The Theresienstadt Ghetto was created at the end of 1941 as a collection point for Jews of the former Czechoslovakia, and in the following months for Jews from Germany and Austria as well. A place with a complicated history of deception, starvation, slave labor, and periods of “beautification” for propaganda purposes, the Theresienstadt Ghetto’s primary purpose was as a way-station for further deportations to the death camps in Eastern Europe, most notably Treblinka and Auschwitz. Indeed, over half of the ghetto inhabitants perished in these places. In addition, over 30,000 of the prisoners died of disease brought-on by undernourishment and starvation in the ghetto itself. Nearly all of them were elderly. In May 1942, the Jewish Council instituted triage rationing: Children and laborers were allotted more food than those least likely to survive. The elderly became desperate scavengers, pouncing on piles of potato skins and rummaging in garbage. It was in this hell that Mina Pachter, who before the war had been an art historian and was now elderly herself, made this cookbook.
Food was a major conversation point for the old of the Theresienstadt Ghetto as they received so little. Mina Pachter began gathering recipes from other women she associated with. This may seem odd, but for the elderly prisoners in the ghetto food was an obsession. Survivors remember long conversations between prisoners about how a certain cake was made, or how they would describe to each other their favorite meals. Though these conversations about food and recipes were not physically nourishing, “the hunger was so enormous that one constantly ‘cooked’ something that was an unattainable ideal and maybe somehow it was a certain help to survive it all,” recalls former prisoner Jaroslav Budlovsky. Another survivor, Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, recalls that “..we called it ‘cooking with the mouth’. […] Everybody did it. And people got very upset if they thought you made a dish the wrong way or had the wrong recipe for it.” Mina Pachter took recipes she was told in such exchanges and managed to write them down and even create a small sewn-together manuscript. At the end of her life, in the fall of 1944, malnourished and in the hospital barracks, she entrusted her manuscript to a friend. Mina’s daughter had escaped before the war to Palestine, and Mina asked this friend to give the collected recipes to her daughter after the war. This was in keeping with the common tradition of daughters inheriting a book of handwritten recipes from their mothers. (We have many such examples of this practice in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute.)
The actual trip the recipes took was long following the war. The manuscript traveled to Palestine, but meanwhile her daughter, Anny, had immigrated to the United States. It was only in 1969 the collected recipes reached her. And when they did, Anny could not bring herself to examine the package for years. “It was like her hand was reaching out to me.” In addition to the recipe manuscript, the package included poems written by her mother, and a photograph of Mina Pachter with her grandson.
In 1996 the recipes were published in “In Memory’s Kitchen”. The original fragile, hand-sewn manuscript is now in the archives of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
The recipes call to mind Central European life before the Nazi period. As the New York Times described it in their review of the book in 1996: “They evoke visions of a boisterous family gathered around a heavily carved dining room table laden with food, or an intimate, ladies-only Kaffeeklatsch in the formal living room, or the Austrian Jause, the afternoon coffee break of bread and butter, Torte or Gugelhupf. Written in German and Czech and translated here into literal English, the recipes offer instructions for preparing liver dumplings and chicken gelantine, stuffed goose neck and plum strudel, the food of the Mitteleuropa family.”
The reader of this cookbook should know that recipes are often not exact with regard to measurements or times. There is the usual assumption that a woman running a household knows the basics of cooking, such as how to make dough or how long something should be put in an oven and at what temperature. People who wish to actually make items will likely need to consult contemporary recipes as supplements to sometimes sparse directions. Perhaps more importantly is how the recipes serve as a memorial to the fate of the elderly women of Theresienstadt, and the destroyed world in which they once lived.