Nourishing memories

A Holocaust survivors' cookbook? A young couple from Nahlaot has found a novel way to preserve survivors' stories.

cookbook 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cookbook 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'We knew we wanted to do something to give back to the community and for survivors. We didn't want [to create] a reference book. We wanted something that would be out and about and would be used, something that would be part of someone's life," says Jonathan Caras, who together with his wife Sarah created the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook. When people hear about it, they say, "A Holocaust survivors' cookbook? What is it, boiling boots?" says Jonathan, 24. It's easy to understand people's reactions - recipes are not usually associated with the darkest period in modern Jewish history. But the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook is more than just a recipe book. Over a period of more than two years, the Carases gathered testimonies from Holocaust survivors and their families. Each story is accompanied by a family recipe (or two or three), along with photos of the families throughout the years - and, of course, of the food. "It started two years ago with the passing of my grandmother-in-law," explains Jonathan. After the couple married in January 2005, they moved to Nahlaot and immediately went in search of a project that would enable them to "give back to the community," says Jonathan. Jonathan and Sarah, both full-time students, found the Mahaneh Yehuda-based charity Carmei Ha'ir and decided to embark on a fund-raising project for the organization. "We wanted to do a cookbook, but we didn't have an idea [for it], and then my grandmother passed away," explains Sarah, 23, originally from New Jersey. Actually, the story of Sarah's grandmother, Elizabeth Silberstein, is the only account in the book that is not accompanied by a recipe. Born in Vienna, Silberstein moved to Belgium - illegally - in 1938. Her father was arrested in 1940 and she never saw him again. In 1942, her uncle Ernst jumped from a train from Auschwitz and told Silberstein's mother about the camps; her sister then took her to a convent to hide. She stayed there until 1946 when l'Association Israelite d'aide aux Victimes de la Guerre, a Jewish organization looking for hidden Jewish children, came to rescue her. Her family had been deported in 1943 and was eventually taken to Auschwitz. Silberstein married at 21 and had three children, including Sarah's mother. "She didn't cook. It was like, meat and potatoes - just throw it in a pot," says Sarah. "It was important to my mom that there wasn't a recipe in the book because she didn't have one." Instead, her mother provided a poem for the cookbook. The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook does include some recipes from Sarah's family, though. "My father's parents had a deli, so he wrote about them. I can vouch for those recipes, but I can't vouch for the rest of them," says Sarah. The couple did not give any instructions for the type of recipes to submit, and the result is a melting pot of family history. Some of the recipes are for traditional prewar Eastern European fare, but others have clearly become part of the family canons more recently. Interspersed among recipes for honey cake, latkes, cabbage rolls and gribines (described as a chicken appetizer) are those for Chinese cookies, minute steaks, mandarin orange salad and Hawaiian chicken. "Some of the recipes were from the old country," says Jonathan. Others were from the grandchildren of survivors. "I was a little skeptical at first" about the type of recipes people would send, he says. "A lot of heimishe [homey] cooking is simplistic. Eastern European Jews didn't have a lot of options… but you can see how creative you can be with limited resources. A lot of times delicious cooking can go a long way. You just need to put a bit of heart into it." Since the Carases began the project, it has been adopted by their friends and family. "My mother-in-law in Maryland went all over the East Coast collecting testimony personally," says Sarah. "Our goal was to get 100 stories. In the end there were 129." "She was really our executive of PR," Jonathan chimes in about his mother. The publishing date was repeatedly pushed back due to the sheer volume of responses - achieved with no advertising - and the book was finally published in September. Publicity for the cookbook was managed through word of mouth, an Internet portal ( and interviews in the US Jewish media. "By the time we were ready to publish, organizations had heard about the project through newspapers," says Jonathan. "Our goal is twofold. Every cent that comes from the book - after expenses - goes to Carmei Ha'ir." They are also trying to sell the book in bulk to schools and synagogues for half price for use as a fund-raiser. So far they have sold the first 5,000-copy print run and are working on the second. The first check will be presented to Carmei Ha'ir in a ceremony on December 23 by Jonathan's sister, who will be here with a birthright israel group. In addition to the charity aspect, the Carases want to use the book in a more personal way in order to raise the profiles of Holocaust survivors by asking people to tell the contributors' stories when they serve their dishes. "When we started the project we weren't sure how people would take it," says Jonathan. "We had the challenge of making something about the Holocaust that wasn't horribly depressing. The community that we created because of this - everyone who submitted - really went over and above our expectations to spill their hearts out in an emotional way. We challenged them to bring us into their lives, to explain to us how the war affected their family." As well as creating a cookbook people will use, Jonathan believes the project has played a small but significant part in preserving survivors' stories. "Some people wrote to us saying that this was the first time they'd ever had the recipe for their chicken soup written down on paper," says Jonathan. "There were a number of stories in there that this was the first time the story was written down on paper." And Sarah is confident the book's title will draw people in. "People say, 'Holocaust Survivor Cookbook? What does this mean?' And then they look at it," she says.