Updated: Jan 13, 2021
By: Dr Jana Buresova
Food, an overview:
Food, whether we acknowledge it or not, plays a large part in our lives, and signifies much more than sustenance, vital though that is, and crucial at times of starvation. Memories – good or bad – are associated with it. Our home life, respective cultures, traditions and tastes are reflected by it, and our craving for, or avoidance of particular food(s), may be dictated by prevailing circumstances in peacetime and/or wartime. Interviewees’ memories of food, and everything linked with it, are thus as diverse as the individuals themselves.
Shopping – Europe:
Whilst various shops in Europe were open pre/during WW2, Jews ultimately had little access to them. Frank Bright recalled that in Prague c.1942,
‘We could only shop during two hours in the afternoon’, when ‘things that were off the ration had already gone’. ‘We had no allocation of fruit, or fish. Meat… No soap’.
Neither were there clothing coupons. Children did grow, but
‘more slowly because of lack of food’.
Aged sixteen in 1944, and in Terezin (Theresienstadt), his last birthday treat there was a tiny Oetker jelly his father had hidden; it evoked childhood memories of Berlin’s KaDeWe store,[i] and his nearby Jewish Reform School.
What people lacked in reality they sometimes rekindled through shared recipes, as recorded in, In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a ‘cookbook like no other’.
‘The famished authors wrote of the finest delicacies of the Czech table […] they conjured up visions of elaborate dishes and the festive occasions for them’.
They were not alone in this. Although ‘food’ in Westerbork transit camp and elsewhere comprised ‘soup’ containing a sliver of turnip, and crusts of stale black bread, Zahava Kohn noted how her mother and other women
‘would exchange recipes all the time. And that happened in Bergen-Belsen too’.
Food as a topic to mask the pain:
Food in wartime Budapest and subsequently, also became a talking point ̶ to deliberately mask the persecution people tried to evade and the suffering they tried to shut out of their minds as ‘a no-no subject’. Food was ‘
A topic that anybody could accept as social conversation’. ‘…you did not have to recreate your feelings about…any and all of that. And you did not have to explain it to a child’,
Tomi Komoly stated.
For him, food denoted stages of life in Hungary, Vienna then Britain, and is closely linked to memories of his enterprising mother. ‘Emergency food’ was reserved for the cellar shelter when Allies bombed Budapest in 1944, and [in what is now referred to as ‘gender role swap’], the mother became the earner in her husband’s absence. She baked cakes and biscuits sold to other people; using her own and Tomi’s rations, though, meant being very short of things themselves. Pulses were the staple diet, as rations for Jews were not only less than of those for others, the coupons made the distinction clear.
Maintaining religious observance and traditions at all times:
Whilst some people were highly acculturated and non-observant, for others religious observance was part of daily life – as far as possible. Rose Lebor described how, in Paris, her mother would cook Ashkenazi dishes such as Kreplach (small filled dumplings served with soup) and Kishke (stuffed intestine) or stuffed carp (fish), enjoyed with friends.
‘We talked about all the Yom Tovim’ (Jewish holidays), ‘And of course the food was there…my mother would make…cheesecake…and Ponchkes (jam doughnuts) for Hannukah’, and Latkes (e.g. potato pancakes). ‘She would do all that, so I would know every holiday about the food’.
For Judith Simons hiding in a small French village, observing Kashrut throughout the war was difficult; no exception was made for the children, who ate fish instead of meat.
‘Kosher meat were out of question. So, we had milki…’ [sic]. ‘Rabbi Ernest Weil allowed us to have goat cheese’, and ‘we had a lot of fruits and vegetables’
such as Jerusalem artichokes.
New foods, new experiences:
After liberation, it was important not to overeat Zahava Kohn stressed,
‘people didn’t realise that at the time’.
Joanna Millan endorsed this;
‘learning’ to eat ‘proper food’ again after starvation had to be a gradual process, ‘it took us quite a while’. One had to adjust, learning to eat – slowly to avoid being ill. We often had ‘tins of sardines…they weren’t very popular…but a whole [boiled] egg!’ was exciting. ‘…to build our strength’ we were given jars of malt’ which was ‘nice and sweet’, but hidden in a cupboard we raided one night!
For both children and adults arriving in Britain at different points in time and staying in a wide range of places meant a significant change of diet, including white bread, tea with milk, and no lemon for ‘black’ tea.
‘What is this?’
Liesel Grunberger exclaimed on first tasting
‘very square…deadly white bread’,
but she enjoyed the ‘English breakfast’ of bacon and eggs and jam...’, so unlike her Viennese breakfast of ‘coffee and a dry roll’.
Tomi Komoly’s ‘first shock’ was on a British train;
‘we saw a lot of stuff which we had never imagined existed before. Pies, and puddings and whatever it was. It was [a] totally and absolutely strange way of feeding us’.
Refugee women working in wartime Britain generally could not cook or bake their own Continental dishes as they wished, partly because certain ingredients were rationed or simply unobtainable except via the ‘Black Market’, and partly because they lacked a kitchen of their own. Resident domestics could not always use the kitchen for their own purpose.
Other women living in refugee hostels had more scope, but those in small rented rooms with only 1-2 gas rings met with severe limitations. Recognising this, the left-wing German/Czech Frau in Arbeit/Pracujíci žena [sic, given in English as Women at Work],[ii] regularly carried recipes for simple meals to be cooked on gas rings. When You Are in England. Helpful Information and Guidance For Every Refugee, additionally listed the British Imperial weights /measures then in use,[iii] which otherwise mystified everyone accustomed to decimal systems.
‘Home from home(?)’:
Nevertheless, good cooks could achieve marvels; the richness of various dishes served pre-war was later replicated as far as possible. Liesel Grunberger’s mother worked as a pastry cook at London’s Waldorf Hotel, then at Willoughby’s, a
‘smart restaurant’, preparing ‘very nice things’,
Topfengolatschen, like Danish pastries and Indianerkrapfen, chocolate cream slices…
At the Austrian Centre in Paddington, London, and other national clubs established by homesick refugees, they found solace in traditional Schnitzel, Sauerkraut and Knödel… In sharp contrast to refugees at liberty in Britain, a common complaint of women/children interned on the Isle of Man 1940-41 was
‘too much fish!’ or ‘Served too frequently for dinner!’
Hungry post-war refugees arriving in Britain from refugee/Displaced Persons camps in central Europe, often craved something sweet, but sometimes found to their cost and disappointment, that descriptions could be misleading. German-speakers mistook ‘English marmalade’ for the German ‘Marmelade’ (jam), while Polish refugees found that British doughnuts were of a different consistency to Polish ‘paczki’, (‘punczek’ singular), and contained raspberry, not the traditional plum jam.
The continued presence, however, of refugees and survivors who gradually settled in Britain, created a demand for Continental food, duly met by entrepreneurial former refugees. Representatives of the armed forces or charities operating in Europe had been introduced to new foods or ways of cooking them, and in due course the rise in European travel also augmented demand and supply.
Although new lives were forged in Britain, lingering memories informed and shaped them. Joanna Millan spoke of the woman in Terezin (Theresienstadt) whose job was growing vegetables; she hid fresh vegetables ‘like gold dust’ in her clothing for herself and others, saving their lives. They met again years later. Lilian Levy certainly remembered the food in Westerbork;
‘My parents gave me theirs. It wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together, but I took theirs because I was hungry and I didn’t know any different’.
Reflecting on these sacrifices and experiences, it begs the question, ‘How much do we overeat today?’ and following Joanna Millan’s reference to
‘Basic foods that you take for granted’, ‘How much food do we waste in our “throw- away society” instead of valuing and sharing it with those in need?’
For Joanna Millan, adjustment entailed not being greedy;
‘we had to get used to not grab every bit that was there, to be polite, to pass food [along]. Simple things, you know that people take for granted, we just had to learn’.
Eva Mendelson, too,
‘had to learn not to be greedy, wanting the biggest piece’. ‘…I think if I have a chip on my shoulder, it’s I always must make sure that if you dish out food…you don’t have the most. That yours is the smallest…it remained with me’.
In a different, tangible way, food has remained with Tomi Komoly, who inherited his grandmother’s recipe books and, wishing to commemorate her, translated then published all fifty-five recipes, adding some family background details. See also Marietta Marcus’s Anglo-Magyar recipe book (Reading List).
The full significance of food in lives previously deprived of it, cannot be truly comprehended by anyone who has never endured the pain of starvation. Cesare Sacerdoti hid in an Italian orphanage during WW2, ate raw parsnips in a field and relished the sweet pulp and pods of the carob tree, his only treat, but he was not defeated.
‘Food is very important. Flavours. …My memories immediately after the war, of the re-conquered flavours. The first time I had rice. The first time I had chocolate after the war! They are experiences that…I don’t think a child nowadays can even imagine what they are. It’s re-conquering something’.
Komoli, Tomi, Komoly, Tomi, My Granny's Gift: 55 Delicious Austro-Hungarian Dessert Recipes, California, USA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Marcus, Marietta, ed., Anglo-Magyar Cookery. A book of recipes from the life of Marietta Marcus, Blurb Books: www.blurb.co.uk, 2013.
Mikulícková, Maria/e, Czechs in the Kitchen. 100 Quick and Easy War-Time Dishes, London: New Europe Publishing, 1944.
Silva, Cara De, ed., translated by Steiner Brown, Bianca, In Memory’s Kitchen. A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, Northvale, New Jersey/London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996 (quotations taken from back cover).
[i] Kaufhaus des Westens department store (like London’s Harrods) still exists, known as KaDeWe. [ii] ‘žena’ is ‘woman’ singular, but unlike English/German, the article ‘the’ is not used in Czech. [iii] The German Jewish Aid Committee & The Jewish Board of Deputies, When You Are in England. Helpful Information and Guidance For Every Refugee, booklet included Imperial weights /measures used in Britain prior to the adoption of the European decimal system.