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Q & A with June Feiss Hersh: Cookbook's uplifting story of those who survived Holocaust, thrived

June Feiss Hersh

By Cindy Mindell

Those who survived the Holocaust had different lives before the war, and lived to tell their stories of family and food and celebrations. Teacher and journalist June Feiss Hersh set out to retrieve the recipes from these childhoods that were wrenched from comfort to chaos, and to preserve them as a way to celebrate those who made it through the horror.
Her book, “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival” (Ruder Finn Press, 2011), is the first of its kind – a compilation of food memories; stories of food and families, rescue and survival; and kitchen-tested recipes from Holocaust survivors from Poland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece.
Hersh will talk about her book at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport on Sunday, Nov. 13, co-hosted by four synagogue Sisterhoods in Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Trumbull. She spoke with the Ledger about the project.

What motivated you to write “Recipes Remembered?”
A: In 2005, we sold our family business, Murray Feiss Lighting. My wise older sister said, “We did well; now let’s do good.” What could I do that would fill my time in a productive way, and make me feel that I was giving back, that I would also derive pleasure from? I went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which we’d been supporting as a family. I love their perspective: embrace the past and honor the legacy of the Holocaust community, but also look to the future by educating and teaching tolerance. Their goal is to ensure that no other group will ever endure what the Jews did during the Holocaust. The museum is very focused on talking about the beautiful and treasured lives prior to the war and giving us a perspective on why we’re still here. They’re not just talking about the war, but also what came before and what followed after, though the war is, of course, the backdrop and the theme that brought me to the people I interviewed for the book.
I am a darn good cook; I cook every night in my little apartment in New York, and I told them that I would love to write a cookbook and have it benefit the museum, and start with recipes from the museum’s membership of Holocaust survivors.
We ordered 2,000 copies thinking we would be lucky if we didn’t use 1,000 as doorstops. To our tremendous surprise, we’ve sold 9,000 copies in four months and the book continues to sell out. I don’t turn down a single book talk and I give every penny of proceeds to the museum – well in excess of $100,000.

How did you gather stories and recipes for the book?
A: The museum gave me some names of their members. I would contact one and that person would refer me to another, and before I knew it, I was spending every day on the phone or in the homes of Holocaust survivors and their families. The survivors who gave me their stories and recipes are those who truly thrived after the Holocaust. They really made a mark here and raised beautiful families, proving the adage that the best revenge is children and grandchildren. To this group, family became paramount because so many lost their families of origin. It was so important for them to replenish the Jewish population and want to have children and grandchildren and “shep nachas” from the next generations. That was the focus of their lives. It was a very upbeat, life-affirming, positive conversation. These are people who found ways to turn tragedy into triumph and offer a lesson for us all.
In some cases, I prepared the recipes with the survivors who gave them to me; others helped me via phone or email, and a few even tasted the results. Some survivors didn’t have recipes but remembered particular foods. If I couldn’t figure it out, I would reach out to a Jewish celebrity chef, including Ina Garten, Jonathan Waxman, Joan Nathan, and Arthur Schwartz. Some survivors were adamant to leave the recipes the same; others thanked me for recreating them. Some were vague: “You take potatoes and flour.” We tested hundreds of recipes over a year.
After the testing, my husband said, “For one year, we’ve eaten like 85-year-old Polish peasants.” It’s true: the dishes were local and organic and straightforward. Every night I was making something from one shtetl or another. Every holiday meal was all from the recipes I was testing, so anyone who shared a holiday with me got to taste a little from the book.

Were there any surprises along the way?
A: My husband says that he heard me laugh more than I cried. The resilience, strength, and humor with which this community approaches their lives are astounding. When I told my friends that I was working on the book, many said, “That will be the most depressing thing,” but that was not my experience. It put life into perspective. Hearing the survivors’ stories teaches you what really matters. It shows us that we should be so grateful for what we have.

There are a couple of other books on this subject. How does your book differ from the others?
A: While I was writing, I became friends with Cara Da Silva [editor of “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin”], who wrote the introduction to “Recipes Remembered.” Cara worked off manuscripts written by women who didn’t survive the Holocaust, while I talked with people who did survive. She published the recipes exactly as they were written, while I tested the ones shared with me before including them.
On its surface, “Recipes Remembered” is a cookbook, but at its soul, it’s a storybook. Regardless of culture or background, everyone can place themselves at a family gathering and remember that bowl of matza-ball soup or spaghetti and meatballs. For the survivors, talking about those memories was a way for them to speak about their past lovingly and with joy, rather than with sadness. We would talk about their childhood and they were able to say, “I remember baking challah with my mother for Shabbat,” or “I remember going to the market to buy a duck for the seder.” Food brings you back to a safe, nurturing, comforting place. It was the chord struck with every survivor, one that made them comfortable so that they then could talk about their own children and grandchildren in relation to these recipes.

How has the book been received in the Jewish community? How have you responded to critics of the book?
A: My rabbi called it a sacred venture, because it preserves food memory and it’s so important that we honor these stories and cook these foods so that we don’t lose these traditions. The survivors worked so hard to keep these memories and recipes and bring them to the Jewish community.
A recent reviewer criticized the book, saying that I made it seem that there was a “happy ending” to the Holocaust. For the people I interviewed, there was a happy ending. A few of my interviewees saw the review online, and one wrote a very curt response to the critic, saying, “We did have a happy ending, because I’m here. You’ve missed the whole point of the book: it’s a celebration of those who survived, not a history of those who did not.” This book isn’t trivializing the Holocaust, but rather is saying that we don’t have to focus only on the tragedy, but we should also celebrate the lives of those who are here. For Jews, it’s considered a shanda to mourn the living – we must celebrate the living.
One critic asked why I started with the survivors’ childhoods. I did so because this was their roots and foundation, and their childhoods ended when the war began. We’ll never forget the bad stuff, but we also need to preserve the good stuff. Traumatic experiences tend to stay with us longer, overshadowing happy memories. I wanted the happy not to fade but to stay central. I truly feel that while we don’t always get to choose what comes our way, we do get to choose how we handle what we’re given.

Did you discover any new favorite recipes?
A: I really came to love all of them because I loved the people who were giving them to me, and the stories evoked by each recipe. I love the unexpected. My father’s family was Sephardi and my mother was Ashkenazi, and most of what we ate growing up was from my mother’s tradition. In the book, I love Sephardi recipes like the lentil soup, spinach phyllos from the Greek survivors, honey donuts. I also love the recipes from the survivors who found themselves in other places far from home and had to learn to cook new foods and in new ways. There’s a chocolate mousse recipe from a mother who ended up in France; I make it now for every dinner party.

Recipes Remembered

From “Recipes Remembered”

Ruth Orvieto’s Gnocchi Ala Romana (Semolina Gnocchi with Cheese)

From a childhood in Germany, coming of age in Ecuador and a 57-year marriage to Vittorio, an Italian survivor, Ruth’s life experiences have truly covered the globe.
Ruth’s version of gnocchi, crusty, pillowy rounds of baked semolina layered with butter and Parmesan cheese makes a beautiful presentation and a rich alternative to polenta or baked noodles. Yields: 4 to 6 servings

2 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup semolina flour
4 tablespoons butter;
(2 tablespoons cold, 2 tablespoons melted)
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk till scalding (the point right before boiling, you’ll see a skin begin to form on the top of the milk). Lower the heat to a simmer and begin adding the semolina, 1/4 cup at a time.  Stir with a whisk to avoid clumping.  Once the semolina is completely incorporated, begin stirring with a wooden spoon; the mixture will look like mashed potatoes.   On the lowest simmer possible, cook the semolina for 15 to 20 minutes, it will continue to thicken and when you stir, it should pull away from the sides of the pot.  It is done when it is very stiff and resembles wet dough.
Take off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of cold butter, the yolk, salt and half the cheese.  The semolina will become very elastic and completely leave the sides of the pot. Clean and lightly dampen a large counter, or a marble slab.  Turn the semolina mixture onto the cool, clean, damp surface and using a wet spatula or rolling pin; spread the semolina into a 1/2-inch layer.  Let the mixture cool for at least 20 minutes. The dough should be cool to the touch before beginning the next step.
Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees and lightly butter the bottom of an 11 x 7-inch rectangular baking dish*.  In a separate small bowl, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and reserve.
Using a 1 1/2 -inch round cookie cutter, cut circles from the dough and begin layering them in the pan. Start with 24 rounds on the bottom (4 across, 6 down).  Using a pastry brush, brush the rounds with the reserved melted butter and sprinkle a little of the remaining cheese on top.  Cut 18 rounds for the next layer, and in a pyramid fashion, place those rounds on top of the first layer, (3 across, 6 down) Brush with butter and sprinkle with cheese.   Your next layer will be 12 pieces, (2 across, 6 down) and the final layer will be 6 pieces, right down the center, brush with butter and sprinkle each layer with cheese.  You will need to gather the scraps of dough and roll them out again in order to complete the layering.  Pour any remaining butter on top and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top lightly browns.
* You can also use an 8-inch round or 9-inch square pan, following the same layering patterns.  You will need between 60-64 rounds.


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