In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin

This book is of special interest for Women’s Heritage Month, and in reference to the exhibit at Central Library, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.The subject matter of this book does not directly or completely address Nazi propaganda, but does so partially and in an oblique way.The setting was Terezin, a concentration camp which also was a transit center, with one section created as "a paradise ghetto" for propaganda, and at the very end as a death factory. From its beginning in 1780, Terezin was a walled, garrison town. Later under Nazi control, Hitler called it “a city for the Jews" and it was used as a Nazi propaganda tool to assuage and deflect increasing scrutiny about the existence of the various death camps. There were special garden plantings, a merry-go-round, and a film was produced showing happy Jewish children warmly greeting Nazi military men. Shortly after the film was completed, all of the filmed prisoners, children included, were killed. Another part of Terezin's history, is that prisoners created a center of culture, art and education. The film Defiant requiem documents some of that history. 

Even though they were starving, suffering from malnutrition, and its attendant diseases, a group of women thought and talked about food, recipes, and cooking from their most recent past, and created a small handwritten book on scraps of paper. This was not unique to this group, or this camp, or place. In another part of the world, during World War II, Recipes out of Bilibid was written by men, POWs in the Philippines, held by the Japanese. For the starving to even think about recipes, let alone write about them, may seem counterintuitive, but not so. It was a way to survive by fantasizing, imagining, and dreaming of another time and place, a place to which they hoped to return. Food was not only sustenance, it was home, family, friends, and what had been lost and was longed for. DeSilva calls it a psychological resistance. It was waged against the unimaginable, horrific present where fantasy, imagination and memory would play a combined role in helping the prisoners survive--mentally and perhaps physically.

This is anything but a cookbook, rather a memoir, which has mostly recipes, letters, poems, drawings and a photograph. The recipes are a testament to the determination and resilience of many women who found a way to survive by talking about what had, in many ways, defined their lives. DeSilva asks us to read and scrutinize the recipes, printed in English along with the original Czech or German.The ingredients for many recipes are lush and rich: real butter, heavy cream, eggs, sugar, and other recipes allude to food rationing: War Dessert, Cheap Coffee Cream. The women who wrote the recipes were very experienced cooks whose world was to create a good home. They took pride and delight in cooking.  No detail was too small as DeSilva notes in this recipe for Caramels from Baden, p. 64. The very short description of preparation is mouth-watering, but then perfection speaks to itself, "Then break it into cubes and wrap in parchment and also pink paper." 

There is more to this slim little volume, and it is the story of how it came to be published. In Terezin, on her deathbed, Mina Pachter gave the book to a dear friend, who promised to find Mina's daughter, Anny Stern. Determined to fulfill her death bed wish, he kept the book for 15 years until his cousin traveled to Israel, and minus an address never found Anny, who had immigrated there years before.The book then was taken to New York City, and 15 years later, at a meeting of Czechoslovakian Jews, a connection was made. Anny Stern received a phone call from a stranger to say, “I have a package for you from your mother.” Anny felt as if her mother's hand had reached from the grave. Upon receiving the parcel, Anny could not open it for 10 years. 

This book speaks for itself, however I strongly recommend the recording of Cara DeSilva at the Culinary Historians of Southern California, February 13, 1999, Recipes as resistance   [sound recording] : in memory's kitchenFor this meeting special foods were prepared, based on recipes from the book, and at the conclusion of her talk Cara DeSilva said, " Let us now eat the food of their dreams."