"In Memory's Kitchen"

Talk by David P. Stern at Larchmont, NY, 28 April 1997

      I was invited here today to tell the story of a small gray book which appeared last year--the legacy, you might say, of my grandmother Minna Pächter [spelled Mina in the book], who perished in the European Holocaust. The book is called "In Memory's Kitchen," and many of you probably own a copy, have read it or at least have seen it.

      Its is a testament of desperate times, which we, living in peace and prosperity, cannot really comprehend. Actually, these people--my grandmother, and the women imprisoned with her--were very much like us. They too grew up in peace and prosperity, because Czechoslovakia, before the war, was a rich and friendly country, treating its Jews fairly and involving many of them in its intense cultural life. Like us, they never expected the horror and degradation which gradually overtook them, gradually descending to starvation and murder.

      They were people like us, and they coped as well as they could, trying to survive which only very few of them did. In this depresing atmosphere, my grandmother and her room-mates tried to bolster their spirits in an unusual way: they collected a cookbook.

      The dishes they described were a rich fare--cakes, strudels, goulash, plum dumplindgs, ice a-la Melba, and so on, none of them was of any use in the camp, which had no food beyond some very skimpy rations, mostly bread and thin soup. No, these dishes were just a reminder of the good old days, keeping alive the hope that one day they may come back again.

      I will try here to tell here a bit of the story of my grandmother, of her book and of the Terezin ghetto where it was written and where she died. I remember her only dimly. My parents and she shared the same household, and fled together from our hometown when the Germans marched in. However, I was not quite 8 years old when my parents and I managed to get out, in nick of time, at the end of 1939. So most of this story was given to me by other people, and I am here now to pass it to you.

      My family roots are in Bohemia, the western part of what is now the Czech Republic, the heartland of the Czech nation. A hilly, beautiful land, with large rivers, old castles and much history. Jews had lived in Bohemia for many years--the Alt-Neu synagogue in Prague dates from 1270--and both my parents came from there.

      My mother's father was Adolf Paechter. Paechter means tenant-farmer in German, and some 200 years ago his ancestors were tenant farmers in southern Bohemia. He himself was an engineer, and he founded a factory for manufacturing buttons, in northern Bohemia--in the town of Bodenbach (Podmokly in Czech), where the Elbe, the country's biggest river, crosses the mountains and continues into Germany. By the way, this was before plastics, and buttons were made of hard Brazilian nuts, harvested in the jungle.

      Adolf Paechter was a prosperous and active members of the Jewish community, and founded the town's synagogue. It still exists--it is now a storehouse owned by the Czech government, and over the door one can still see a carving of the tablets of law, blackened from the time the Nazis set the building on fire.
(P.S. 2009: recently the Czech Government restored it and it serves again as synagogue and community center. In 2007 it celebrated its centennial.)

      He had six children and was widowed twice, and then--a separate story, which I must skip--married Wilhelmina, my grandmother Minna Peachter, daughter of a tanner and barrel-maker in southern Bohemia. They had two more children, and my mother, Annie, was the youngest.

      Adolf Paechter died of pneumonia (P.S. 2009: actually, diabetes) during World War I, and his children did not manage to keep the factory going. Minna became an art dealer, living with her children in Bodenbach, supporting herself well and establishing a very nice art collection of her own.

      That was my mother's side. My father George was born about 30 miles up the river, in the small town of Lovosice. An ordinary town, but only about four miles from a historical place--a fortress town surrounded by high walls and moats, built by the Austrian emperor in the late 1700. A military town of big brick barracks, constructed to house the emperor's soldiers. The emperor named it after his mother "Theresienstadt", Theresa's town, and in Czech it was called Terezin. For a long time it was inhabited just by soldiers, although later, in the Czech Republic, civilians also came to live there.

      My parents were married in 1930, and lived together with my grandmother Mina. It was a happy time--the republic of Czechoslovakia was liberal and prosperous, and tolerant to Jews. But meanwhile next door in Germany, Hitler rose to power. Jews began escaping it, and Bodenbach being a border town, it was frequently their first stop outside Germany. My grandmother and parents did much to help, and many refugees stayed as guests with them.

      The language of the town was German, and Hitler had many local supporters. In 1938, after loud threats and after intimidating Britain and France--who were by treaty pledged to protect the Czechs--Hitler invaded the borderland, and the Jews ran to the interior of the country. Mina, my parents and I took a train to Prague, but as it turned out, the Germans soon occupied the rest of the country as well.

      My parents then did all they could to get out of the country to what was then British Palestine--now Israel. The focus of all those emigration efforts was the Zionist office in Prague, under Yakov Edelstein, and my mother joined it and worked there, trying to get people out. Some emigrated legally, but because the British only allowed 1500 per month into Palestine, a much larger number left Prague with fake visas to South American countries, then boarded rickety ships that tried to run the British blockade.

      When the Germans occupied the rest of the country, the office was placed under the control of Adolf Eichmann of the Gestapo. That is another story, too long for here, so let me just say that we were among the last to get out, in the end of November 1939, by train to Italy and then by ship to Tel Aviv. We were very lucky indeed.

      Mina Paechter stayed behind: she was 67 years old. Conditions soon deteriorated. All Jews were herded into Prague, and there into a small ghetto. Their children were expelled from public schools and their means of livelihood were taken away.

      But Prague was still in the capital and the center of the country, and the Germans looked for ways to move the Jews out of it. One story I heard was that Edelstein was the one who proposed the old fortress of Terezin, because he thought it might serve as a "city of refuge" where Jews could sit out the war. In any case, around 1941-2, all Jews from Prague were shipped to Terezin. In the walled town where perhaps 12,000 soldiers had lived in brick barracks, now more than 60,000 Jews were cooped up, in extremely crowded conditions: Mina Paechter shared her room with 13 or 14 other women.

      Among all concentration camps, Terezin was unique: unlike camps in Poland or Germany, it was not in the open country but in a compact, walled town, and the Jews to a large extent governed themselves. As a result, a lot was done: schools were run, lectures given, a Jewish hospital existed, and drawings, poetry, even music were produced in Terezin.

      But make no mistake, it was a hellhole. Food rations were minimal, and people starved--especially the elderly, because the Jewish council made a conscious decision in allocating food rations, to try save the children rather than the old folks. And for most inmates, Terezin was just a way station, from which they soon left for what was officially called "resettlement in the East", a trip from which no one came back, one which always ended in Auschwitz [P.S. 2009: or other death camps].

      By the grace of God, our family escaped before the Holocaust began, and I believe no one who wasn't there can fully comprehend it. I have read accounts and listened to stories, and still find it hard to visualize it all, especially, the constant fear. I suppose the closest analogy for people raised in the US is being on death row. All Jews in Terezin were on death row, you might say--guilty of nothing except of being Jews, not just marked for death, but isolated, starved, crowded, bullied, knowing all the time that any German command must be instantly obeyed, or else quick death could follow then and there.

      No, I don't think we can visualize this today. And yet we must remember it, because the memory of such times is the strongest deterrent to prevent atrocities like that happening again. Sometimes people wonder: "Why does the US maintain a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, by the National Mall? After all, didn't the Holocaust happen elsewhere, and didn't it affect a relatively small minority of the population?"

      The answer one should give, I feel, is that the Holocaust Memorial Museum is not just for us Jews. It is for all citizens of the US, and for any of the many visitors who come here each year, so we can all remember and resolve, never let this happen again. Not in Europe, not here, not in Rwanda, not in Cambodia, not in Bosnia. We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it.

      But back to Terezin. We know about Mina Pächter in Terezin, because of another member of the family who was there and survived: Elizabeth--Liesel--was a grand-daughter of Adolph Pächter by his second wife. She was a nurse in the Terezin hospital and she found Mina--starving, confused, with limbs swollen by protein deficiency. Through her connections, she arranged for Mina to be taken to the hospital, and because of that she survived another year, or a bit more. She finally died--essentially, of lack of nourishment--on Yom Kippur, 1944, at the age of 72--and her body was burned in the Terezin crematorium, which later became a museum to the Jews of the ghetto. If you happen to visit Terezin, go there and remember--I did, in 1985, and lit a candle in my grandmother's memory.

      Liesel escorted the body as far as she could, and said it was just as good that Mina did not live any longer, because two weeks later she herself and many others of the camp were sent to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz Liesel was selected for forced labor, while her husband went to the gas chambers--that again is another story, too long for here.

      But that was not all, because after the war papers began arriving, the legacy of Minna Pächter, papers which she had entrusted to other people, who did survive. One was an art dealer in Teplice, who held on to them--he knew they were intended to Mina's daughter Annie, "somewhere in Israel," but did not know how to get them to her.

      One day he was visited by a traveler from America, on his way to Israel. The art dealer gave him the papers and asked him if he could perhaps manage to deliver them to Annie Stern. In Israel he indeed found people who had known Annie, but they told him she was no longer there, but in New York. So on his way back, in New York, he asked again, got her phone number, and the package was finally delivered.

      The legacy included poems, which Minna wrote in camp--light-hearted poems about her room-mates and life in the camp. They included letters, written but never sent. But the most important legacy was a hand-made notebook--sheets sewn together with thread, with a binding of cardboard, labeled "Kochbuch"--"cookbook." It contained handwritten recipes, obviously written by several hands, some labeled "Pächter," for instance " Pächter's health cake." As I had noted, these were not recipes for use in the camp (which anyway had no food) but fancy dishes from the good life these women had left behind.

      Starving, with little hope, they tried to keep up their spirits with memories of the good old cooking--"cooking platonically" Mina called it in one of her poems, about a pair of sisters who shared her room:

    Two sisters by the door, a pair
    Their harmony is something rare
    A love of cooking both do share
    But it's platonic, their cupboard is bare
    The food they had brought no longer there
    A man and child each has somewhere
    Both creative in this art
    Always something new they start
    Often some of it I tried
    Just the skimpy share decried
    In vain do you seek weakness of folly
    That may embarrass dear Liesel or Vally

      On the front of the "Kochbuch" was also a name--Vally Grabscheid--and I suspected, rightly as it turned out, that this was the "Vally" of the poem. I will come back to her later.

      This was not the only thing in the "Kochbuch." Some recipes were on loose sheets of paper, including a page torn from a Czech calendar, and in the back of the book, written from the other end, was a piece of drama--"A Mother on Trial," a "solo scene by David Edouard Mauthner." A gruesome scene--a mother on trial for killing her beloved daughter, to spare here a life of hunger and misery--it reads like something written in Terezin, though the author is unknown except by name.

      Through many years, my mother kept all this in an envelope. Interestingly, after she passed away, I searched high and low and could not find it anywhere in her apartment. But I had invited her friends for a last visit, before that apartment--full of art and personal touches--would be taken apart, and one of them suddenly turned to me and said: "Did your mother ever tell you where she was hiding the Kochbuch? Because I know where, it is here, behind these books."

      My mother was reluctant even to open the package again, but during one of my visits she agreed to read the poems onto a tape, which I later transcribed and translated. But she also had an Israeli friend, Daliya Carmel, a collector of cookbooks and the history of cooking, and when by chance she heard about the existence of the Kochbuch, she told her, this had to be published.

      At a meeting of food editors for the press of New York she met Bianca Brown, an older woman from Czechoslovakia, who was teaching cooking and writing about it. Bianca spoke both Czech and German, and Daliya asked if she might agree to translate the recipes. Bianca immediately agreed: she too had been in Terezin, as a nurse. She not only translated the recipes into English, but also changed them into present-day measurements and ingredients, and tried out about a dozen of them.

      One day I visited my parents and my mother showed me a small basket with home-made candies, square hard coffee-flavored caramels wrapped in wax paper. They were from my grandmother's recipe "caramels from Baden" (a resort near Vienna), and as I tasted them, I recalled that many years ago my grandmother had made at home candies exactly like these, also wrapped in wax paper.

      Daliya also found a food writer for the New York "Newsday" (closed since then), Cara De Silva, who agreed to edit the book. I won't tire you with details--suffice it to say that a small publisher of Judaica, Jason Aronson, agreed to publish it, and did so, last September, under the title "In Memory's Kitchen." Unfortunately, neither of my parents lived to see it: my father passed away in 1993, and my mother in October 1995: she did however know that the book was scheduled to come out.

      The book attracted enormous attention, far above and beyond what anyone had expected. It was covered by the New York Times (twice), Newsweek, The Washington Post--even by "People" magazine and by women's journals in France and Israel. It was featured on CNN and on Danish television--and who knows where else, these are just the media I am aware of. Jason Aronson was overwhelmed by the demand and reprinted it at least 5 times to satisfy waiting lists in bookstores, and it may be out in paperback later this year.

      Why all this attention? There already exists a vast Holocaust literature, often much more descriptive. That in itself may actually be one of the reasons. The Holocaust was a dark, horrible time, and reading about it is quite depressing: stories of people driven from their homes, imprisoned, terrorized, starved and finally murdered, all but a few. Readers are reluctant to open such books. When many years ago the television aired a long docu-drama on the Holocaust, "Sho'ah," my school age children watched it a bit and then found excuses not to see any more. It is understandable.

      This book at least has an uplifting message, showing that even in the darkest times, people cling desperately to normalcy. It is not exactly a heroic story, but under the circumstances of Terezin, it stands out, and it makes clear that these were people just like us, though in horrible circumstances. But for the grace of God, it could have been us.

      It is also a book which speaks especially to women--because it is a story by and about women, and because recipes are familiar to women, cooking is considered their province.

      I do not know what is a proper way to remember the Holocaust. Not having been there, we cannot comprehend the hunger, the fear of being sent to the dreaded "East." The best we can do is remember, and guard the memories for those that come after us. And this we must do.

      I hope many of you have read the book, or will do so now--it is quite short, But there is much more. The original papers are now all being preserved by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. And Israel has an entire museum devoted to the memory of Terezin--"Beit Theresienstadt" (or Beit Terezin) in the kibutz of Giv'at Chayim Ichud, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Liesel, the woman who saved Minna Pächter, lives in Haifa and is now a grandmother.

      A year ago I wrote to "Beit Terezin" asking about the person whose name was on the book--Vally Grabscheid. To my surprise I was told she had survived the war: she was no longer alive, but her daughter was, and they sent me the daughter's address.

      The poem I started reading earlier mentioned not only the sisters Liesel and Vally, but also their daughters. Liesel perished in Europe, but her daughter, too, still lives in Israel. Vally's daughter remembered visiting my grandmother in camp. Furthermore, she was married in Terezin--her husband, too, is mercifully still with us--and for her wedding, Minna Pächter wrote a little poem, light-hearted rhymes which she called a "wedding-Carmen."

      She sent me a copy, and here is its translation. You will note the hope it expresses--the groom's parents were gone to "the East", but Mina assured the couple, everyone will ride out the war and meet again in Israel.
                    Wedding-Carmen for Zhenka (and) Manzi                                                     23/III/1943 Theresienstadt

    The sun smiled into the ghetto once more
    As springtime did Manzi to Zhenka restore
    From now on together through life they will go
    Will stand by each other throughout joy and woe
    That's how they stood here today, hand in hand
    Chained tightly forever by their holy band
    May nothing again take the one from the other
    No pain and no hardship should ever cause bother
    For eighteen months they were a long way apart
    But Amor, the love god, took them to his heart
    The wrongs of their fortune, again he set right
    And helped the two lovers once more reunite
    Yet seldom is joy whole, untempered by pain
    And our hearts suffer a small bit of strain
    For one pair of parents is not with us here
    Alas, they are elsewhere, now gone half a year
    But even far in the East, we trust
    Their love to their children will never rust
    Silently they bless this celebration
    Reinforced by their own determination
    To move with you two, to the promised land
    And there the rest of their lives with you spend
    I sense it--no, know it for sure, it is true
    Hansl and his young wife, they wait there for you
    The other two parents you congratulate
    See all the joy which their eyes radiate
    But this is quite easily understood
    Two young people--both, so handsome and good
    We wish you the nicest and all of the best
    On this, your wedding day, may you be blessed
    May your good fortune never relent
    May you enjoy wealth, be always content
    May you as lucky ones always be known
    May gods of kind fate count you as their own
    And may you never be deserving of pity
    In this sense I write you this wedding-carmen ditty
    Pious Jewish men
    Say to such words: Amen!
                                      Minna Pächter
                                      from Bodenbach

      So here you have it-- one person out of six million, and what a story. Who knows how many more such stories are hidden away! We cannot comprehend those terrible times, but it is our holy duty to remember. As Jews we carry a long and intricate heritage, and each generation has to add its own bit.

Postscript, 31 May 2009

      In 2005 a French independent producer of documentary films, Anne Georget, heard about the story of Minna Pächter and decided to create a documentary film about it. She took pictures of the "Kochbuch" at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, visited me and obtained pictures and a recording of my mother, Minna's daughter, telling about the "cookbook". She visited Bianca Brown and together they traveled to Terezin, where more of the film was produced, with Bianca guiding her. And she also included Daliya Goldstein and Anita Tarsi, director of "Beit Terezin" in Israel, where Anne also met other grandchildren of Minna.

      Together with Elsie Herberstein, author and illustrator, they produced a 45-minute documentary video "Les Recettes de Mina, Terezin 1944", which was shown numerous times on the French "Planete" network (it is also available with English narration). In 2008, mainly by Elsie with water-color illustrations also by her, an accompanying book "Les Carnets de Minna" was printed by the Seuil publishing house in Paris.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated May 31, 2009