Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yom Hashoah

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. While people in Israel had a two minute moment of silence in which everything stopped and people in Poland took part in The Walk of the Living, I had lunch with a friend and discussed going into debt by a hundred thousand to get a degree in law. Oh privileged American me.

In the last post I mentioned that my grandmother is illiterate. It is because of the war that she never went to school. She went into hiding when she was nine years old and stayed with Christian friends of her mother's. My great-grandmother owned a restaurant in what is now Vilnius Lithuania, and so she knew a lot of people in the area and they agreed to take her children into hiding. She had eight children: four boys and four girls. The oldest boy was already married when the war started, but he married an Christian woman. Believe it or not, her family sold him to the Nazis. By some miracle, he was the only one in my grandma's family that didn't survive. She never refers to him by his name, she only calls him "My brother who the Germans kill," anytime she wants to mention him.

The family that my grandma stayed with kicked her out one night because they became too afraid. She was 11 and walking the streets at night alone trying to avoid soldiers. Someone recognized her and brought her to the area where my grandfather was hiding. He decided he couldn't trust the people his children were with so he managed to gather everyone up and hitched a ride on a carriage with farmers going to the area that is now Latvia. There were farmers there that helped the Jews dig underground hiding holes and that is where my grandma lived for a few years until the war was over. They were starving. When the Russians and the Americans came they helped the people living in these situations, but they took my great grandparents and two of my grandma's brothers away into urgent care because of severe malnutrition. My grandma and her siblings went straight into child labor because if they didn't they would still have nothing to eat and no where to go. She said that she remembered going to an office every single day asking if she could help them somehow and they kept telling her to go away and that she was just a child but she still showed up everyday and would beg them to give her a job and eventually they did.

When she was 17 my grandfather to be asked my grandmother's parents if he could take her out for a walk. She didn't want to go with him and her parent's thought that she had somehow flirted with this man so they locked her up in their home and smacked her across the face for nothing. When she saw him the next time she was out she said "Go away!" But, he didn't. He came over to their home several times and brought my great-grandparents food and money and clothes and told them his story of the war.

He felt that he knew what was coming with the Nazis and tried to convince his family to run for it but they thought it would blow over and that everything would be fine. He didn't listen to them and instead fled to Russia where they imprisoned him for trespassing for the duration of the war. When he returned to Poland he found out that his entire family was shot right outside their home and thrown into mass graves. Their homes were looted by the neighbors and he was completely alone. He had no choice but to move again and since he had a marketable skill being a baker, he managed to work and save money and help take care of my grandma's family once he met them. And so he received my great grandparent's blessing and when my grandma was 18 and my grandpa was 30 they were married.

My grandfather felt that they should try and do everything possible to live in Jewish neighborhoods and work for Jewish people. This took them on quite a lot of moving trips. They lived in Russia where my mom and uncle where born, and then to Poland where my mom and uncle started school and then to Israel where they spent years and never wanted to leave. My grandfather felt that America was the next place to be, especially since my mom would finish high school soon and then have to go into the army. My grandma wanted to go to the States for the financial gain, but my mom and uncle were afraid and had finally mastered a language and stayed in one place for a long time. My mom wanted to go to the army because that is just what you do there, but he did not want them to know war and moved the family to the Chicago where they are now. My grandma speaks four languages fluently but can not read or write in any of them because there was never any time. My grandfather spoke seven languages but lost the use of Yiddish and Lithuanian so didn't pass those on to my mom. He never wanted to speak a word in German again so that one was lost as well. He died when my mom was pregnant with me. He had asked her to name me after one of his sisters who was killed, but she thought it was to sad and couldn't do it. She wanted to name me Aviva which means the Spring in Hebrew.

My grandmother's siblings had their own way of fighting/avoiding anti-Semitism. They married Christians and didn't tell their children that they were Jews. My mom even has a second cousin that is in seminary school in Poland. So technically, I am the only Jew left to carry anything on in my family. It's true that my mom married a Catholic; a Roman Catholic no less, but my dad doesn't care about religion and the only thing I learned about his religion is that they eat pork and we don't. (until now) The only thing my mom really cares about in Judaism now is the food and the major holidays anyway, so here we are.

Bringing all this back to food and cooking, the point is that my grandma's recipes and memories are all in her head. She has no journal, no cookbook, and nothing of my grandfather's that I can pass on except what she tells me. I can write it down but it might not work out and so I have to try and try and try to get it right. I can try to tell you her story but it won't ever do it justice. Memory is everything.

When I was a kid I used to see people where I lived that had the concentration camp numbers on their arm. I saw it every week. Skokie, IL had the largest population of Holocaust survivors for a time and it was just something you would see. I learned what it was when I was like six or something. I asked my mom why Grandma didn't have one and her response was, "Because she was lucky."

A few years ago when I was waiting tables in Evanston, IL I saw the numbers on a man's arm. It had been years since I had seen one and I was a little taken aback. I couldn't believe how I had forgotten how prevalent it was in the area and it really made me think that someday you won't see any. If I have children they won't see one. It will be something that is read about in a history book and that will be all.

Because I have been thinking of my grandma and of these events yesterday I made her favorite pastry. Her favorite also happens to be my favorite: Napoleon. It's so simple, so perfect. I honor my Grandma today with this pastry because for a woman who was starving and had only squirrels and potatoes to eat for years, she really loves food and deserves to know that I can make her a Napoleon when I come to visit.


1) whisk together until smooth:
4-5 egg yolks (room temperature)
1-1 and a half cups sugar
1 cup flour
2 cups room temperature whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

2) transfer to a sauce pot and warm on low heat mixing the whole time until thick, use a wooden spoon

3) cut a stick of butter into 5 or so pieces and slowly mix into the custard one piece at a time

4) bake puff pastry sheets (yes this is the easy way) and let cool

5) layer pastry with the custard.

6) cover and refrigerate overnight

7) sprinkle powdered sugar on top and enjoy

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