Monday, April 24, 2017

A Visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem & An Oatmeal Strawberry Thumbprint Cookie Recipe from the Ashes

Women who were starving "cooked with words – to bring back memories of home, assuage their constant hunger, and provide their campmates with food for thought in the true sense of the expression. They talked with each other about recipes and cooking, and sometimes they were fortunate enough to have a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil to write down their recipes." 

The recipes that were repeated sustained the humanity of those who talked about them, those who wrote them down, and those who repeated them, reminding them of home and giving them hope at a time when there was precious little hope to be had.

-Rochelle G. Saidel in The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp

Family recipes are precious for those of us who love to cook. When passed down they bind generations together through nourishment, love, and tradition. They often serve as a legacy and tribute to absent loved ones. Some are guarded as family secrets. Some are ritually made for celebrations. Some are integrated into family menus weekly or monthly. 

Discussing and verbally recreating favorite recipes helped women imprisoned in concentration camps cope with their unimaginable circumstances. The fact that some of these recipes were written down and survived the war is extraordinary. The recipes are a part of these women that live on and can be cherished and experienced over and over again by their loved ones, Jewish people or anyone who has an interest in historical cooking. 
They are Jewish soul food. 

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you know I recently kicked off a month of travel with my first-time visit to Israel. The main purpose of my trip was to attend TBEX, Travel Bloggers Exchange, a conference that brings together travel bloggers from all over the globe. I wrote about my four days in Jerusalem here

There are several wonderful tour opportunities attached to the conference.  My first tour was a visit to Yad Vashem. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. to which I dedicate this post. Yesterday, Vad Yashem held a very moving remembrance day ceremony where six survivors told their stories and lit six memorial torches in memory of the six million Jews who died in the holocaust. 

I along with my travel buddy for the month, Bucket Boomer Blogger and snapchatress extraordinaire, Vicki Winters, met our incredibly knowledgeable guide, Edna who took us on what turned out to be a private tour. We also received special permission to take pictures.

So much has been written and discussed over this impressive place I can add little to do it further justice. What I can share is how I felt, some of the artifacts I saw and how it relates to my own family history. 

To call Vad Yashem a "holocaust museum" is to serve it a deep injustice. It's a memorial, artifacts archive, historical documentary, a learning center and most of all, a deeply moving experience. I can imagine some people are not the same after visiting. 

Great care is taken to present the Jews not as emaciated figures in striped pajamas, but as people who had full and productive lives before they were murdered by the Nazis. The exhibits take great care to put the human face and restore humanity to the lost. 

Books ordered burned by the Nazis.
I carried Vad Yashem with me as one of my most vivid memories when I left Israel It strengthened family connections as it inspired me to reflect on my own family's holocaust history.

I often think my maternal Grandfather died of a broken heart. He did so literally and I believe it was the weight of tragic events that finally broke it. 

My Grandfather, William Reich
William Reich was one of only three of his immediate and extended Czechoslovakian Jewish family (over 60 in all) not to be murdered by the Nazis. A skilled and talented furniture maker and upholsterer, he was already living in America when WW2 broke out. His cousin escaped, managed to dodge persecution and eventually emigrated to Israel. William's brother had moved to Cuba, set up a business and was murdered there. Later on, my grandfather lost his only son under tragic circumstances. Shortly after he had a heart attack and died. 

Granda Ruth, Grandpa Willy & my uncle Arthur

A person can only take so much. 

Me & Grandpa Willy in Long Beach, NY 1963
This month Jews around the world observed Passover, to commemorate their freedom from slavery and celebrate renewal. Recently I read a beautiful article my lovely friend Jamie Scher posted on Facebook about Passover being an act of resistance and it resonated with me. 

Circumstances did not stop Jewish women from cooking and creating and documenting their recipes from impossible circumstances. An act of resistance and a tool for survival.

I've had this book on my shelf for over 20 years. After my visit to Israel, I reread it cover to cover. After our tour, I was chatting with Simmy Allen,
the Head of the International Media Section and the book popped into my head. I mentioned it to him and he said the museum has cataloged many recipes. Women in the camps talked about food constantly. They recited their recipes out loud and even scratched them out on various pieces of paper.

In Memory's Kitchen is a book of recipes that was put together by Mina Pächter, a Czech Jewish woman who died in Terezin on Yom Kippur in 1944.  Through a series of people, the book was miraculously delivered to her daughter 25 years after her death. 

Women were starving, didn't have tools or ingredients but cooked with their imaginations. They recreated their best and favorite sauces and stews, dumpling and desserts but speaking them out loud or scratching the recipe down on stolen bits of paper. Yad Vashem inspired me to revisit that book and create a post. 

What to make? This was a tough choice. I knew I wanted to honor a recipe from someone who was imprisoned in Terezin as a nod to my grandfather's legacy.  

The recipes in the book are often missing ingredients and steps. This one was no exception. I filled in the blanks by instinct and there were scant directions. The recipe did not specify what flavor jam to add so I improvised with strawberry flavor. 

The cookies came out great, not too sweet and for an oatmeal based recipe, surprisingly light and chewy at the same time. 

While I mixed and formed the cookies, I thought about those women in Terezin whose recipes live on today and how any of them could have been related to me. Mina sometimes mentions the name of the person a recipe came from. I fruitlessly scoured the book for a "Reich". 

Oatmeal Strawberry Thumbprint Cookies
Adapted from "Makaronen" from In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin byEdited by Cara De Silva. Jason Aronson Inc. 1996
Prep Time: 10 minutes 
Bake Time: 12 minutes
Yield: 14 cookies

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • scant 1/4 cup milk
  • scant 1/4 cup strawberry jam

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • Whisk together the oatmeal, flour, sugar baking powder, and salt.
  • Add the butter, egg, and milk to the combined dry ingredients and use a wooden spoon to mix everything into a sticky dough.
  • Wet your hands and form the dough into balls.  Flatten them slightly between your palms. Place the disks on the baking sheets and use your thumb to create an indent in the middle of each.
  •  Spoon jam into the wells. 
  • Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes or until the cookies start to turn golden brown. 
  • Remove from the oven. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. 

A bit about the facility. If you go, the amount of time to allot to your visit varies per individual. Everyone experiences Yad Vashem differently. Some find it too heavy to be there for more than a few hours, some can't bear to tear themselves away. I suggest visiting the website to explore the different exhibits online and plan your visit accordingly.

Vad Yashem sits on over 44 acres on the Western Slope of Mount Herzl and is easily reached by public transportation. There are several buildings to visit as well as extensive gardens and outdoor memorials.  Vad Yashim does not charge admission. Recorded guided tours are available in languages for a fee. The museum closes at 2 PM on Fridays and remains closed on Saturdays as well as all Jewish holidays. 

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