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'I Remember the Day the Call Came'

September 14, 2006 By:
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There are books that, the moment they appear, announce themselves as classics. In Memory's Kitchen is one of them. This collection of recipes written by women incarcerated in Terezin, the Czech concentration camp north of Prague, was first published 10 years ago by Jason Aronson. Now Rowman & Littlefield has had the good sense to return it to print in an inexpensive paperback edition.

I recall writing a decade ago that the simple power of the document knocked the wind out of me, that words seemed ineffectual in light of the sad beauty and longing expressed in these pages. I have no reason to modify my judgment.

Cara De Silva, editor of the work, has written an introduction to the text that describes the curious history of this "cookbook like no other," and how it eventually made its way into book form.

The tale begins in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Anny Stern and her family were desperately seeking to escape the Nazis, and at last succeeded in booking passage to Palestine. The only damper to their euphoria was that Stern's mother, Mina Pachter, refused to leave. "What will they do to an old woman?" Pachter asked.

What the Nazis did, of course, was send her, as they sent many other elderly Jews, to Terezin, perhaps better known by its German name Theresienstadt.

This original garrison town was, as historian Michael Berenbaum comments in his foreword, an anomaly among the Nazi camp system. It came to be known as Hitler's "show" camp -- the place visitors, and especially Red Cross officials, were taken to see how well the Reich was treating the Jews.

But it was nothing more than a facade. Terezin was a way station, a temporary stop for Jews before they were sent farther east to likely death at either Auschwitz or Treblinka. Not that death wasn't an inhabitant at Terezin. Starvation and disease were rampant along its fetid streets; living conditions were deplorable. A crematoria was eventually built to handle the increasing number of corpses.

Pachter succumbed there to hunger and disease on Yom Kippur 1944, but not before she had entrusted to a friend the handwritten and handsewn kochbuch she and other female inmates had put together, asking the man, who'd been an antiques dealer in his other life, if he could get it to her daughter in Palestine after the war.

The friend survived but, for a number of years, due to a series of false starts and dead ends, the manuscript never reached Anny Stern. Not until 1960, that is.

By that time, she and her family had left Israel, and were living in Manhattan.

"I remember so well the day the call came," she told De Silva, "because it was my past at the other end of the line. 'Is this Anny Stern?' the woman on the phone asked me, and when I answered yes, she said, 'Then I have a package for you from your mother.' "

Stern continued: "When first I opened the cookbook and saw the handwriting of my mother, I had to close it. I put it away and only much later did I have the courage to look.

"My husband and I, we were afraid of it. It was something holy. After all these years, it was like her hand was reaching out to me from long ago ... . By sharing these recipes, I am honoring the thoughts of my mother and the others that somewhere and somehow, there must be a better world to live in."

'The Obsession With Food'

But why would starving people think about food? Wouldn't you assume that food -- the memory of it, how it tastes, how it looks -- would be the last thing they'd want to dwell upon in such conditions? Not so, writes Ruth Schertfeger in Women in Theresienstadt: Voices From a Concentration Camp. "Food, memories of it, missing it, craving it, dreaming of it, in short, the obsession with food colors all the Theresienstadt memoirs."

The translator of In Memory's Kitchen, Bianca Steiner Brown, who was herself an inmate at Terezin, takes the idea a step further. "In order to survive, you had to have an imagination. Fantasies about food were like a fantasy that you have about how the outside is if you are inside. You imagine it not only the way it really is but much stronger than it really is. I was, for instance, a nurse, and I worked at night and I looked out at night -- Terezin was a town surrounded by walls, a garrison town. So I looked out at all the beds where the children were, and out of that window I could look into freedom. And you were imagining things, like how it would be to run around the meadow outside. You knew how it was, but you imagined it even better than it was, and that's how it was with food, also. Talking about it helped you."

In fact, Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, and a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, says that people in both camps spoke so incessantly about food that there was an expression for it. "We called it 'cooking with the mouth,' " she says. "Everybody did it."

De Silva argues for the primacy of this document because food is "who we are in the deepest sense," and not simply because it becomes blood and bone. The meals we eat and when we eat them in our lives -- during childhood, say, and especially as part of celebrations -- "are critical components of our identities. To recall them in desperate circumstances is to reinforce a sense of self and to assist us in our struggle to preserve it. 'My mother was already in her 70s at this time,' said Anny, 'yet this book shows that even in adversity her spirit fought on.' And so, too, did the spirits of her friends.

"Among their weapons," continues de Silva, "were Heu und Stroh, fried noodles topped with raisins, cinnamon and vanilla cream; Leberknödel, liver dumplings with a touch of ginger; Kletzenbrot, a rich fruit bread; and Zenichovy Dort, or Groom's Cake. There were Erdäpfel Dalken, or potato doughnuts; and Badener Caramell Bonbons, caramels from Baden Baden -- about 80 recipes in all. Some were hallmarks of Central European cookery. A few ... were specifically Jewish."

There is one recipe, written by Mina, that de Silva finds particularly poignant. It's for Gefüllte Eier, stuffed eggs with all sorts of different garnishes. When it comes to how to handle these various toppings, Mina instructs the cook to "let fantasy run free."

And to demonstrate that Pachter's cookbook, which appears to be "an accretion of whatever individual contributors felt like setting down," is not an anomaly, De Silva notes that two smaller manuscripts -- one written in Theresienstadt and the other partly written there -- exist at Israel's Beit Theresienstadt, a kibbutz founded by survivors of the ghetto. And others have surfaced over the years.

A decade ago, when the book first appeared, de Silva told me that no matter what "uses" Pachter's cookbook may be put to, its creator had only one in mind for the manuscript, with its recipes scrawled on odd scraps of paper.

"She wanted her daughter to have a piece of her life, a piece of this tradition," said De Silva. "It's like -- dare I say it? -- a last caress."

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