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Recipes from the survivors of Auschwitz

Recipes from the survivors of Auschwitz

“As for matzo ball soup, my mom made the best,” Ronald Lauder said last night on the Upper East Side, at the bookstore of the Neue Galerie, the art museum he founded. Lauder, seventy-eight, the youngest son of Estée and Joseph Lauder, and a billionaire heir to their cosmetics fortune, was there to celebrate the publication of a cookbook. “Honey Cake and Latkes: Ancient World Recipes by the Survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau” was organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, of which he is the chairman.

In the store, before the book’s launch, Lauder sat with a handful of his associates. How did the idea come about? “When you’re dealing with survivors, when you’re dealing with Jews, everyone has a different version of events,” he said. “But there’s only one version that’s correct, and that’s mine.” By January 2020, Lauder had invited one hundred and twenty survivors to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on the seventy-fifth anniversary of its liberation. Over dinner one night, the conversation turned to gefilte fish. The group kept in touch. Maria Zalewska, the Polish-born director of the foundation, started collecting recipes.

More than one survivor recalls supporting fellow inmates with vivid descriptions of the food they had eaten in their previous lives. Tova Friedman (kasha.) varnish, carrot tzimmes), a cheerful eighty-four-year-old with a silver-blonde bob, was five and a half when she was sent to Auschwitz. “Food is home,” she said. “And when you talk about it, the smell comes to you and comes back home.”

Eugene Ginter, eighty-three, who was released just before age six, had a more complicated relationship with scents. ‘When I arrived in Auschwitz,’ he recalls, ‘I looked through the wooden slats of the cattle wagon and said, ‘It is very beautiful’, because there were trees. But then the smell, it was a sweet smell. It was the human bodies that were burned.” Ginter’s contributions to the book are the foods his mother made after the war to fatten his gaunt body: dark chocolate shaved over buttered black bread; a boiled potato mashed with buttermilk; bullet pointwhipped egg whites beaten with yolks and sugar.

Across the room, in Café Sabarsky, servers circulated with trays of champagne and bite-sized versions of some of the book’s recipes: Elisabeth Citrom’s aubergine salad with crispy rye croutons; that of David Marks rakott krumpli, Hungarian layered potatoes with cheese; Goldie Finkelstein’s back smile. Lois Flamholz, ninety-four, a Czechoslovak-born survivor, sitting on a bench, looked at a photo of herself in the book compressing circles of dough for jelly cookies. “I miss those cookies!” she cried. “I can’t stand it,” she explained. “I stopped cooking, I stopped baking.”

“On the lighter side, here’s Muffin with a string.”

Cartoon by Mick Stevens

On another bench, actor and director Joel Gray told producer Jeffrey Seller his experience filming “Cabaret” in Germany in 1971. “I was terrified during the flight,” he said. “I got off the plane, stood on the ground and cried.”

Lauder went to a lectern. “The first title of the book was ‘Auschwitz Recipes,'” he said. “It didn’t go too far.” Halfway through his thank you, he turned to the door. “Before I say anything else, a very special woman comes in now, Marion Wiesel.” He continued, “It was Marion I called to get the prescription from her husband Elie. And today the latkes you ate were from Elie’s recipe.’

The latke recipe was, unusually, absent onions. Later, a pushy interlocutor asked Mrs. Wiesel, ninety-one, herself a survivor and a gifted translator, if it was true that her late husband did not care for them. She said, “I can’t believe you care whether or not he likes onions.” Elisa, the Wiesels’ son, said, “My father preferred to focus on the positive. So rather than an onion hater, I’d think of him as a chocolate lover.” According to family history, Marion had tangled Elie with her latkes and also bribed him to quit smoking by promising him a Jaguar. “There was no Jaguar,” Elisa said.

In the lobby, on his way out, Tova Friedman, whose TikTok account, TovaTok, has nearly half a million followers, held the court. Thanks to her new memoir, ‘The Daughter of Auschwitz’, she is invited all over the world to tell her story. “So they brought us here. . . high tea,” she said, describing a visit to London. “We’ve got that thing, full of little sandwiches. So I said, ‘What happened to the crust? That’s the best of the bread!’ She continued: ‘You eat your soggy white bread, I have an idea. I’m going to find out chai tea,” as in the Hebrew word for life, pronounced guttural. ‘It will be toasted rye, with crusts, and it will become lox. It becomes a gefilte fish.”