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The cooking of dreams

· ​In the concentration camp of Theresienstadt ·

Even in extreme situations, in the Nazi concentration camps when people were literally dying of hunger, their thoughts turned to the foods of their past lives, to their lost flavours. Women shared recipes and discussed the best ways of preparing them. Men remembered the smell of family cooking and the dishes carried to the table on feast days. There in the concentration camps, prisoners from every corner of occupied Europe mingled, the culinary traditions of different countries were compared. And from Theresienstadt, Hitler’s so-called “model” camp, in reality a half-way house between a ghetto and a true and proper transit camp for Auschwitz, a cook book has even come down to us, miraculously saved from the drastic prohibitions of the jailers and snatched from the destruction of people and of time.

Writing cook books destined for daughters or granddaughters, in order to pass on the recipes of food prepared for feasts and in the daily routine of family life, is a tradition common to 19th-century Europe and was particularly lively in the Jewish world where cooking is more closely linked than elsewhere to religious practice and where the norms of kosher food make many dishes special, thanks to the prohibition of the flesh of many animals and the need to avoid combinations of milk and meat.The book that reached us from Theresienstadt which, however, is not the only cooking text that has come down to us from the concentration camps, was written by an elderly Czech Jewish woman, given to another deported person before the author set out for Auschwitz, and, after thousands of difficulties and decades of delay, finally reached her surviving daughter in the United States.

This little book tells us many things: the determination to resist, to leave something of oneself after a death that was looming, the nostalgia for life as it had been, for tables laid, for lovingly cooked ingredients. Kosher was not always observed, a proof of the intense integration of the Bohemian Jews and the Czechs imprisoned at Theresienstadt. While these recipes were being clandestinely written down, there was no food, it was only a memory of the past. But it was also a hope for the future, for a liberation which – although the person writing did not think possible for herself – she entrusted in those recipes to those who might manage to survive. As she waited to die of hunger, this woman wrote down the recipes that were familiar to her. It is her testament, a moral testament, not of material goods, and by some miracle it reached its destination.

In Theresienstadt, packed with artists, musicians and poets, writing and drawing were a very lofty form of resistance: the affirmation that the spirit could do more than the flesh, that even while awaiting death one could proclaim one’s own freedom aloud. And thus this cook book, which imagined the tastes of foods during the most terrible hunger, was an act of free creation. As, in this same ghetto, were the poetry of Ilse Weber, the musical pieces of Viktor Ullmann and the extraordinary drawings by children which can be seen today in the Jewish Museum in Prague.

In Auschwitz none of this was possible, even for those who were not immediately taken to the gas chambers. But, in the absence of paper, pen and paints, there too there was memory; as there was for Primo Levi when he recited the canto of Ulysses at Auschwitz [Dante’s canto 26].

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 20, 2019