On a culinary tour of Israel in 2011, James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Rememberance Center, where he found himself particularly moved by the sight of recipes written in the Nazi concentration camps.
When Shaya, the chef/owner of Saba restaurant in New Orleans and Safta in Denver, told a friend about the experience, she put him in touch with someone she knew at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
“I was wondering what food meant to people during that horrific time and how it played a role in people’s survival, their mental state,” Shaya said recently during a Facebook Live event hosted by the museum, called Rescued Recipes: Heroic Actions that Saved Family Treasures. “And lo’ and behold, they had a plethora of recipes that were rescued from the war. There were many recipes rescued from concentration camps and donated by different families.”
Among them was a volume called the Fenves Family Cookbook. The chef was told that a surviving member of the family, Steven Fenves, was a museum volunteer and lived nearby. The museum put the two men in touch.
Participating in the Facebook Live event, which was moderated by museum historian Edna Frieberg, Fenves explained that he and his older sister, Estera, grew up in Subotica, a Yugoslavian city six miles from the Hungarian border. Their mother was a graphic artist and their father managed the local printing plant. Their upper-middle-class household included a maid, a chauffeur, a governess, and a cook. The family went to the movies — American, mostly, and badly dubbed, Fenves said; ice skated in winter on a nearby lake; and regularly traveled to Budapest, where both parents had relatives.
On April 6, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and that day Fenves’ father was expelled from his job by a Hungarian officer — “side-arm drawn,” Fenves said — and forced to fire the household staff, because Jews were no longer allowed to employ servants. The family lived on what they could earn by selling off their possessions and some crafts made by Fenves’s mother.
“For three years there were increasing restrictions and humiliations,” Fenves said, and in 1944 the town’s Jewish population of about 6,000 people were forced from their homes and into a Jewish Ghetto, before being deported to Auschwitz.
“On the day of deportation my father had already been taken away. I have no idea how the populace was notified. All I know is that when we were on the stairs with our little bundles, every stair was occupied by a person ready to occupy the apartment, spitting at us, yelling at us.”
Unbeknownst to the family, their former cook was in that crowd and, competing with the vandals, collected a large bundle of its belongings. Maris gathered the family’s recipe book, photographs, a children’s diary, school work, and a number of lithographs and etchings, filling a big folder she found in what had been the children’s playroom.
Seeing the family’s hand-embroidered settee being carried away on a cart by the looters, she and her husband “strong-armed the driver,” according to Fenves, and kept the piece of furniture until it could be returned to the family many years later.
“I no longer remember Maris’s last name,” Fenves recalled. “I know exactly the date she was let go when we were forced to let all the staff go. She was a big strong woman, commanding great respect from everybody.”
Fenves was liberated in Buchenwald in June of 1945 and returned to Subotica. A few weeks later his sister, who was liberated in Bergen Belsen, also returned.
“And to everyone’s enormous surprise,” Fenves said, “my father returned from Soviet military hospital on a stretcher, totally broken emotionally and physically and he died four months later. He could never accept that he lost his wife.”
Fenves and his sister decided to emigrate to the United States, and consigned the art work, the diary, and the recipe book to Maris, who sent the items once they were settled. Fenves ultimately donated the recipe book to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. When Shaya began working with Fenves and the museum on a project to bring some of the recipes to life, Fenves translated the table of contents and 13 of the recipes.
“I got a glimpse of the family’s life before the war around the kitchen table,” Shaya said. “I heard stories of him going to the market with Maris and with his mother and loading up on the seasonal fruits at the market. I thought it was really beautiful what he shared of everyone working in the kitchen to pickle and preserve that produce.”
The chef began cooking the dishes and shipping them overnight, on dry ice, to Fenves. “He was tasting this food for the first time in 75 years and he would give me feedback on it,” Shaya said. “That was one of the most gratifying parts of the whole experience: having him taste the food and talking to him about it.”
Among the recipes Shaya reproduced was a walnut pound cake, and it was during the Facebook Live event that Fenves would taste this family favorite for the first time in three quarters of a century.
“These are moments I live for,” Shaya said as Fenves took a bite. “I’ve waited my entire career for this type of moment.”
Fenves admitted that he had a hard time remembering exactly what the cake of his childhood had tasted like. “Eating this, I honestly cannot isolate the memory of this dish from the other sweet dishes we had, but certainly in terms of freshness, the lightness, the sweetness comes through.”
Without a refrigerator in the apartment, Fenves explained, every new fruit of the season was celebrated. “I’m sure that at walnut harvesting time there was a plethora of walnut dishes.”
What he did remember specifically was watching his grandmother grind the nuts. “Part of the process was grinding the walnuts in a meat grinder,” he recalled. “My grandmother had a little grinder on the side of our counter. So it was a very common way to grind the nuts into fine pieces. That was a technique from the book that really resonated with my grandmother’s cooking and reminded me of the food that I was eating when I was growing up.”
Among the other recipes Shaya reproduced were filled “potato circles,” which were made for special events and for guests. There was a roasted turkey dish in which the turkey meat was taken off the bone, ground up, and then re-attached. There were also semolina sticks — “It’s really cream of wheat lightly breaded and fried,” Shaya said. “It’s one of our favorite snacks around the house now.”
“Even though food was so important to the family,” mused the chef, “it was really amazing for me to learn that the recipe book was one of the few things that Maris saved, and it reminded me how important a role food plays in people’s lives. And through learning the recipes and talking to Steven about them it was really nice to get a glimpse into the positive family moments that were so plentiful and special prior to the occupation.”
As the project moves forward, Shaya would like to see more chefs get involved. By resurrecting these cherished family recipes, the chef said he hopes to make them widely accessible, another way for people to remember the Holocaust.
“The goal is to find ways to think about the Holocaust so people will remember what happened so it never happens again, but not just through stories of death or survival but stories of people’s lives before the war; a glimpse into what people’s lives were like before everything turned upside down,” he said. “Because you get an understanding that these families were just like you or me, and all of a sudden their world was destroyed. And that’s where I think we can make a big impact through food.”