(RNS) The last time Regina Finer’s mother cooked the soft, dense potato dumplings called kluskies, Regina couldn’t have been more than 12.
It was the same year the Nazis took Finer’s parents from their home in the Warsaw ghetto—she never saw them again—and sent her, her sister and an aunt to the Majdanek concentration camp.
Finer’s mother never got a chance to teach her daughter how to make the dumplings, a Passover specialty. By the time Finer landed in America with a new husband and young child, she brought with her only persistent yet elusive memories of her mother’s cooking.
Even at age 84, she can still recall the sizzle of a potato latke hitting a hot pan, the faint scent of almond in the gefilte fish, the comforting pillow-like bulk of those kluskies.
And although that world is gone, Finer, like other Holocaust survivors, have found ways to resurrect it, one bite at a time.
Finer’s story and her beloved kluskie recipe is part of “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival,” a cookbook published in conjunction with the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. Writer June Feiss Hersh interviewed Finer and dozens of other survivors and their families for the book, which comes out in May.
When Hersh first approached the museum about exploring the food memories and recording the recipes of Holocaust survivors, they let out a little gasp—after all, starvation claimed the lives of many of Hitler’s victims.
“But what I found, what I knew to be true, is that food conjures up my most wonderful memories,” Hersh said. “It’s that thread that can take you from tragedy to triumph. You could see that you were able to bring the survivor to a place that was comforting and nourishing and nurturing, and that was the place that was the happiest.”
In researching the book, Hersh found that the psychological scars of near-starvation manifested themselves in the kitchens of survivors—in gefilte fish and chopped liver that must be made from scratch, in gut-busting rich stews and fatty kugels, in second and third helpings, in empty freezers.
Hersh asked survivors about aromas they would never forget, or how their mothers prepared for Shabbat or what they ate during Passover.
Reni Hanau fled Germany with her family and eventually settled in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Her mother died relatively young, and since then, Hanau often returns to the food of her childhood—a pickled celery root salad or waffles dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
“After my mother’s passing, I found comfort in making the foods my mother used to make,” she told Hersh. “If you make the same things your mother made, you feel a little less alone.”
Anna Sabat, whose father survived Auschwitz and whose mother spent five years in a Nazi work camp, told Hersh she was a thin child, and for her parents, that was almost shameful.
“You have to remember,” Sabat’s uncle once told her when she tried to refuse yet another “absurdly large” slice of cake, “the war made us all a little crazy about food.”
Almost without fail, the survivors who entrusted Hersh with their family recipes assured her they would make the creamiest noodle kugels, the most flavorful borscht, the most mouthwatering brisket.
What makes a dish the best, Hersh decided, had much more to do with the person who prepared it than the ingredients or cooking technique. “The matzo ball that sinks and sits in your stomach for days? Your mother made that matzo ball and you enjoyed that meal, so that became your standard,” she said.
The recipes run the gamut from Eastern European standards like stuffed cabbage and blintzes to dishes that reflect the cuisine of the Diaspora. Hersh also asked professional chefs and cookbook writers to step in when survivors had no recipe, only a memory of a beloved dish.
Extracting the recipes tried her patience—bisele, Yiddish for “a little,” is not exactly a standard measurement—and she had to consult repeatedly with the survivor when a test recipe proved disastrous.
JoJo Rubach’s father, uncle and grandmother survived the war in hiding. His grandmother later shared her family’s recipe for gefilte fish with Rubach’s mother, who in turn showed Rubach how to make it. Each year before Passover, he and his daughters gather for a marathon gefilte fish-making session at his home in Tenafly, N.J., even though Rubach despises the smell and taste of fish.
“My parents have gone through things that very few people have ever gone through. It puts everything in perspective for me, what they went through, how they persevered and came here and made a life,” Rubach says. “It’s an example for me. So I can take the smell.”
(Vicki Hyman writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark.)