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In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin

“Ten O’clock strikes suddenly
and the windows of Dresden’s barracks darken. 1
The women have a lot to talk about;
they remember their homes,
and dinners they made.”

A modest verse. Just five simple lines. But put in context, they are devastating. Part of a poem written by 12-year- old Eva Schulzova while interned in the Czech concentration camp of Terezin, they depict a harsh and poignant element of the life led there–the need to talk about food by those who had so little of it. 2 Exchanges such as those Schulzova writes about were very common.

But for one group of women in Terezin (called, in German, Theresienstadt), such recollections weren’t limited to conversation. They not only talked about the “dinners they made.” They actually wrote down recipes for them. As a result, they are the authors of a form of Holocaust literature that few were aware existed--the dream cookbook, the cookbook of remembering.

Through the vitality of their food memories they defended themselves against oblivion, through their recollection of recipes the authors, consciously or unconsciously, struggled against the loss of self and found a way, against all odds, to leave a mark, a trace of their culture, their traditions, and themselves for those who came after.

They were not the only ones to undertake such an enterprise. But unlike the others, “In Memory’s Kitchen,” found a publisher. Therefore, it is their particular story, and the story of the cookbook manuscript they created, that has touched people around the globe, and, often, allowed them to approach the Holocaust in a new way.

Food and food memories seem able to transcend all boundaries and speak to us in an international language, a universal language, that we can all understand and to which we can all respond. And in the case of the Terezin manuscript, they tell a remarkable tale.

On Yom Kippur, 1944, as one of its authors, Mina Pachter, lay dying of starvation in Terezin, she handed a parcel to a friend and asked that if he survived, he get the package to her daughter Anny Stern in Palestine. There was only one problem. Because of the war, she couldn’t give him an address.

Mina was in Terezin instead of with Anny because when Hitler came, she had refused her daughter’s pleas to escape with her. “You can’t move an old tree,” Mina had said. And “No one will hurt an old woman.” Of course, she was soon to found out just how wrong she was.

Her friend did survive, but because he was unable to deliver the manuscript, he simply kept it. Then one day fifteen years after liberation, his cousin came into his shop and told him she was going to Israel. He recounted the story of his friend Mina and asked her to take the copybook with her, and attempt to keep his deathbed promise.

But by the time she managed to get word of Anny and her husband, George Stern, it was only to discover that they had just moved to the United States to be with their son, a scientist at NASA.

Ten more years passed and then one day a stranger from Ohio--no one knows exactly who he was--arrived in Manhattan at a meeting of Czech Jews and asked if anyone there knew Anny Stern. “I think I do,” answered one woman. With that, he handed her the parcel and she became the manuscript’s final custodian.

Later that day, a full twenty-five years after Mina Pachter died in Terezin, Anny’s phone rang. “Hello. Is this Anny Stern,” said a stranger’s voice.

“Yes,” said Anny. “Then,” came the response, “I have a package for you from your mother.”

For almost a decade after she received that package, said Anny, she was unable to look at it. “It was something holy,” she told me. “It was like my mother’s hand was reaching out to me from the past.”