Cookbook Collects Recipes and Stories From Holocaust Survivors

Student volunteers across three continents visited survivors in their home kitchens to ensure one more aspect of their lives would not be forgotten.

It’s an unusual premise for a cookbook: recipes contributed by Holocaust survivors. But the creators of “Once Upon a Kitchen Counter” want to show the world that survivors have far more to share with the world than painful memories of suffering and loss.

This Tuesday, following months of intense preparation, “Once Upon a Kitchen Counter” is being officially launched at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. An initiative of the university's Hillel student organization, this Hebrew-language cookbook contains some 40 recipes collected by Jewish students working with survivors in Israel, the United States and the former Soviet Union. For many of the participants, this is the first time they put their recipes in writing.

“Once Upon a Kitchen Counter” (or “Ta’am Shel Pa’am,” as it’s titled in Hebrew) is the latest of a handful of books that seek to document the culinary histories of Holocaust survivors. In addition to ingredient lists and instructions, it also contains the personal histories of the survivors who salvaged these recipes and the stories behind them.

In preparing the cookbook, Hillel students across three continents spent a week visiting survivors at their homes, where they learned to prepare the dishes from the masters. These little cookbook workshops are documented in photos that accompany each recipe. Several well-known Israeli chefs, including TV personality Michal Ansky, also contributed to the effort, offering suggestions for improvements and variations on the original recipes.

Ultimately, the cookbook is a work of social activism. “Our primary motivation was to provide a different kind of assistance to Holocaust survivors,” said Vitaly Viller, a 25-year-old student at Ben-Gurion University, who initiated the project.

Born in Ukraine, Viller, now an electronic engineering student, immigrated to Israel nine years ago. He is active in a program run by Ben-Gurion University Hillel for Russian-speaking students interested in reaching out to Holocaust survivors. With a special grant from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, an organization dedicated to enhancing the Jewish identity of Russian speakers, Viller traveled to Ukraine last year, where he learned about a similar cookbook project run by a local Hillel organization. He decided to import the idea.

The majority of foods in the book are Jewish family recipes from Eastern Europe. Recipes include “Elsa’s yeast cake,” “Chana’s carrot cookies,” “Layah’s chicken soup,” “Chaya’s fish in cream sauce,” “Tzila’s kreplach,” “Bassia’s strudel,” “Lola’s cheesecake” and “Gregory’s herring.”

Some of the recipe names, like “Avraham’s falsche fish,” may not ring familiar to modern Jewish ears. But as the book explains and the name suggests, this is a dish intended to look and taste like it comes from the sea, even though it is actually made from sugar-sweetened chicken. Fish, it turns out, was in scarce supply in Avraham’s landlocked hometown in Romania, so families like his learned to improvise.

The cookbook cover. Photo courtesy of 'Once Upon A Kitchen Counter' project.

Viller estimates that roughly 100 students and Holocaust survivors were involved in the cookbook project, with most of the funding coming from Genesis. All proceeds from sales, said Viller, will be invested in projects designed to assist Holocaust survivors. The book can be purchased for NIS 45 on the Hillel Israel website or for a discounted price of NIS 35 at Tuesday’s event.

Recipe: Irene's Braised Cauliflower

Contributed by Irene Weiss to the “Once Upon a Kitchen Counter” project.

Ingredients:

One head of cauliflower
Two tablespoons butter
3/4 cup bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
Oil

Instructions:

1. Boil the cauliflower in salted water until not completely soft.
2. Drain.
3. In a large frying pan, heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter (optional)
4. Cook on low heat
5. Add bread crumbs, but do not brown.
6. Add cooked cauliflower.
7. Cook until lightly coated with crumbs. Add salt and pepper.