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Dreaming of dumplings in the camps: The forgotten culture of Czech Jewry



Dreaming of dumplings in the camps: The forgotten culture of Czech Jewry

At age 91, veteran writer and translator Ruth Bondy is publishing a book about the lost prewar culture and cuisine.

Nov. 1, 2014 | 10:00 AM
Ruth Bondy
Ruth Bondy. Photo by Dan Perez
Illustration from “Not Just Kafka and the Golem,” by Jiri Sliva
Illustration from “Not Just Kafka and the Golem,” by Jiri Sliva.
Illustrations from “Not Just Kafka and the Golem,” by Jiri Sliva
Illustration from “Not Just Kafka and the Golem,” by Jiri Sliva.
Ruth Bondy’s fifth-floor apartment in Ramat Gan offers a fine view of that city and the green treetops. Underneath the large window, stretching the length of the wall, is a low stand packed with dozens of flowering plants.

“I didn’t put up curtains, because I wanted my plants to have sunlight,” says the slender 91-year-old, adding with a sly grin, “If the money runs out, I’ll start growing marijuana. I’d be good at it, I have a green thumb. Have you seen the movie ‘Saving Grace’?”

Then she graciously submits to having her portrait taken, muttering her displeasure all the while (“I hate having my picture taken. You won’t be getting any Bar Refaeli in these shots. And I’ve never liked those confessionals in the press: ‘I was so-and-so’s lover.’ Or, ‘I had a deprived childhood’”).

“Unlike writing, cooking doesn’t tolerate humor,” Bondy writes in her new book, “Not Just Kafka and the Golem” (Hargol-Modan Press; in Hebrew), referring to the need to be methodical, and for precise measurements in the kitchen.

Barely a word comes from the mouth or the pen of this lovely and refined woman – one of the last champions of understatement in a world that sanctifies the sensationalist and extroverted – that isn’t tinged with modesty and clever, dry humor, whether the subject is food, history, culture or literature. The latest book by the award-winning author, journalist and translator combines all of these realms, and more, with personal memories. It is a condensed version of four slim volumes published between 2003 and 2010 in the Czech Republic, where she was born.

“After the 1989 revolution, I used to travel to Prague twice a year,” she says. “I hadn’t been there in 40 years. I swore that as long as the communists were in power I wouldn’t set foot there. The first time I went back, it was a shock. I found a neglected and filthy city. Plaster was peeling from the houses, historic buildings had been replaced with traffic circles. I don’t know why the communists were so disdainful of the aesthetic aspect of things. The people, who were dressed in rags, had nothing. After years of rationing and long lines, the salespeople in the shops acted like they were doing you a big favor if they very rudely sold you something. I brought coffee and toilet paper to friends and family there each time.

“It was hard to go back to a Prague without Jews,” adds Bondy, who was born in the city in 1923. She was deported in 1942 to the Theresienstadt ghetto/ concentration camp, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to labor camps in Hamburg and eventually to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“I returned to the city after the liberation of the camps, but even 40 years later, it was hard. The Czechs had already forgotten who’d been living among them for a thousand years, and even though the Jewish quarter had been preserved, the Czechs themselves didn’t know anything about the Jews, aside from Kafka and the Golem. In the 1990s, the Franz Kafka Press published all the writings of Karel Polacek – the Czech-Jewish writer who was murdered at Auschwitz had written 20 volumes’ worth of letters to his beloved – and they were filled with Jewish expressions.

“The Jews in Czechoslovakia didn’t speak Yiddish: They had had a language that was close to Yiddish but unique to them; only the oldest generation still knew it. Most Czech Jews did not survive the Holocaust, and the few who remained under communist regime rule forgot their special language. So I wrote a little book of words from the Czech-Jewish dialect. It ended up being a big success, and so they wanted more.”

After her first book, she wrote three more, also in Czech; now all have been collected in “Not Just Kafka and the Golem.” The second was about the origins of Czech-Jewish names. The third, about the connections between the Jewish faith and the Jewish kitchen, and the fourth offered a comparison between the Czechs and the Jews during the prewar years, and also looked at the lives of Czech-born Jews in Israel.

“In Israel, too, no one knows anything about the Czech Jews,” says Bondy. “It’s a small group: There wasn’t a massive aliyah [immigration to Israel] as there was from Russia, Romania or Morocco. Also, they developed a reputation for being a bit ‘square.’ Very law-abiding and so on. So I decided to publish my new book in Hebrew. I rewrote it. I didn’t translate the original Czech version, because it had to be written differently for Israelis. It’s tedious for me to translate my own work, and I had to condense it: There it was four books and here it’s just one.”

Bread at Passover

The forgotten culinary culture of Czech Jewry, about which Bondy writes in a beautiful chapter, is just one element in the comprehensive picture painted by her in the new book, touching on various aspects of the daily lives of Jews in the country.

“Growing up, food wasn’t something that was glorified in our house,” she recalls. “There was just one rule: Whatever is on your plate, you must eat. If you didn’t finish your food at lunchtime, you got it again in the evening. My mother always said: ‘Who will marry you? You don’t know how to cook, you don’t like to help with housework, and you’re just reading all the time.’

“Nowadays, mothers are proud to have daughters who are readers, but back then it was just the opposite. The important thing was for a woman to be able to cook and take care of the house. I was a failure at such manual work.”

Bondy herself grew up in a secular household: “My father was an atheist. In the early 20th century, there were observant Jewish communities in the small towns and villages of Czechoslovakia, but in Prague there were very few Orthodox families. The Czechs are a secular people, much more so than the Poles or the Slovaks. The communal priest had little influence, dating back to the time when [the 14th-century Czech priest and philosopher] Jan Hus proclaimed that each person could speak directly with his Creator, with no need for a mediator. The Jews adapted themselves to their surroundings and became secular too. In our family, we didn’t observe the holidays. Only my maternal grandparents did.

“The first time I took part in a real Passover seder was in Haifa, after I made aliyah ... Except for my grandfather, no one knew Hebrew. Kafka also described the boredom that overcame his family, who didn’t know Hebrew, while the Haggadah was being read. But at our house, we were also eating bread with butter and cheese every night of Passover.”

But in looking back, Bondy doesn’t give in to easy nostalgia or attempt to prettify reality: “It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times, or the happiest of times, it just seemed more secure, more permanent, it didn’t require continuous coping,” she wrote in her autobiography “Whole Fragments” (Gvanim Press, 1997; in Hebrew), while describing picturesque scenes from her hometown.

Bondy became interested in cooking gradually, at first because of the circumstances: “After the German occupation, the schools and universities were closed to Jews, and the community held vocational retraining courses. I did one in childcare, but the only job opening in a Jewish day-care center was for a cook. They might has well have been seeking a ballet dancer, for all I had to offer, but the director said she’d teach me. That’s where I began to cook, even if it was mostly oatmeal. Later on, I went to a camp run by the Zionist youth movement Hano’ar Hatziyoni not far from Prague. The boys were sent out to the fields and the girls were automatically sent to do the laundry and the cooking.

Bondy: “In the ghetto and the camps, there were two schools of thought: Among the young folks, it was forbidden to talk about food. The older women, housewives, would sit there peeling half-rotten potatoes and talk about mushrooms in cream or dumplings in butter, and argue about various recipes written down on little slips of paper. For us, that just exacerbated our hunger, and it was better not to talk about food at all. Amazingly, and in contrast to other Holocaust survivors, I wasn’t left that traumatized by the hunger. But like most of them I [still] can’t bear to see food thrown away, or food left on the plate. I am also quite sure I’ve fasted enough for this lifetime, so I won’t ever do it again.”

No chef’s restaurants

After arriving in the nascent State of Israel in December, 1948, Bondy became a pioneering woman journalist who would go on to write a regular column for the weekend magazine of the Davar newspaper, and become famous for her participation in the radio satirical program “Three in a Boat.”

“Gardening and cooking were pleasant breaks from the exhausting work of writing a weekly column,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a reporter, but women weren’t field reporters then. They wrote about music and art, or had special pieces devoted to household matters. At one point, in addition to my regular work, I had a column called ‘Not for Women Only.’ After I got married and started having people over, I genuinely enjoyed preparing meals for 18.”

In the late 1960s, for two years, Bondy did restaurant reviews for Davar: “This was a brand new thing in Israel. I chose where to go, mostly according to what the budget would permit. I didn’t go to any fancy chef’s restaurants. I’m not somebody who writes withering criticism either. Now, when I watch chefs on TV making a face at people who have worked so hard to prepare dishes, I feel so sorry for the people who are putting in such a big effort.”

Bondy explains that she had a cookbook in Czech that a friend sent her, and “it was my bible.” She says she promised her daughter Tali, her only child from her marriage to journalist Rafi Bashan, that when she got married, Ruth would write about the culinary heritage of the women in the family.

“Tali turned 27, 28, 30 … and hadn’t found a groom,” says her mother, unable to conceal her pleasure in telling this story behind her usual poker face. “As soon as I finished writing the book, she got married. Although she later ended up getting divorced.”

“The Taste of Life,” published in Hebrew in 1985 by Daniela Di-Nur Press, documents Bondy’s home cooking methods and provides recipes, and like each of her books, contains anecdotes that shed light on her own life history.
 
“It’s the only book that really earned me any money,” says Bondy, who has authored or translated dozens of books throughout her career. “How did it begin? I’d written two biographies. I spent three or four years working on each of them, and earned about two or three months worth of pay. I went to my publisher, Ehud Zmora, and asked how this was possible. He said: You want money? You have to write about dogs, sex or cooking. I can’t write about dogs. When Lucky the family dog died, I cried so much I almost caused a car accident. It’s too late for sex; but cooking I can still write about.”

‘Grandma’s food’

“One can say ‘I love soup’ in any language,” Bondy writes in her new book, “but only in Czech can one proclaim ja jsem polivkovy – ‘I am a soup-lover’ (like myself!). The image of the soup-lover isn’t especially flattering: He’s seen as a bit old-fashioned, a bit meek, someone who tends to lag behind the times, and even if he doesn’t, he’s definitely not driving a Jaguar; meat-lovers are more sure of themselves, more assertive. Soup-lovers tend to make do with little.”

The day we visited her, Bondy was making pea soup for dinner that evening with her daughter and two grandchildren. Other family members were preparing the rest of the menu.

“It’s hard for me to cook these days,” says Bondy, who now uses a walker, “because you need both hands for the work, and it’s hard for me. But Tali and the grandchildren wanted Grandma’s food, so I’m trying. I really miss cooking. The last year has been hard. It started during a trip to the Czech Republic with the family, where I had to go to the hospital due to stomach pains, and ended up with a hospital stay of nearly a year. The worst thing is something called ‘geriatric rehab,’ which makes you lose the will to live. I’m really not spoiled, but it was so strict there ...
 
“They try to encourage conversation among the patients. But nobody’s exactly discussing Spinoza. All the talk is about operations and grandchildren and hospital food, which is a terrible punishment in itself. Just being back home is enough to make you feel almost well. When I left the hospital, they made me get help 24 hours a day, but to Tali’s dismay, I got rid of her pretty quickly. I’m not used to having someone in the house with me, and she wasn’t a good cook either.”

The woman who introduced my generation to “The Good Soldier Schweik” and many other glorious Czech characters in books that she translated or wrote no longer feels the need to recall much of what she etched in our minds.

“There’s one thing I learned relatively early in life – to put a period on things. You can’t go back, and not just back home. You can’t, and you shouldn’t,” Bondy wrote in “Whole Fragments,” her autobiography. She doesn’t go back and read things she wrote or translated.

Currently, Bondy is working on a book about Czech-Jewish humor (“It’s going a little slowly because of my physical ailments, but I already have close to 60 pages. I regret that I haven’t been able to go to Prague to do research there”).

“Just to be able to breathe,” she replies with a shrug, almost angrily, when I asked her what she would request for her last meal on earth.

Secrets from the Czech-Jewish kitchen

Challah – Czech Jews called theirs challah barches (like brachot, “blessings,” in Hebrew). The Shabbat challah was always braided, never square or round – except for in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, when they were rounded, to symbolize a circle that has no beginning and no end, for good luck. The challahs for a wedding or circumcision ceremony were extra-large, made with a rich dough with egg yolks and raisins, and topped with crushed almonds.

Pnitzel – Toasted bread dipped in beer (the name comes from the Latin word panis, meaning bread). In the Middle Ages, Jews in southern France ate bread dipped in wine. Adapting that habit to their surroundings, Czech Jews replaced the wine with beer. Stale bread was dried out on the stove or in the oven, and then dipped in cold beer before being eaten.

Scholet – This Czech-Jewish dish did not bear much resemblance to the more common versions of cholent we see today. Its main ingredients were rice or pearl barley, peas, goose legs, garlic, pepper and a clear broth made from goose bones and vegetables, sometimes with the addition of eggs still in their shell. What this and many other cholents do have in common is that they were traditionally prepared on Friday morning, brought to a bakery for slow cooking and then kept under a down comforter or in a special padded container. In Prague, it was the job of a scholitsetzer to collect the pots from the busy women, mark them with chalk, add as much water as needed, and then arrange the pots in the oven. Professional expertise was required to make the best use of all available space and to ensure that the pyramid of pots didn’t topple over.

Golden soup (goldene yoich in Yiddish) – Jewish chicken soup, the best remedy for whatever ails you. New mothers and the sick in Jewish Prague were given this soup as medicine. Indeed, among the many famed local charities was the Chicken Distributors Association, which was legally registered in 1910. Its members dedicated themselves to bringing chicken soup to the infirm. The organization continued to function until the time of the Nazi occupation. It was also customary for young couples at their wedding banquets to eat this soup together out of one bowl. The round globules of fat that floated on top were said to herald a life of happiness.
 
(Definitions adapted from “Not Just Kafka and the Golem,” by Ruth Bondy. Translated from the Hebrew by Anne Pace.)

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