Remembering Olga Sternberg’s Auschwitz experience through recreating her recipes
By: Dr. Alex Sternberg
Several years ago, I began to write my parents Auschwitz stories. As my mother often told me that she spent lots of time “cooking” with the other Hungarian ladies in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, I was intrigued. She explained that they would share recipes and the various methods that they would use to prepare Shabbos dinners and other special occasions. It kept their minds off the hunger and starvation in the camps. By now, many of you have been reading excerpts of this story entitled “Recipes from Auschwitz-The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews With Historical Insight”. Included along with my parents’ stories were 24 recipes that my mother learned and memorized in the concentration camps. After liberation she wrote them down and passed them along to me. She actually managed to write down many more but I chose to include only 24 of them. In reality, I didn’t set out to write a cookbook but to tell my parents stories of their experiences in Auschwitz. The recipes were just an add on. In writing the recipes for the book, my wife Ilyse warned me to make sure that each recipe would appear with specific ingredients detailing amounts and easy to follow instructions, as a recipe ought to.
I followed her advice. Although I have been using these recipes for years in my weekly cooking at home, I was used to them and really didn’t need any instructions. So, my task was a bit daunting. Also, I needed to convert my mother’s written recipes from the Hungarian decimal system of 10 dg (deca gram) half a kg. or half a liter and such. For me, over the years, quantities were measured as “a palmful of salt”. I would dash and throw ingredients in as I learned from my mother. Honestly, I have not looked at her recipes for many years. I just cooked. But that would not do for the book. My editor also helped by providing me with instructions showing me a format used by actual cookbooks. Thanks to all these inputs, the recipes took on a professional appearance.
But that was not enough for Ilyse. She also suggested (her suggestions as all our wives’ suggestions must be taken seriously) that I have some independent cooks try out the recipes and provide feedback. Were they easy to follow? Did they come out the same as my mother’s or when I make them? You know the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”. So, I enlisted most of my family, nieces, mother in law, daughter in law, sister in law as well as my editor to try the recipes. This paid off as I got some very valuable feedback.
But by a stroke of great luck, one of our neighbors alerted me to the existence of the “ Fabulous Foodie Cookbook Club” a group of 38 local ladies who converge on someone’s house to try some recipes. Wow! A bell went off in my head as I thought “I wonder if I could get them to try some of these recipes”. So, I contacted Mrs. Shira Kalish, a local teacher who started the group, to find out what this club was all about.According to Shira the club “consists of 38 women from the Five Towns who are all “Foodies”- we love to try new recipes and cuisines from different cookbooks, blogs or magazines. About 20 of us meet every other month, and choose a cookbook or blog to make the recipes from, and then we make the food and discuss the recipes that night. We might discuss things like: is this recipe kid friendly? Would this recipe work best for Friday night or Shabbos day? Would we change anything when we make it again”?
After some discussion, Shira informed me that her group would be “honored” to participate in this endeavor and try out the recipes. Shira told me that although the club was not scheduled to meet that month, they would sponsor an extra session and try out my mother’s recipes. So, we agreed to convene on Monday December 9th and as many of the ladies who could, would come cook a dish of her choosing, using a recipe from my book. I was very excited. As an added bonus, I too would be invited to dinner with the ‘foodies’ and to talk about my book.
On a wet and pouring December 9th, I embarked on an evening of the unknown at Shira Kalish’s house. ( Fortunately Shira lives around the corner from me and in fact I have been davening with her husband for years) How would it go, I wondered? Would the dishes taste good? What would be the reception to the stories? By the time I arrived six ladies were already there with eight recipes all done. One “foodie”, Ms. Sheila Weiner was under the weather and decided not to brave the pouring rain and was unable to come. But, she did send a large bowl of my mother’s vegetable soup which was actually the first dish I tasted. I was very pleasantly surprised, as it was very good. Spot on.
The other dishes were fasirozott (meat loaf) by Shira Kalish, Jackie Weiss tackled the chicken Paprikash, Shelly Rokos the stuffed cabbage, Davida Stieglitz brought the becsinalt (fricassee), Aliza Solomon in a virtuoso performance prepared two dishes Cabbage and noodles and Nokedli. Nokedli is the Hungarian version of what the Germans and Austrians call spaetzle. Small pieces of floury paste ripped into a boiling hot pot of water boiled until they become hundreds of tiny, doughy pieces. Rena Chill prepared challah. The cabbage and noodles, a favorite East European Jewish dish that you can buy in any Deli counter, never tasted as good as when made according to my mother’s recipe.
One by one, we tasted all the dishes. Wow! They tasted like the dishes that I make and that my mother used to make. So, I thought, the recipes were written in a clear and easy to follow format. I was gratified.
During the sampling of the nine dishes, I spoke about my mother and father. With the passing of time, there are less and less actual survivors still living. But many remember their grandparents who were deported to Auschwitz from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The ladies I was dining with were no exception. Many shared with us stories that they heard from their grandparents and it turned into a fantastic evening commemorating the suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their East European neighbors. The tasting of Olga’s dishes brought out these stories in everyone.Several of the ladies contacted me a few days after our tasting dinner and wanted to share their feelings regarding the evening.
Sheila Weiner who could not attend, wrote that making the dishes reminded her of cooking with her mother. Davida Stieglitz, who prepared the “becsinalt”, which can best be translated as a friccase, wrote the following:
“The very act of preparing a recipe that I knew dated back and held history to a Holocaust survivor made it special to me. It made me feel as if I was preparing a meal the way someone may have been forced to throw some meager ingredients together back then but yet turn out a fueling and tempting masterpiece that was unforgettable by all who ate it. The consensus by anyone who has grown up in a house with a survivor is that the smells and tastes of the authentic recipes last forever with us and are unforgettable. These recipes immediately brought back the feelings and emotions of eating the food of our heritage. My husband’s paternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. They were originally from Poland and wound up in Germany after the war was over, where my father in-law was born. Shortly thereafter they moved to the United States. My husband’s grandmother was an excellent baker and cook and did so for many years. She passed down many of her recipes to her granddaughters. The stuffed cabbage reminded me of hers. It brought back wonderful memories! I think that my husband would really enjoy the meatloaf and feel like it was something that his grandmother used to make for him. I will be making that in the upcoming days to surprise him one night for dinner. I wanted to say that I think what made the evening most spectacular was the part where you came and made Olga Sternberg real. By sharing her and your remarkable life stories, you made the rest of us actually feel as if we knew and could see Olga standing in her kitchen preparing one of the dishes that we were physically sitting there eating and discussing. It was almost as if Olga had made it for us. Your wealth of shared information made the whole experience that much more incredible!
I joined the Foodie Cookbook Club because of my love of cooking and baking since I was a little girl. I have always had fun playing with recipes and I look for new and inspiring ideas by other chefs and cooks. I like to use seasonal ingredients and themes when entertaining and menu planning. I am always looking for healthy swaps and clean ingredient recipes full of flavor. Most importantly cooking and baking is a fun way that I like to be creative while making nutritious things for my family. I hope some of my recipes will be inspiring enough to be passed down for family generations to come.-Davida Stieglitz
And, Ms. Shelly Rokosz contributed the following: “I was happy to try your mothers’ recipes because I enjoy making more traditional foods. Some of my best and my kids recipes are those I learned from my grandmother.
The recipe I chose to make was the stuffed cabbage. The reason I chose to make stuffed cabbage is because I make other “stuffed” vegetables, and not cabbage, and thought to try it” Shelly went on to say “What I got out of the night was much more than learning how to make stuffed cabbage. With anti Semitism on the rise and holocaust deniers attempts to influence the narrative it’s important now more than ever to talk about the holocaust and about survivors experiences. In a way it’s comforting to know that although they experience such horrors, they were able to over come and rebuild. It’s part of who we are as a Jewish nation.Your mother’s story was fascinating, her survival even more so. And her recipes delicious.The stuffed cabbage was the only recipe I made. And my family tasted it and loved it. Thank you for taking the time to share your mother’s story and her recipes- Shelly Rokosz”
I wish to thank Shira Kalish and the ladies of the Fabulous Foodie Cookbook Club for giving me this opportunity.
Shira summed up the evening by stating that: ”Alex enjoyed tasting the recipes, and the women were fascinated by all the history of his family that he shared. We left with a full stomach and a bunch of new recipes to share with our new friends.It was a truly meaningful night for all” (@fabulous_foodie_cookbook_club)
Dr. Alex Sternberg Author;“Recipes from Auschwitz- The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight”
For more information about the book, the recipes, please contactAlex.email@example.com