The Family Cookbook That Survived the Holocaust

Four generations, three continents, countless homes, and many buttery fingers.

Books cover every surface of my parents’ home. Some books are organized by subject or name; many are disorganized — critical theory and music theory living side-by-side, with a Sherlock Holmes novel stuck in between.

The kitchen is different. The genre remains consistent, even if the cuisine varies wildly. Nestled in between Ottolenghi’s latest, and a stack of Saveur magazines, lives a small, brown, two-ring binder. The spine is deeply worn, and the edges are frayed and ripped, with crinkly dog-eared pieces of paper sticking out of each side. It’s no surprise that this book shows evidence of wear-and-tear — it’s lived in more homes than most could imagine.

Before World War II, the book inhabited upper-class kitchens in Germany, where the cooks would follow the recipes given to them by the lady of the house — my great-grandmother, Nora, who was the daughter of a wealthy fur-trading family. After her marriage to a prominent Frankfurt gynecologist, she continued the legacy of providing cooks the cream- and butter-heavy recipes popular before war rations, health concerns, and mini-skirts changed everything. As the war accelerated and Nazi control became widespread, Nora was forced to fire all of her staff because she was a Jew. My great-grandfather committed suicide after the Nazi takeover, leaving his wife and two young children to escape Germany on their own, smuggling what few possessions they could hide.

Tucked into a handbag during their escape, this brown notebook left the grand kitchens of its youth for a small and meticulously kept kitchen in a one-bedroom apartment. Nora distanced herself from the German-Jewish community in London, preferring to move past the horrors of her previous life in Germany, and begin her life anew.

Elaborate dinners served by uniformed maids became simple suppers interrupted by air raids and, after the evacuation of her children, lonely meals for one. The brown notebook came into daily use, as Nora acquainted herself with the dredging, baking, and kneading that she had never had to learn.

After the war, the book left for India, where Nora’s daughter, Mathilde (my grandmother), became a new bride to an exiled German-Jewish textile salesman.

Here, the book was used yet again to instruct staff, as my grandmother hosted dinner parties in their apartment, and taught the Indian ayahs (nannies) to prepare birthday cakes for her Bombay-born children — my mother and uncle. But it didn’t stay long. In the 1960s my grandfather moved the family to Milan, Italy, where he explored the textile business. My mother spent her teens there before heading to the U.K. for boarding school, followed by a degree at the University in England.

Following my grandmother’s untimely death at 57, the book was entrusted to my mother, now married to her college boyfriend (my father) and living in Oxford. Though she entered her marriage with some rudimentary cooking skills, my mother was far more interested in attending protests and unionizing the Oxford cafeteria workers than whipping up nightly meals. The idea of cooking supper each night was an unappealing chore at best.

My father, ever passionate about eating, was still entirely inexperienced in the kitchen, but knew that if he and my mother were to eat home-cooked meals, the task would fall to him. After some cooking lessons from my mother’s grandmother, my father became the household’s primary cook, ultimately eschewing the book’s careful, structured recipes, for a more spontaneous culinary approach. The book traveled with them, from many small, cramped apartments in Oxford, to a flat in North London, where my brothers and I were born. It made few appearances in those years, though, as our neighbor (who became our de-facto grandmother), made her own French recipes for birthday parties and dinners.

Packed away again, the book traversed the Atlantic, to our home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where we would spend the next seven years. In those years, it was installed in the kitchen, and experienced occasional, inconsistent use. With three young children running from music lessons to school activities, little time was left for baking, no matter how easy the recipes were. Seven years later, it arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was to find a permanent place after three continents, countless homes, and many buttery fingers.

During visits back home, I often revisit the book, carefully removing it from its Ziploc bag. I turn the pages to find discolored recipes from English newspapers pasted alongside typewritten German text and immaculate, spidery Gothic handwriting. Some recipes are written on thin loose-leaf paper, while some occupy blue airmail envelopes. Recipes from various decades and centuries, styles, and cuisines live within the confines of this volume, which threatens to fall apart each time we lay it on the kitchen counter. I rarely stray from my two favorite recipes, both for cookies: Mürbe Halbmonde, half-moon-shaped butter biscuits, and Zimsterne, chewy, nutty holiday treats. These we prepare for Thanksgiving, or around the holidays — unless we’re already in India ringing in the New Year with my father’s mother.

We begin baking early, and I start by going through the cabinets, removing the eggs, flour, and the ungodly amount of butter that we’ll go through. I scrub down the counters before our baking begins, as my father’s reign of the kitchen is the opposite of methodical and neat. My mother sits on a stool at the kitchen counter, translating the recipes: turning grams into cups, Celsius into Fahrenheit, and decoding measurements such as what my great-grandmother referred to as a “German pound of flour” — a pound and a cup.

In nearly every practical aspect of our lives, my mother is more precise, more organized, and more detail-oriented. When I’m baking or cooking, however, I become the compulsive one, timing everything and fussing over whether the consistency of the whipped sugar and butter is the appropriate level of “smooth,” “fluffy,” or “creamy.” My mother assures me constantly that I’m being too obsessive and on we go. Perhaps this is why she exited the kitchen so early, and I made it my life.

Most often, we make the Mürbe Halbmonde mit Citronengusse — with lemon icing. To make them, you must carefully cut the butter into the flour, and then grate egg yolk into the sugar, which gives the cookies their extra-rich, crumbly texture. Both of our hands land in the dough, kneading and patting, and kneading again. We argue over cookie cutters; I want to try different shapes, but my mother loves the traditional half-moons. We hover in front of the oven, watching the dough turn golden-yellow, as we hold the icing bowl, whisking the sugar and lemon juice absentmindedly. Then, we brush the icing on. My mother always urges me to stop obsessing over each one. As soon as the cookies cool, we lay them out on one of our favorite Indian platters, but not before my mother eats three in one sitting.

I will never meet Nora or Mathilde, but knowing that our fingers have touched the same pages, and our mouths have tasted the same flavors creates a connection that lives on. Now, I just have to decide what my contribution will be to that little world-traveled, worn brown book.

— Leah Bhabha

This article originally appeared on the Tastebook Blog.