A Holocaust survivor, a rescued family cookbook, and the taste of home – The Washington Post

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Steven Fenves didn’t notice her on that May morning in 1944 as he and his family were forced from their home in Subotica, part of the deportations ordered by the Germans after they took control of the town in the former Yugoslavia. Fenves, his mother and sister took what they could carry from their second-floor apartment. As they made their way down the stairs, they were met with neighbors and townspeople, all lined up to loot their home.
He never saw Maris among the looters. Heavyset with big black hair and rosy cheeks, Maris would normally be hard to miss. But Fenves wasn’t looking for the family’s former cook, whom he knew only by her first name. She had not worked in the Fenves kitchen in three years, not since the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia, with Hungary, an ally of Germany, annexing Subotica.
“As people yell at you, curse at you and spit at you, you don’t look in their faces,” Fenves, 91, said in his living room in Chevy Chase, Md.
But Maris was there, waiting for her opportunity. She had a mission, then unknown to the Fenveses, who were on their way to the first of two Jewish ghettos. She was going into the apartment to rescue, among other things, the family recipe book. The one that Fenves’s mother, Klara, had composed in her tight, tiny and nearly flawless Hungarian script. The one that Maris had cooked from for years.
The Fenves family lived an upper-middle-class life in Subotica, where Fenves’s father, Louis, was the editor of an influential Hungarian-language newspaper, printed at a plant attached to the family’s residence.
Aside from Maris, Fenves’s parents employed a maid, a chauffeur and a governess, who would tutor Fenves and his older sister, Eszti. Their mother, Klara, was a formally trained artist. She passed along her passion for art to her children, but she left the cooking to Maris, who treated the kitchen as a sovereign state into which no one was allowed without authorization.
For the main midday meal, Maris might prepare a parmesan soufflé, duck liver pâté, herring salad, hazelnut torte or Hungarian stacked potatoes, the latter a casserole-style dish with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, butter and, sometimes, sausage. Fenves’s mother would serve everyone from the head of the table.
The food largely drew from Hungarian traditions, which hints at how the Fenveses had immersed themselves in local culture. The only Jewish dish that Fenves recalled eating as a boy was cholent, a stew traditionally served on the Sabbath.
There were special-occasion meals, such as turkey meatloaf, in which Maris would remove the skin from a fresh turkey, carve the flesh off the bone, grind it with spices, press the ground meat back on the breastbone and cover it with skin. Fenves and his sister loved the dish. What they didn’t love was Maris’s country soup with small, hard dumplings. The children called it “envelope soup,” because whenever Maris made it they would steal heavy envelopes from the printing office.
“When nobody was watching, with our spoons, we took out the dumplings and put them in the envelope,” Fenves said.
None of Maris’s dishes are in the Fenves family cookbook. Most of the 140-plus recipes were created by an aunt, a cousin, a sister-in-law, a friend or Klara herself.
Maris had to be let go in 1941 when Hungary took control of their region and imposed laws that forbade Jews from employing non-Jews. At the same time, the government took over the Fenves printing business, forcing the family to scramble for money. Klara sold arts and crafts. Fenves sold his beloved stamp collection.
Fenves’s father was the first to be sent to the ghettos, then Auschwitz, before landing at a coal mine in Silesia. When Fenves and the rest were booted from their home a few days later, they had to leave almost everything behind: Klara’s art, books, keepsakes, photos, even the family cookbook. Other than the family, Maris was perhaps the only person in Subotica who knew where to find the book, or why it was worth saving.
After a five-day trip in a railroad car — one packed with people but no food or water — Fenves and his family landed at Auschwitz. Fenves’s grandmother, taken from her own apartment, was sent to the gas chamber. His mother would die some days later, but Fenves is not sure how. Fenves and his sister were directed to youth barracks in two separate compounds.
In his barracks, Fenves was surrounded by decay and death. He was fed a thin soup once a day from a cauldron. “That was slow death,” he remembered.
Fenves was not exactly fond of his former governess — a German he described as a “horrible woman” in an interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — but her lessons in the German language helped Fenves survive. He was ordered to serve as interpreter for the German criminals who supervised the prisoners. “My reward was that after the people were fed from the big cauldrons,” Fenves says, “I was privileged to scrape up the bottom.”
Even though Fenves didn’t know a word of Polish, he would later serve as an interpreter for a Polish political prisoner who served as a supervisor, or kapo, in another barracks. The Polish kapos were part of the resistance, and if you worked for them, you were part of the resistance, too. Fenves became a runner in the camp’s black market. Its unit of currency was the gold watch, taken off those entering Auschwitz.
“I was the smallest and thinnest of the group” of runners, Fenves remembered. “Sometimes I had eight or 10 gold watches strapped to my thigh.”
When Fenves needed something, he could usually trade on the black market, like the time he sold his goods to secure a sweater, scarf and stick of margarine for his sister, who was being transported out of Auschwitz.
“She told me when we were reunited that she ate [the margarine] in one sitting and became terribly ill,” Fenves said.
In October 1944, Fenves was sent to Niederorschel, a subcamp of Buchenwald where he was put to work making German fighter planes. On April 1, 1945, as Allied forces closed in, Fenves and the rest of the prisoners were sent on a death march to Buchenwald. It lasted 11 days, during which, Fenves recalled, they often had nothing to eat. A guard broke Fenves’s arm during the march when he talked back to a German corporal. When Fenves finally arrived at Buchenwald, he fell asleep in a bunk, his arm still throbbing. He awoke the next day when the Allies liberated the camp.
He spent two weeks at a U.S. field hospital. He has no memory of his first meal there.
Fenves and his sister, Eszti, returned to Subotica after the war, but Yugoslavia, under the newly formed communist government, was not the same, and neither was their father. When Louis returned on a Soviet military hospital train, he was “totally broken physically and emotionally,” Fenves said in a Holocaust Museum talk. Months later, Louis died.
The siblings couldn’t stay in Yugoslavia. They secured passports and exit visas and made their way to Paris, where they renounced their Yugoslavian citizenship. Several years later, they immigrated to the United States.
The family cookbook, briefly in Fenves and Eszti’s hands after the war, was returned to Maris for safekeeping.
On a Thursday afternoon in June at the Shapell Center, the Holocaust Museum’s collections and research facility in Bowie, Md., conservator Anne Marigza propped open the Fenves family cookbook on a pristine white table. She placed a thin, folded pillow under the cover to keep it level with the first page of the book, trying to preserve what’s left of the binding.
By Marigza’s best guess, the book was bound in the 1920s at a workshop. (Fenves, incidentally, said the volume was “clearly” made in the bookbinding shop in the basement of the Fenves residence.) The gold embossed letters have eroded, but you can still read “receptek,” Hungarian for “recipes.” In the lower right corner, a name remains legible: Fenyves Lajosne, which translates to Mrs. Louis Fenyves, a reminder that Fenves changed the spelling of his surname when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.
The cover is tattered, ink-stained and grimy around the edges. The ghostly outlines of adhesive tape are visible along the binder. Each page has the rulings of a records book, as if Klara had repurposed a ledger. The tabs that separate each section — appetizers, pastas and salads; soups, meats and sauces; and so on — look hand-cut. Pages are splotchy from dirty fingers and splattered sauces.
In the prewar world, the publishing industry was nothing like it is today. Professional volumes dedicated to Jewish cooking were few. Jewish culinary knowledge was often passed down through generations of women, such as Klara, who collected recipes in family cookbooks. Many of these volumes were part of the vast cultural history erased when Nazi Germany systematically killed 6 million Jews.
Jewish prisoners trying to preserve family dishes in the camps and ghettos would write down recipes on scraps of paper, on the backs of photos, even on Nazi propaganda leaflets. In the book “In Memory’s Kitchen,” which collects recipes written by women in the Theresienstadt ghetto and camp in what is now the Czech Republic, one survivor said prisoners talked so much about food they had a term for it: “cooking with the mouth.”
The Holocaust Museum has collected the papers from nearly 30 families and individuals who, in one way or another, tried to preserve their recipes. Susie Greenbaum Schwarz wrote a diary while in hiding on farms in the Netherlands, mixing personal observations with recipes. Eva Ostwalt created a cookbook while imprisoned at the Ravensbrück camp. Mina Pächter collected recipes at Theresienstadt, where, before her death, she asked a friend in the camp to somehow find her daughter and pass along the cookbook. Decades later, in 1969, a stranger delivered a package, including the cookbook, to Mina’s daughter in Manhattan.
Thinking about food was, in part, a distraction, “because obviously they were not eating as well as they were writing about food,” said Kyra Schuster, art and artifacts curator at the Holocaust Museum. “But it was something that kind of kept them grounded, kept their humanity.”
The Fenves family cookbook is different. It was fully formed before Fenves and his family were deported. The recipes could have been lost to history, like so many others during the war, if not for the cook who endangered herself by trying to save it.
“It’s very telling that this is what she took as opposed to grabbing maybe items of clothing or other family valuables, if there were any still in the apartment,” Schuster said. “I think that does speak volumes of the significance.”
By the time Fenves saw his mother’s cookbook again, he had created a new life. In the early 1960s, he was a professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1962, he spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked with a pair of colleagues to develop a computer structural analysis tool that would cement Fenves’s reputation as a pioneer in the field.
While Fenves was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and Eszti lived on the South Side of Chicago, they received a package covered in postmarks and stamps from Yugoslavia. Maris had mailed the siblings the cookbook, their mother’s artwork, a diary and other keepsakes. Fenves said he and his sister were far more interested in the drawings and etchings.
Eszti occasionally used the cookbook for its intended purpose, Fenves said, but he never did.
The Fenves family cookbook — the gift from Maris, who died at some time unknown to the children she once cared for — essentially languished for years until a “nosy young Israel-born chef” came along, Fenves said.
Ever since visiting Yad Vashem, the largest Holocaust memorial in Israel, New Orleans chef Alon Shaya had been thinking about those who died in the camps and how they “risked their lives stealing pieces of paper and receipts and pieces of fabric to write these recipes,” he said. He was considering a project about how food — or just the thought of food — “served as an emotional bridge to connect to happier moments in their lives when they were starving to death.”
Then Shaya saw the Fenves cookbook in the basement of the Holocaust Museum, which had featured the volume in an exhibit a few years earlier. Shaya understood the value of the slender book lay not just with its recipes but also with the one person who could help reconstruct them: Fenves, then 88. (Eszti had died in 2012.)
“A lightbulb went off in my head that said, ‘Wow, here is an opportunity to get a first-person recollection of these recipes and to be able to just talk with him one-on-one about his memories of the book and the recipes,’” Shaya said.
Then came the hard work: translating and interpreting nearly century-old Hungarian recipes that were, in many respects, just sketches, designed for those who would intuitively know the ingredients, measurements (usually in dekagrams) and techniques that were often implied. Once Fenves translated about 17 recipes, Shaya got to work reconstructing them. The chef’s own connection to Hungarian cooking, via his father’s side of the family, wouldn’t help with the task because Shaya had never really explored the cuisine.
One recipe, Horseshoes With Walnuts and Poppy Seeds, was a slog. Shaya had assumed an instruction — “save some pastry for lacing” — meant the holiday dish had a lattice crust on top, like a pie. So he rolled the dough into horseshoe shapes, packed them with walnut and poppy seed fillings and covered the top with a latticework.
Only after talking to Fenves and conducting more research did Shaya realize the pastry was supposed to be rolled like a jelly roll cake. The dish, he would surmise, was a riff on beigli, a Hungarian roll traditionally made around Christmas but adapted for the Jewish table.
Other recipes raised questions, too. The one described as “potato circles” called for dough rounds to be topped with ground meat mixed with sour cream. It didn’t specify what type of meat or how it was spiced. Based on conversations with Fenves, Shaya opted to saute beef with onions, garlic, thyme, allspice and paprika, the latter of which Fenves said was used in “just about everything.”
This give-and-take between Fenves and Shaya played out electronically during the pandemic. They developed about 10 recipes. Once the recipes were locked down, Shaya sent a few dishes on dry ice to Fenves in Chevy Chase and to his four children, scattered throughout the country, to taste.
To the chef, Fenves’s opinion was the one that mattered. Fenves was the only one who had tasted these dishes as originally prepared, even if he was a child more interested in stamps and art than food.
“I want to do the recipes justice,” Shaya said.
Make the recipe: Semolina Sticks
Shaya, 43, carries a memory around like a sacred object: He was a boy from Bat Yam, Israel, starting life anew in Philadelphia with his mother, who had left her husband and was raising two children. An immigrant who didn’t speak English well, Shaya felt unmoored. One day in 1984, Shaya walked into his Philly home and was met with the aroma of peppers and eggplant roasting over a flame. He knew what it meant: His saba and safta, Hebrew for grandfather and grandmother, were visiting from Israel.
“I just connected the smell of food with my family being back together and feeling like life was going to be okay for a little bit,” Shaya said. “I guess I was trying to evoke an emotion in Fenves like the one that I had at that moment.”
The chef wanted to re-create the Fenves dishes in part to take Fenves back, too. To a life before the war. To a home where his mother still served lunch at the head of the table. To a family still in its prime.
Some of the tastings were captured during Facebook Live sessions hosted by the Holocaust Museum. Moderated by historian Edna Friedberg, the sessions connected Fenves and Shaya across distances, but they also connected Fenves across time, to food he had not tasted since 1944. Like Semolina Sticks, a sweet-and-salty snack that Fenves enjoyed as a boy. Shaya had sent Fenves and his wife, Norma, samples to try on camera.
“Mmm, terrific,” Fenves says to Norma in the video.
“Did he get it right?” Friedberg asks Fenves.
“Very good, yeah,” he says.
“Okay, good,” Shaya responds, clearly relieved. “I was really nervous.”
On another session on video, Fenves tries a walnut cream cake made with, as Shaya notes, five cups of the ground nuts. Again, Friedberg wonders what it means to Fenves to taste this cake after a 75-year hiatus.
“Eating this, honestly, I cannot isolate the memory of this dish from memories of all the other sweet dishes,” he says.
More than a year and a half after those tastings, Fenves sat in his new apartment at a senior living facility, where he and Norma moved after he suffered a fall this year. In his living room, he was again searching for the words to describe his feelings about sampling the food of his childhood. He said it “was a great pleasure.” Then he paused and offered a confession of sorts.
“I’m not that emotional of a person,” said Fenves, the man of math.
Later, Shaya acknowledged that he and Fenves, for all their close collaboration, are different people. Shaya described himself as “an extremely emotional person.”
“Maybe I was a little overconfident in the fact that I could evoke an emotion from him through food,” Shaya said. But, he added, the experience was still “a connector. If it’s not a connector emotionally from a flavor or a smell, the way that my life has kind of always been, it’s still a bridge to a conversation and a friendship.”
The recipes will be a connector in another way. Given the vast amount of time it would take to turn the Fenves recipes into a contemporary cookbook, Shaya has different plans for the project: He will embark on a tour to talk about the book, even cook a few dishes from it, in a handful of cities. The events will be fundraisers to help expand the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s collection, which already includes more than 23,800 objects. He did a similar event this year at the home of Joan Nathan, the esteemed cookbook author, and it generated $180,000.
But just as important, Shaya said, he hopes the events can shrink the horrific scale of the Holocaust down to something personable, relatable, to younger generations that some say are seeing a rise of fascism in their own lives. Your basic teenager, the chef says, may not fathom the level of human grief and pain tied to millions of deaths and the policies that led to those murders.
“You bake him a cake and then you tell him the story of Maris and her heroism to risk her life to save this cookbook,” Shaya said. “All of a sudden this is a story that a 13-year-old can get behind and understand.”
A previous version of this story mistakenly said the words “saba” and “safta” are Hungarian for grandfather and grandmother. In fact, they are Hebrew.

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