The Victorious Women of Terezín
A cookbook's triumph
Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish faith, a day of penance for one’s sins. A day of fasting.
It may seem strange to commemorate the holiday by talking about food. But this is also the holiday when Wilhelmina (Mina) Pachter died in 1944 on Yom Kippur at Terezín, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. She was 72 years old. Before she died, she handed a manuscript of a cookbook to a friend who somehow survived the camp. Several pages long and carefully bound by thread, the book represented the collective memories of Mina and other women who countered their starvation and hardships by sharing recipes they once made for their family and friends. She wanted her friend to give it to her daughter, Anny Stern, who immigrated with her family to Palestine shortly after the German Army seized Czechoslovakia. The cookbook would be a link to the life she wanted her daughter to remember, the one the camp failed to extinguish.
For years Mina’s friend tried to track Anny down but, without an address and with no means to travel to the Middle East, all he could do was harbor the cookbook for safe keeping. Then, in 1960, he entrusted it to an Israel-bound cousin. By then, though, Anny had moved to America to be closer to her son. Once more Mina’s cookbook passed on to stranger, traveled over the ocean and across several states, always tended by unknown hands. Eventually, it arrived in Manhattan where, at a casual social gathering of Czech immigrants, someone asked if anyone knew the Sterns and, yes, someone did. It had been over three decades since Mina hoped the cookbook would find her daughter. Finally, Anny held it in her hands, a cookbook she called holy, the impossible presence of her mother.
Two sisters by the door, a pair/Their harmony is something rare/A love of cooking both do share/But it’s platonic, their cupboard is bare/The food they had brought no longer there.--From the poem, January 1943, Theresienstadt, by Mina Pachter
Cookbooks are always more than a gathering together of recipes. They are stories revealing a particular time and place. The survival of Mina’s book and its recipes is a crisscross narrative of two times, two places. The recipes recall the women’s past when they were mistresses of the family table, masters of the abundant lusciousness of 19th century European cuisine. Butter, cream, goose fat, caviar, savory dumplings, puff pastry-encased pâté, plump strudels, caramelly sweets and many many celebratory cakes. At the same time, they reveal the women’s present existences. By the time of the book’s creation, the women’s minds and bodies were ravished by malnutrition, their strength depleted by the harsh demands of their slavery. These circumstances must account for some of the confusing directions and measurements, as well as the instances when the text veers from their native Czech to quickly learned, sometimes mangled, German phrases. And the fragility of the book, itself, composed in an elegant hand on found scraps of paper, yet held together by a length of strong thread that could not have been readily available anywhere in the camp. It’s possible Mina pulled it from the weave of the few clothes the women brought with them when they first entered the camp.
Anny Stern published Mina’s cookbook, now entitled In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, in 1996. The following recipe honors the women who survive in its pages. Mina and her friends would be thrilled to find a seat at your Yom Kippur dinner.
Note: The recipe is given as originally written. Anny added clarifications in brackets when she published the cookbook. I’ve added a few more brackets, shown as italicized, including the conversion of European measurements. Hay and Straw may be made ahead of your break fast meal.
Hay and Straw
The recipe calls for freshly made noodles but you can use dry store-bought noodles cooked al dente ahead of time.
Make a noodle dough from 1/2 kilogram [about 1 pound] flour, 2 eggs, 2-3 tablespoons white wine, 2-3 tablespoons thick sour cream. Roll out the dough medium thick. Cut short noodles and fry in hot fat. Remove them and put them into a soufflé dish. Sprinkle them with sugar, cinnamon and many raisins. Now make a delicate vanilla cream, add a little raw [uncooked] cream and pour over fried noodles. Put the dish into a hot oven and bake it a little [preheat oven to 350 and cook until heated through, perhaps 15 minutes]. Bring to table in dish.
I am always amazed that anyone in the camps could find it in themselves to make art, or to record their histories and traditions, in the midst of such abject horror. I'm grateful you shared this.