concentration camp that was paraded by the Nazis as a “model” camp (the Red Cross accepted that lie), but, in reality, served as a stopping point before Auschwitz. Thousands died in Theresienstadt, including some of the authors of the cookbook. Some recipes are incomplete. The publishers chose to keep it that way, in tribute to the women who worked under unimaginable conditions to preserve their memories of a thriving Jewish culture that was being decimated by the Nazis.
“It was the impossible,” Weinberg says. “It was the idea that we all get to share recipes and we get to make them at that very moment. But… they are sharing memories that they aren’t sure they will ever be able to have again, and most of them were never able to have anything close to an intact family.”
Anny Stern, the daughter of one of the women who perished at Theresienstadt, told the New York Times in the 1990s that her mother, Mina Pachter, gave a handwritten cookbook to a friend, and asked him to give it to her daughter if he survived. The collection of recipes would travel for decades across continents, from Europe to Israel to the United States, before ultimately falling into Stern’s hands in 1969. Even then, it would take another two decades before being published for the rest of the world to see.
Weinberg, who is immersed every day with the crucial task of preserving memories of the Holocaust for future generations, says she knew the book was special as soon as she heard about it.
“I knew it would resonate so much, because all of our memories are of family and food and sharing what we do. But needless to say, in times of crisis, when people were not even able to eat decent food or cook or have family memories again, it became even more significant.”
Weinberg says curators at the United States Holocaust Museum witnessed an uptick in recipes from survivors and their families after the book was published. Many have been donated to the museum’s collection. She says the recipes play an important role in helping people understand what life was like before the Holocaust, and all that was lost in it. In that same spirit, the museum’s main exhibit leads visitors through pre-war Germany, offering a glimpse at what life was like before millions of Jewish people were forced into ghettoes and, later, concentration camps.
“One of the ways that the museum felt so strongly about helping the public understand this history, was to make sure that it didn’t start with the death camps, to be sure that the visitor to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum understood the rich, vibrant lives that people lived before the war and before their rights started to be taken away from them,” Weinberg says. “Certainly, that included a lot of culture – a rich and vibrant culture. You see theater, you see music, you see books, and of course, here we are talking about food and the fact that people would share their recipes and the fact that families have beautiful celebration together. But now comes this clear understanding of how little by little by little each one of those things were taken away from them. And there is nothing more basic than food being taken away from you.”
This year, the United States Holocaust Museum will turn 25 years old. Weinberg says its role today in preserving memories of the atrocities of the Holocaust – and of the lives lost – is critical.
“Survivors really are being begged to share their stories while they can,” Weinberg says. “There are so many books being taught about the Holocaust, so many more classes on college campuses and children being taught in school. But it was not always this way in our country. It was not always this way around the world. Europe did not come to terms with its past immediately. It took a very, very long time.”
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a time when discussions of the atrocities of the Holocaust are expansive and in-depth. It’s been a part of my education since I was a child. I’ve listened to survivors speak, and I’ve watched the next generation take it upon themselves to teach future generations about the Holocaust in the hopes that one day, “Never Again” can become a reality.
This past holiday season, I thought a lot about In Memory’s Kitchen, and the idea of food as a “great equalizer.” As always, I’m grateful for my friends, family, health and opportunities, but that’s not all this year.
I’m grateful for the strength of the women who found the courage to write down recipes from homes they did not know if they’d ever see again.