Cooking in Auschwitz

The author and his mother in 2000 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The author and his mother in 2000
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the legacy of the Nazi death camp continues to haunt the survivors and their children.
My mother, Olga Sternberg, whom we called Anyu, spent close to two years in that hell. Growing up, I don’t recall a single Shabbat meal when Auschwitz didn’t crowd its way into the table conversation.
“Eat your food – we were starved and had little to eat in Auschwitz!”
I was born in Hungary five years after the end of World War II. One day when I was about eight years old, I came home from playing soccer with one of the Hungarian boys. I told my mother that the boy me called me a “dirty Jew” and asked her what did that mean? My quiet and dignified mother instructed me to hit him in the face the next time he said that.
Some time after, the boy had occasion to call me a dirty Jew again. I did as my mother instructed and slugged him. As I got older and heard my mother’s stories about Auschwitz, I began to understand why my gentle mother told me never to allow anyone to call me a dirty Jew.
Olga Sternberg, ‘Anyu,’ in an undated photo shortly before the Nazi occupation of Hungary. She was born April 6, 1911. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MY MOTHER grew up in a picturesque town in southern Hungary called Dombóvár.
She studied Latin and Greek in university and attended plays and poetry readings with friends. But her privileged life would change. On the brink of the Second World War, Hungary joined forces with Hitler and became an ally of Nazi Germany. Shortly after, anti-Semitic discriminatory laws were enacted, aimed to isolate and dehumanize the Jews. They were expelled from jobs, occupations and from universities. My mother and grandfather and the other Jews of Dombóvár, were kicked out of their homes and forced into designated ghettos. Naturally, after moving out, Hungarian gentiles swiftly moved in and looted the possessions left behind. About 1,100 Jews were moved into 20 houses constituting the Jewish ghetto of Dombóvár.
Soon after, they were rounded up and shoved into cattle cars to be deported. For six miserable days and nights, without food or water, and no clue what awaited them, over 100 Jews were cramped into a wagon large enough for six cows. Close to 50 such wagons were in this transport.
When my mother arrived, she had the “pleasure” to meet the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death.” Mengele would often wait for the new transports to select guinea pigs for his horrific and meaningless human experiments. He also selected those he thought fit for labor battalions, while those he deemed unfit he sent to the gas chambers and the crematoria.
My mother was lucky. She was selected for work. Her father was not. He was older and of no use to the Third Reich. He was gassed. So were my father’s wife and their little boy, as well as the rest of his family.
After the selection, men and women were separated. Anyu recalled many times, in her soft and gentle voice, about being stripped naked and paraded before a group of jeering, mocking and laughing German guards. Many were drunk.
Naked, she was subjected to additional search, looking for smuggled items such as diamonds. Then came the shower. Fortunately for her, water came out of the showerheads and not the infamous Zyklon B poison gas the Germans used to murder millions of other Jews. After emerging from the showers, the hair from her head and body was shaved off and she was “deloused” with a disinfectant spray. She was given rags and broken shoes and assigned to one of the many barracks in the Birkenau part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.
Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ANYU DESCRIBED her arrival in Auschwitz many times. She recalled the screaming of the passengers as they were beaten to disembark; the terror and the panic. She described the sickening sweet smell permeating the air that she would later learn was the smell of burning bodies emanating from the constantly belching smoke stacks of the crematoria.
More than the starvation, the beatings, the freezing cold or the harsh labor, it was the humiliation of her nakedness at her arrival that was the most dehumanizing and unbearable for her. I became emotional each time she told me her story.
Separated from her father she was completely alone. Several women from the Hungarian town of Pápa befriended her. They shared their bread, a scarce commodity, and they shared their fate. They were all assigned to work in the Argus airplane-manufacturing factory.
She told us often of the brutality that was life in Auschwitz. The frequent “selections” of the – now – sick and useless prisoners for the gas chambers; the ever constant “Zell-appells,” roll calls, standing at attention for hours in the freezing cold.
But strangely, she found a silver lining in her situation. She said she was lucky to be assigned to wash the airplane parts. She worked a machine with warm water that she would lean up against to keep from freezing.
How did this soft-spoken, refined lady manage to survive almost two years at Auschwitz, I often wondered.
“What did you do to survive Auschwitz?” I would ask her. “How did you do it?” “I cooked all day long with the other women,” she would reply.
“Cooked?” I asked, surprised. “But you told me that you were starved and always hungry.”
“Well,” she answered, “we cooked verbally. We traded recipes. Each one of us would describe our favorite dishes while the others listened.”
After almost two years “cooking” in Auschwitz, Anyu had memorized countless recipes that stayed with her forever.
WITH THE war over, Anyu and the ladies were liberated. Hitchhiking through war-torn Europe, they finally made their way back to Hungary. Most of their relatives and friends had perished.
Two years after liberation, Anyu was invited to visit Pápa to spend some time with the ladies from Auschwitz. They introduced her to my father, who was also alone. Shortly after, my parents were married and started a new family.
Their stories of suffering have left a deep legacy within me. The sight of wasted food reminds me of my parents’ years in Auschwitz. Pictures of Jews in Auschwitz invariably have me searching for my parents’ faces. A lifetime of holidays spent without any uncles, aunts or cousins or grandparents. And of course, I often think of my precious four-year-old older brother. Auschwitz robbed me of my family and left me a deep and painful history instead.
Memorable events become “time markers.” The world counts 2016 years since the birth of Jesus. When my parents recalled a specific event, they inevitably would date it, as “that was two years before Auschwitz” or “three years after the camps.”
Anyu is gone now. She died at the age of 93. I think of Anyu and Auschwitz whenever I cook. She not only left me her stories as a legacy: She also left me her recipes. 
Chicken soup: Anyu’s recipe from Auschwitz
Ingredients: ■ 1 chicken leg top and bottom ■ 2-4 beef marrow bones ■ 2-3 chicken necks ■ Salt to taste ■ 8-10 peppercorns ■ 2-3 stalks of dill ■ 2-3 stalks of parsley ■ 2-3 carrots ■ 1 white parsnip ■ 1 green pepper (quartered) ■ 1 large onion ■ 1 medium purple turnip ■ All purpose seasoning (large pinch) Fill 8-quart (7.6-liter) pot halfway with water.
Place on stove top, high flame. Skin chicken, place in water. Put in beef marrow bones, chicken necks, onion and cut-up pepper. Peel and cut up carrots, parsnip, turnip, dill and parsley, and add to pot. Add salt, seasoning and wait to boil.
When soup is boiling add peppercorn and lower flame to simmer. Place lid on pot, leaving a slight Simmer for three hours.
The writer is an 8th degree black belt who coached numerous USA National Karate teams in the World Championships as well as in numerous Maccabiah Games. He is a doctor of sports physiology and of public health who was the director of the Pediatric Pulmonary and Exercise Testing Laboratory at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently teaching in a Brooklyn-based university and developing athletes for the 2017 World Maccabiah