Recipe inside'They're more than recipes, they're testimonies'

Recipes in this Holocaust survivors’ cookbook nourished souls during and after WWII

All of the 110-plus dishes in the newly-released ‘Honey Cake & Latkes’ were provided by Auschwitz survivors who say discussing the recipes helped them live through their starvation

Reporter at The Times of Israel

'Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors' (Courtesy); Tova Friedman's kasha varnishkes (Ellen Silverman).
'Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors' (Courtesy); Tova Friedman's kasha varnishkes (Ellen Silverman).

David Lenga was not yet a teenager when World War II began. A Polish Jew born in Lodz, he would lose all but one member of his extended family in the Holocaust, while he himself suffered through the Dachau, Kaufering and Auschwitz concentration camps.

Now, decades after the war, Lenga has preserved a prewar memory of his mother, Sarah — namely, the beloved recipes she made. Two of her pastry dishes are part of a remarkable new cookbook, “Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors.”

All of the 110-plus recipes in the book were contributed by survivors of the notorious death camp. The book was released on September 13, ahead of Rosh Hashanah. All of the sale proceeds will benefit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.

The idea originated in a January 2020 delegation of 120 survivors, plus their family members, who returned to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The organizer of the visit was Ronald S. Lauder, the chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and the president of the World Jewish Congress, as well as a former United States ambassador to Austria.

Lauder noted that when survivors attended a dinner in Krakow, a common topic was memories of treasured family recipes and how these sustained them through their worst moments in Auschwitz. During the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, many of the survivors kept in touch on Zoom. Lauder noticed the subject of food remained a popular topic.

“The fact is, as we started talking, we started to realize this was too important a subject to let rest,” Lauder told The Times of Israel. “The question came in: Do we do a cookbook?”

Survivors Tova Friedman, Angela Orosz-Richt, and Johnny Jablon, with Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, photographed in Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 2020. (Photo by Shahar Azran)

Calling “Honey Cake & Latkes” a “great name,” Lauder added that “piece by piece, we started putting this together… all the recipes, getting pictures, we had to make the food, taste it, make sure the recipes work.”

Vintage photos in the book show the survivors in their younger, prewar days, with some also participating in a recent photoshoot of them making recipes.

“They sort of paired us up,” said survivor Tova Friedman, adding that the survivor she was paired with, Eugene Ginter, was at Auschwitz during the same time she was there.

‘Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors.’ (Courtesy)

Maria Zalewska, the executive director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, said, “What makes the book so unique is a friendship between Ambassador Lauder and the survivors… a level of trust was established to recover the recipes. They’re more than recipes. They’re testimonies.”

The recipes are divided into seven sections, from “Breakfast and Brunch” to “Holiday Dishes.” The last chapter opens with a family latke recipe from the late survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, contributed by his widow, Marion Wiesel. Lauder, a friend of the Wiesels, got the recipe from Marion. He remembers debates with Elie about whether latkes could be made without onions. Lauder said this was impossible — and met vigorous disagreement.

Lenga’s contributions included a sponge cake recipe named after his mother. “Sarah’s Famous Sponge Cake” includes one tablespoon of cocoa powder among the ingredients.

“It really enhances the entire taste,” Lenga said. “My mother was an expert in doing it.”

‘The best cake I ever had’

Fellow survivor Friedman contributed two recipes — kasha with varnishkes, a Yiddish word for farfalle or bowtie pasta; and a carrot tzimmes flavored with ginger.

In the cookbook, she writes that tzimmes is a Rosh Hashanah staple due to its sweetness, and that her mother’s version “was like eating dessert.”

As for the kasha, it came from her late husband’s family: “Kasha varnishkes is the favorite in my family,” Friedman told The Times of Israel, calling it “one of the soul foods at my table.”

Her version involves mushrooms. “I happen to love mushrooms. Who doesn’t?” she said.

Tova Friedman as a child, prior to World War II. (Courtesy)

As for the farfalle, “The little bowties just add to the beauty of it. I think the kasha is not only delicious, it looks good.” However, she noted, “the pasta without the kasha is like eggs without salt.”

Overall, the book’s recipes are “wonderful,” Friedman said, adding, “You can find most of the [ingredients] in your home. They’re not expensive, they’re not complicated, they’re very simple and delicious. I ate one of the cakes by somebody else. It was the best I ever had.”

Although the recipes evoke pleasure from the contributors, the memories can be bittersweet — as is the case when survivor Michael Bornstein makes his mother’s sweet noodle kugel.

“When I eat the kugel, I think about my mother,” Bornstein said. “I think about Auschwitz and survival.”

Born in Zarki, Poland, Bornstein was four years old when his family was deported to the death camp. His father Israel and brother Samuel were killed by the Nazis. He was protected by his mother Sophie and grandmother Dora. When older children stole his bread rations, Sophie gave hers to her son, even at the cost of punishment. After Sophie was sent to a labor camp in Austria, Bornstein and his grandmother hid in the women’s barracks and the infirmary, which saved them from a death march.

After liberation, Sophie was turned away from the family’s former home by its new inhabitants, but she found the makeshift vault where her family had hidden their valuables. All had been stolen except a kiddush cup, which remains a family heirloom and is shown in the book.

‘My early memories of food are of hunger’

Friedman is two years older than Bornstein. She, too, had been saved by her mother from a death march, through concealment among corpses. After Auschwitz was liberated, Friedman and her parents first returned to their home in Poland, then lived in a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. She noted that Landsberg was the place where Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” in 1923.

“My early memories of food are of hunger,” Friedman said, but called the DP camp the place “where my mother first began to cook again.”

David Lenga’s family before World War II. (Courtesy)

“There were my first memories of regular eating, especially for the Sabbath,” she recalled. “There was one gigantic stove. Everybody cooked in the stove. There was no separate stove in the room. Those were my first memories.”

Friedman added, “Only when I got to America did we have a regular house, stove, holidays. It’s when kasha varnishkes and tzimmes came back to us. When I got married, I took it with me, those two dishes, on the holidays.”

She, Bornstein and Lenga all raised families and wrote books about their experiences, although it sometimes took a while to come to terms with the past. Lenga said that his late wife, Charlotte, needed to return to her native Czechoslovakia for confirmation that things had changed. As for himself, it took 71 years before he returned to Poland, on a March of the Living tour in 2017. The second time he returned was for the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation.

A side of politics

Asked about the relationship between the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and the Auschwitz Museum, Lauder described it as “separate and not separate… A lot of us, we have relationships there, we have given a lot of money to the museum.” He added, “We don’t run it [the museum], but we oversee what’s going on.”

Recently, a dispute between Poland and Germany has roiled the two nations. On October 3, Poland demanded $1.3 trillion in war reparations from Germany. The following day, Germany’s foreign minister informed her Polish counterpart that the country would not pay. Meanwhile, Lauder said the Auschwitz Museum hasn’t been impacted by the dispute.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s stayed exactly the way it was beforehand. The government itself may be doing other things. Auschwitz, although it is in Poland, it is looked on as an international place, not a Polish place, for us.”

Illustrative: Visitors walk below the gate with its inscription ‘Work sets you free’ as the memorial site of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (Bartosz Siedlik/AFP)

When asked, Lauder estimated that there are some 100,000 Holocaust survivors still alive today. The total is decreasing, though, and sadly, some of the contributors to the book have died in recent years, including Romanian native David Marks, whose narrative is particularly poignant.

A survivor of both Auschwitz and Dachau, Marks lost many family members in the Holocaust, including three siblings. He went on to serve in the Israeli Navy as a policeman, then immigrated to the US. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he got engaged to his second wife, Kathy; they married on January 1, 2021. He died this year.

Marks contributed multiple recipes to the book, from Hungarian layered potatoes with cheese, or rakott krumpli, to a cheesecake milkshake.

When Friedman reflected on her own experiences, she said, “I was very lucky. I and my parents survived. I know people who lost their parents. Food connects us to the past and it keeps us together in the present. My kids have the recipes — my daughter, sitting right here, makes it at home for her family. There’s nothing like food that connects generations.”

Tova Friedman’s Kasha Varnishkes

I have always loved tzimmes. My late husband’s favorite food was tzimmes, but he also shared his family’s recipe for kasha varnishkes. So from the time I had my own family and had children, we always used to prepare tzimmes and varnishkes. This is the “old fashioned” way to make it: with lots of mushrooms.

(Excerpted with permission from “Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors.”

Tova Friedman’s kasha varnishkes. (Ellen Silverman)

4 cups water
1 cup kasha (buckwheat groats)
1 extra-large egg, beaten
1 cup bowtie (farfalle) pasta
3 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
12 ounces white mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup soy sauce

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and have it ready. Put the kasha in a medium bowl. Add the beaten egg to the dry kasha. Mix thoroughly so all the grains are uniformly coated.

Heat a heavy-bottom 8-quart pot over medium-high heat until it is very hot. Add the egg-kasha mixture and stir continuously, breaking up clumps so that the kasha is very hot. Slowly pour the boiling water onto the hot kasha and add a pinch of salt. The kasha will explode and froth (this is the fun part). After all the water has been added and the pot settles down, skim any schmutz that might be floating on top. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.

While the kasha is cooking, prepare the bowtie pasta according to package instructions (cook in salted water for about 12 minutes).

While bowties are cooking, heat the butter (or oil, if parve) in a wide saucepan. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and then the garlic and cook until the mushrooms and onions are tender. Add the cooked kasha to the mushroom mixture, then add the soy sauce and toss gently to coat. Add the bowties just before serving.

An alternative way of cooking this dish is to place the kasha mixture in a casserole dish and bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, or to desired dryness. When ready to serve, add bowties and mix. Serve hot.

Note: Bowties are added last to keep them white.

Serves 4 as a main dish, 6-8 as a side dish.

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