Cookbooks and Concentration Camps: Unlikely Partners

By Dr. Myrna Goldenberg


Food, or the lack of it, dominated the consciousness of the concentration camp prisoner. As one survivor clarified: "We have a calendar in Birkenau. It is hunger.... Morning is hunger. Afternoon is hunger. Evening is hunger."

To be sure, nothing but food could satisfy their physical hunger and counteract severe malnutrition, but recipe sharing had its salutary effects. Ironically, "food talk," especially the exchange of recipes, boosted women's sense of community. As women recollected recipes, they taught one another the art of cooking and baking, and, in the process of teaching, they reclaimed their importance and dignity.

Teaching also presupposes a future. We teach to transmit accumulated information and knowledge that is valued for the sake of knowledge itself as well as for its application to everyday situations, challenges, and problems. We usually teach for and to the next generation and thereby we assume that there will be a next generation. Thus teaching imparts a feeling of hope or optimism.

The process of teaching creates relationships, a closeness that fosters the worth of both the teacher and the learner, and thereby helps diminish the Nazi strategy of humiliation and dehumanization. Relationships, especially in context of the concentration camp, nurtured friendship and community, subverting, to some degree, the isolation women (and men) experienced when they were torn from their families. Friendships also reinforce the feeling of being needed or important to someone else. Most prisoners agree that one could not survive without friendships (although friendships alone could not ensure survival).

Recipe sharing flew in the face of The Final Solution, the attempt to eliminate all Jews. "Cooking with the mouth;" as Susan CernyakSpatz called it, defied the Nazi's grand plan and perpetuated morsels of a culture that was nearly lost. Moreover, recipes in community cookbooks and, with the exception of the Ravensbrück and Terezin written collection of recipes, these were spoken community cookbooks are identified by the name of the women who created them. So one woman might teach another how to make Tante (Aunt) Ruchel's chicken soup or matzo kugel and thus restore Tante Ruchel to the community through her recipes. Not only was Tante Ruchel remembered through recipe sharing, but "food talk" also enabled women to pass on a culture, the memory of murdered family and friends, religious identification and tradition, and a value system.


Source: Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies