‘When I was in Auschwitz, I thought if you’re a Jew, and a child, you have to die’

Tova Friedman
Tova Friedman

At the age of five Tova Friedman had never eaten an egg. She recalls her first encounter like it was yesterday. “It was heaven, especially the yolk. It left such an unbelievable impression on me that [later] in Auschwitz I dreamt that I swam in egg yolks. I didn’t even know how to swim.”

Friedman is speaking via Zoom from her home in New Jersey about a new cookbook called Honey Cake and Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors. She is one of several contributors to this extraordinary and unique volume, as much historical document as recipe book.

The idea emerged in early 2020, when a delegation of 120 survivors visited Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Maria Zalewska, the Polish-born executive director at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, and its chairman Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics company, formed a close relationship with the survivors, holding regular online meetings when the pandemic hit. Naturally, they bonded over food.

Tova (top left) alongside other child survivors of Auschwitz, showing their tattooed arms - Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Tova (top left) alongside other child survivors of Auschwitz, showing their tattooed arms - Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

In one early session Lauder asked for everyone’s favourite Passover dish and was inundated with gefilte fish recipes. It was a lightbulb moment. Through discussing food, everybody opened up about their past. “We didn’t want a gefilte fish cookbook, but [we realised] we have something special on our hands,” says Zalewska, who edited the book.

The resulting book is full of mouthwatering recipes for Eastern European Jewish classics like matzo ball soup, goulash and schnitzels. But more than the recipes it’s the stories that shine.

When Krakow-born Eugene Ginter speaks of his mother giving him chocolate on bread to fatten him up after the war, you can really feel his mother’s love. Eva Shainblum, from what is now Romania, provides a recipe for rakott krumpli, Hungarian layered potatoes, which was her last meal before she and her family were deported to Auschwitz in 1944, the day after the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

Benjamin Lesser describes vivid memories of pre-war orchards in Poland where his family would pick fruit and make compotes. For Goldie Finkelstein, abundant cooking after the war became a way to process the trauma of hunger during the Holocaust.

Tova and her mother survived the ordeal of Auschwitz - Courtesy of ABMF
Tova and her mother survived the ordeal of Auschwitz - Courtesy of ABMF

Tova is one of the youngest survivors featured. Born to Machel and Reizel Grossman in September 1938 in Gdynia, Poland, she spent the first years of the war in the overcrowded ghetto of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, her parents’ hometown in central Poland. In a cramped room she often ate or slept under the table. “My parents were with me, so I felt safe,” Friedman recalls.

But food was always scarce. Bread was the main staple; potato soup, from skins rather than flesh, was a bonus. It is no surprise that the aforementioned egg was so formative – to this day, she eats one every day, and connects them to her mother. Yet Friedman mainly remembers hunger. “It was the main theme in my life until the age of 12.”

Friedman’s parents were part of the ghetto’s cleanup squad, tasked with taking corpses of those shot or starved to death to a communal grave, something they never hid from the young Tova. They were later transferred to work at an ammunition factory in Starachowice where during one deportation of children her father Machel hid her in a space in the ceiling. At the work camp there were rations, though still mostly bread. “There was nothing else. I never even knew about fruit and vegetables.”

In mid 1944 Tova and her mother were sent to Auschwitz, her father to Dachau. Most of her time was spent separated from her mother in a children’s barracks. “That’s when the real hunger started,” Friedman recalls. “There’s no way to describe starvation. Where your entire being, everything you think about, is food. When my grandkids say ‘oh grandma, I’m starving,’ I don’t want to spoil their childhood but I think, ‘you don’t know what starving is. You haven’t eaten since breakfast, and that’s starving?’”

Her mother did everything to keep her alive, often giving her part of her rations. On her sixth birthday, Friedman received bread as a gift. “It meant an awful lot, because I knew how difficult it was for her to get that piece of bread.”

Friedman survived six months in Auschwitz, witnessing death and starvation all around her. She knew nothing else: “I thought that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re a Jew, and a child, you have to die.” When the Nazis commenced the death marches west, as the Russians closed in, her mother hid her with corpses, a move that saved their lives.

Soon the Russians arrived and Friedman recalls the soup kitchen they set up, and the fresh loaves of bread. “In Auschwitz all through my stay I smell the burning of bodies. In the beginning it was a shock when my mother told me about it, but you get used to it. When I smelt bread for the first time, I was just amazed. I couldn’t tell you the sensation.”

Tova and her mother survived Auschwitz and reunited with her father in Tomaszow Mazowiecki. Her father’s sisters survived, but her mother’s entire family perished. Back home they faced yet more hunger and antisemitism, and eventually were smuggled out of Communist-controlled Poland to a displaced persons camp in Berlin, where food finally become more plentiful. Tova’s first ever orange; tinned vegetables of all varieties; and a communal kitchen, where her mother could finally cook.

Tova sees it as part of her quest to counter rising antisemitism and ensure future generations are informed of what happened - Shahar Azran
Tova sees it as part of her quest to counter rising antisemitism and ensure future generations are informed of what happened - Shahar Azran

Friedman recollects with fondness her mother’s cholent, a traditional Sabbath meal of slow-cooked meat, beans and barley. “My mother made it in a gigantic pot. It was an unbelievably delicious hot meal which we ate most of the week. That was one of the first meals I remember. I began to realise what normal life could be like. It was the feeling of home.”

The family arrived in New York in 1950, when Tova was 11, settling in a Jewish area where the streets were abundant with carts flogging treats from home: knishes, frankfurters with sauerkraut. “It was just heaven,” says Friedman. In Brooklyn, her mother, who suffered with pain in her arm connected to breast cancer, taught the young Tova how to make gefilte fish, chicken soup, honey cake and more. While Tova cooked, Reizel would tell stories about Europe, of her family, of holidays, of dishes like tzimmes, a sweet dish of carrots with raisins that is one of Tova’s recipes in the new book. To this day the recipes serve as a reminder of home.

Tova’s mother died in 1957. She complained of a headache one morning and, by the evening, was in a coma. It may have been linked to a beating to the head she received at Auschwitz, for attempting to steal a potato for her daughter.

Now 84, Friedman still cooks regularly, and has taught her four children recipes from her homeland. Her grandchildren, she admits, need some convincing on certain foods, like kasha varnishkes, a dish of noodles with buckwheat also featured in the book. “My grandkids don’t even like it, but we like it,” she laughs. They love the chicken soup and gefilte fish, she points out. The cooking has an important symbolism. “It’s about connecting to my ancestors, to their tradition. I never met them, they were all murdered.”

Friedman still cooks regularly, and has taught her four children recipes from her homeland
Friedman still cooks regularly, and has taught her four children recipes from her homeland

For Friedman, speaking openly about the Holocaust is essential, particularly to educate younger generations. Earlier this year her book, The Daughter of Auschwitz, was released, and she even has a TikTok account, TovaTok, with 500,000 followers, set up by her grandson Aron. It is part of her quest to counter rising antisemitism and ensure future generations are informed of what happened.

The idea of blending the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau with a cookery book may seem a terrible joke, a taboo, or even perverse. “It’s a complete juxtaposition,” writes Lauder in the book’s foreword. “The very word, Auschwitz, conjures up images of emaciated souls, starved, tortured and murdered.”

Yet food is often what people remember best from childhood. Through food, people open up and become more comfortable. It is a recipe book, sure, but even more so it’s a historical document. It may be impossible to reproduce the towns, villages and synagogues of Eastern Europe, but through recipes, those memories return.

It is ultimately about survival. “The cookbook is a symbol of hope, not just death. We remember, we’ll continue, and we will celebrate,” says Friedman. “It’s a book of liberation.”

Tova Friedman's carrot tzimmes recipe

“In a displaced persons camp in Germany my mother began to cook from what she remembered. One of the things that I remember more than anything else was her tzimmes because it contained sugar; it was sweet. It was like eating dessert. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I remember this exceptionally well. For Shabbos, she would make the tzimmes. It’s a stewed carrot dish that is traditionally served with the Rosh Hashanah meal, when it is customary to eat sweet foods for the new year.”

Carrot tzimmes - Ellen Silverman
Carrot tzimmes - Ellen Silverman

Serves

6

Ingredients

  • 1.2kg carrots, cleaned, peeled and sliced into 1.5cm discs

  • 170g honey

  • 2 tbsp brown sugar

  • 2½ tbsp vegetable oil

  • 60g white or golden raisins

  • 60g pitted prunes

  • ½ lemon rind, grated

  • ½ tsp grated fresh ginger

Method

  1. Set up a steamer basket over a pot of simmering water. Add the carrots and steam for 15 minutes. Remove the steamer basket from the pot, drain all but 120ml of the steaming water and transfer the carrots to the pot. Turn the heat to medium and add the honey, brown sugar and oil and cook until the liquid thickens and glazes the carrots, about 20 minutes.

  2. Add the raisins, prunes, lemon rind and ginger and stir well. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is almost dry.

Honey Cake & Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors, by Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, edited by Maria Zaleska (Melcher Media, £31.99) is out now