For decades, journalist and historian Cara de Silva has been writing about food. She is a secular Jew from Manhattan who says no part of her work has gripped her more emotionally than the book she published in 1996, In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.
It is a compilation of 80 recipes shared by inmates of the Czech concentration camp — also known as Theresienstadt — while many of them were starving to death.
The story of this remarkable collection — which includes herring dishes, goose necks stuffed with farina, liver dumplings, and many desserts — will be the focal point of her talk on Tuesday, March 20, at Drew University in Madison, when she will deliver the school’s 2012 Annual Lecture on Gender and Genocide.
But, de Silva insisted, In Memory’s Kitchen is not a cookbook.
“It is a book based on a manuscript created by women in Theresienstadt who were starving,” she told NJ Jewish News in a March 8 phone interview. “They dreamed of recipes, but obviously, they could not cook them. Food is such a powerful identity marker, and when someone is trying to exterminate you and your culture and your people, thinking about food is a very strong way to reinforce who you are. They were written by four or five women in the frailest handwriting,”
Although no one “is 100 percent sure” whether any of the contributors survived the camp, she said, she believes their legacy is an enduring one.
De Silva was working as a food writer at Newsday when Dalia Carmel, a friend who collected cookbooks, told her about the manuscript, which was found by the daughter of one of the inmates.
“You could just tremble when you touched it, like holding Anne Frank’s diary,” said de Silva. “It is such a powerful thing. It needed to be a story, so I wrote about it for the Newsday feature section. As a soon as the story went out, everyone from the Holocaust museums started calling. Everybody wanted it, and I realized it needed to be a book.”
The original is now at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
‘Power of food’
Most of the recipes were written in German, with a few in Czech. Because they were compiled under such odious conditions, “very frequently they would leave an ingredient out or reverse a cooking process,” she said.
But when the book was first published, a party was held in a New York restaurant called Sign of the Dove, and some of its culinary memories became a brief reality.
“We lit yahrtzeit candles, and the chefs undertook to make some of the recipes,” said de Silva. “The food was wonderful — lots of pastries. One of the most memorable things for me was tasting the foods of these women’s dreams.”
Although de Silva has no personal family ties to the Holocaust, she grew up hearing stories about pogroms in Europe. Those memories “made me scared of doing this book because I knew it would affect me personally,” she said. “But when you work on Holocaust material you really can’t complain, because what you are talking about is so much worse than any sorrow you can be feeling. Psychologically it was very difficult, very costly — man’s inhumanity to man is truly astounding.”
As a food historian, she believes “the power of food is extraordinary. You see it in prisoner-of-war camps, you see it in starvation studies — the need to talk about food, even when you don’t have it.”
And, de Silva said, she believes compiling the recipes helped the women in Theresienstadt to survive. “The memories of food were memories of gentler times. Food is extraordinarily powerful. It is a something very expressive of who you area as a nation, as a family, as a person. In circumstances like the one in which Hitler is trying to exterminate everything — your family your culture, your heritage — talking about food is a very powerful way to reinforce who you are. It is a weapon. It strengthens you.”