Thursday, April 19, 2012

Butter Cake for Yom HaShoah

Today is Yom HaShoah [YOHM hah-shoh-AH], Holocaust Remembrance Day.  To say that this is a day of great solemnity within the Jewish community is an understatement, truly, of indescribable proportion.

While it might seem frivolous to tie food into an occasion of such seriousness and significance, please trust that I don't intend any disrespect.  This day is admittedly a commemoration of unfathomable loss; but it is also an acknowledgement of resistance, of strength, and of continuity.

A number of cookbooks have been produced by survivors and also, posthumously, by those who didn't live to see the publications.  They were written to remember how life once was and written with hopes that there would be future generations to pass traditions and family recipes on to.

In Memory's Kitchen comes from women who collected their treasured culinary heritage so that it would not be forgotten if they, themselves, were lost:

"The pages are filled with recipes. Each is a memory, a fantasy, a hope for the future. Written by undernourished and starving women in the Czechoslovakian ghetto/concentration camp of Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt), the recipes give instructions for making beloved dishes ....  (This book) is a beautiful memorial to the brave women who defied Hitler by preserving a part of their heritage and a part of themselves."

The manuscript had been entrusted by Mina Pachter - one of the authors, who died on Yom Kippur 1944 - to a friend, asking him to bring it to her daughter Anny in Palestine if he survived.  He did survive, but had no way of contacting Mina's daughter.  After 25 years, though, the book finally found its way to Anny, who had moved to New York: "When first I opened the copybook and saw the handwriting of my mother, I had to close it ....  I put it away and only much later did I have the courage to look.  My husband and I, we were afraid of it.  It was something holy.  After all those years, it was like her hand was reaching out to me from long ago ....  By sharing these recipes, I am honoring the thoughts of my mother and the others that somewhere and somehow, there must be a better world to live in."

Elizabeth Ehrlich's mother-in-law, featured in Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir, is a Holocaust survivor who is "A keeper of rituals and recipes, and of stories, (who) cooks to recreate a lost world, and to prove that unimaginable loss is not the end of everything.  She is motivated by duty to ancestors and descendants, by memory and obligation ...."

Miriam passes along recipes, stories, and memories as she teaches Elizabeth - who was raised by secular Jewish parents - how to cook traditional family dishes and also about the faith.  And in addition to sharing cooking techniques, Miriam shares her history.

When she was 12, Miriam's family left their town in Poland which the Germans had bombed repeatedly, only to return awhile later to find everything they owned had been taken.  The family later lived in its restaurant, although Jews weren't permitted to own businesses; they gave it a Polish name and even started to cook pork, as a disguise.  Miriam's aunt was captured by the Germans when the ruse was discovered, and had to be ransomed.

After this, the family was sent to the ghetto and lived in one room.  At fifteen, Miriam was sent to work in potato fields; "in the beginning they paid, very little ... then (they) didn't pay.  They took people away to work and shot them."  Her cousins - ages 7, 15 and 19 - were shot.  Her grandparents were taken "to Sobibor, a death camp.  They gassed them and burnt them."  Miriam also lost two aunts, an uncle, and two cousins in this same horrific manner.

In the summer of 1944, Miriam's family was sent to Chestochowa, spending more than a week in the infamous boxcars to travel there.  "The door was unlocked but we didn't run away, because we were afraid to be shot in the woods."  She was beaten at the camp when she tried to hang on to her father to prevent his being taken away; eventually, though, he was sent to Buchenwald and died one day before U.S. soldiers came to liberate the prisoners.

Not only did Miriam survive; but she later travelled to Israel and then to the United States, after meeting her husband Jacob in Chestochowa, and she lived to see children and even grandchildren for whom she cooked her cherished recipes.

I first read Miriam's story when it was published in 1997; and after all these years, I still vividly remember - and emulate - a small gesture that had great significance.  When she cracked eggs, Miriam would use her thumb to wipe the shell fully clean, not wasting one tiny portion after experiencing so much deprivation and hunger in her youth.  Such a simple act of frugality and gratitude and remembrance.

And so, I offer Miriam's Butter Cake today in honor of those who survived and also to commemorate the millions who died during the Holocaust - Zichronam l'Vracha [zeek-roh-NAHM lay vrah-KAH] = May their memories be for a blessing.  As so many had hoped for under the most desperate circumstances, there are future generations to pass the recipes down to, future generations to pass the stories down to, future generations to remember and to never forget ....

(The picture shows a Shoah Yellow Candle, distributed by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.  These are lit on Yom HaShoah to remember those who were lost, just as yahrzeit [YAHRT-zeit] candles are lit on the anniversary of a loved one's death.)

Miriam's Butter Cake
(adapted from Elizabeth Ehrlich's Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir)

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons sour cream
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Crumb Topping:
2 teaspoon flour
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease an 8"x8" baking pan.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar.  Stir in the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and sour cream.  Add the flour, baking powder and salt; combine well.

Spread half the batter into the prepared pan; sprinkle the cocoa over the batter.  Place dollops of the remaining batter over the cocoa.

Combine the topping ingredients with a fork until crumbly; sprinkle over the top of the cake.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool completely.

Makes 9-12 servings.  Serve with whipped cream or with ice cream, if desired.


Unknown said...

What a touching story. I am still so horrified by what happened during the Holocaust. I love that you are celebrating this day with such a wonderful cake though. It's all we can do, remember and continue on. Love this post, Mary!

Andrea the Kitchen Witch said...

The stories you've shared here have touched me Mary. What a gift to recieve, a hand written recipe book from ones mother years after her passing. It IS a holy relic! I'm glad that recipes and stories like this are around, as sad and heartbreaking that they are, because it helps me to remember to love and cherish those closest to us every day. Life is short, love hard and long! This cake is the perfect remembrance of the brave men, women and children that were taken from this world in such a horrible manor.

Jersey Girl Cooks said...

Such a touching story. There is always a story behind a recipe. This cake would be perfect next to a cup of coffee or tea.

Angela said...

Just the most beautiful book. Everyone should read. Also, what a beautiful cake...

Carla from The River said...

Mary, a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing!

Chris said...

What a gift to be passed on!

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