A cookbook written by concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust shows food can nourish the soul as well as the body.
Gina Flaxman

12 Jan 2017 - 12:27 PM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2017 - 7:21 PM

It's a small, 56-page book bound together with barbed wire, the edges of its pages uneven, but it's probably the most significant item in the Sydney Jewish Museum

It's a cookbook, its recipes written by the inmates of Ravensbrück, the largest female concentration camp in Germany during World War II. Its writers were starving and the recipes recorded are a mixture of memory and fantasy.

"Talking and fantasising about food in the concentration camps was common but writing about food was not," says the museum's head curator, Roslyn Sugarman. This is because hardly any prisoners had access to paper and writing materials.

The cookbook is the only object of its kind in Australia and one of six known 'fantasy cookbooks' written by Holocaust concentration camp prisoners in the world. In 2015, it featured in a French documentary film, Imaginary Feasts.

The book's creator, Edith Peer, was put to work in an office of the Siemens & Halske electronics company and so was able to steal paper and a pencil. "The paper was torn into even-sized sheets and, with the help of a friend, she wired it together, like a staple," says Sugarman.

Stealing the writing materials, recording the recipes and hiding the book were all highly risky activities. "This tiny little book is an act of resistance to maintain a sense of hope and humanity," says Sugarman.

 She says on Sunday afternoons, the only spare time they had at the camp after working gruelling 12-hour shifts for six days, the women would sit in a circle and talk. Edith passed her notebook around for them to record the recipes they remembered.

The book's recipes are written in German, Hungarian, Polish and other European languages and are predominantly "hearty, heavy European meals that will fill you up," says Sugarman. "The food rations in the camp were designed to starve you. These fantasy meals metaphorically filled their bellies." A high number of rich, decadent desserts feature, such as nougat cream, sachertorte (Austrian chocolate cake) and kaiserschmarrn (a shredded pancake). "If you think of a house filled with the smell of baking, that's the smell of home," says Sugarman.

In many of the recipes, there are no measurements or weights for the ingredients. In the notes she wrote in 1996, when she donated the cookbook to the museum, Edith said these recipes were written by women who had never used a kitchen scale or cookbook. "They simply knew how to cook," she said.

The prisoners in Ravensbrück were from all over Europe and there were many that weren't Jewish. "They didn't all have a common ethnic or even religious identity but they were all women so they were most likely cooks," says Sugarman. "They all spoke different languages and might not even be able to communicate with one another but they were united by circumstances and food was one commonality."

She says writing down the recipes reminded them of home, of family and shared meals. It was an act of memory, of passing down a recipe from a mother or grandmother, and also gave them hope for a future in which they could again create lavish meals.

"Most cultures gather around the table; it's not exclusive to Jews. But Jews have a special relationship with food because there are so many rituals around the preparation and eating of food, for instance on shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) and on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year)," says Sugarman.

Interestingly, Edith herself couldn't cook. She said, "The idea came to me because I didn't even know how to make scrambled eggs. Later on, I told myself it would be a good starting point in life, because I was convinced I would survive."

Edith survived and immigrated to Sydney in 1951. She died in 2003. "Edith understood the significance of what she had created," Sugarman says. "She said the reason she wanted the book to be on a shelf in a home was not for the recipes, but so that people would remember there were women who suffered and who had the resilience to survive." 

Discover different perspectives on faith and religion in Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven (airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017).




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