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Holocaust survivors share their love of food and life

June Feiss Hersh

June Feiss Hersh

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June Feiss Hersh signs Recipes
Remembered: A Celebration of Survival

7:45 p.m. Monday, March 5

Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Ave., Highland Park

Admission $10

(847) 266-0770

Updated: March 1, 2012 12:26PM

June Feiss Hersh found herself at a crossroads four years ago and decided to write a book.

She discovered her “bashert,” which in Yiddish means her destiny, and partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, to tell the stories of 80 Holocaust survivors in their words and through their food memories in Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, which after four printings since last spring, has generated in excess of $140,000 for the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the survivors.

She will visit Highland Park next week to share the life-affirming stories of these survivors and the 175 recipes they shared with her celebrating the rich history of food from Poland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Greece.

“Everyone who reads this book is forever changed,” Hersh said. “The lesson of this book is as survivors, we are greatly affected by luck and fate but we have to do something good with the lives we are given. Every person who reads this book will be affected by the stories and realize they have to do more with the life they have.

“These people were given two lives: the life they were born into and the life of surviving the Holocaust,” Hersh added. “They were given a new life and have an obligation to make a good life and they say it doesn’t pay to be bitter.”

Doing good

Writing this book was a life-changing experience for Hersh. She was helping sell the family business, Murray Feiss Lighting, when her sister, Andrea, said, “We did well, now let’s do good.”

As a big supporter of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Hersh began interviewing members of the museum and writing down their stories and the recipes they remembered from their family. She enrolled in culinary classes and watched the Food Network 24/7, as she tested each and every one of the recipes in her home kitchen for a year.

She reached out to other cookbook authors and professional chefs, and connected with Chicago celebrity pastry chef and Tru partner Gale Gand, who contributed a recipe from her mother.

She also met Jennifer Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen, who she discovered lived just across Central Park from her in New York. They began cooking together and Hersh began talking about her unwed daughter, Jennifer, now 30, and wish for a son-and-law. Abadi introduced Jennifer to her half-brother, Seth Goldman, who went on to date Jennifer for two years and will marry her June 9.

“It was bashert — meant to be,” Hersh said. “I was meant to write this book, and meet Jennifer and all of these incredible Holocaust survivors. The book is a celebration. We’re not only honoring the past of this community, we celebrate the fact these people survived, brought with them stories and recipes. We gave life to the stories and a legacy to the recipes.”

Hersh discovered that food was the way many of these Holocaust survivors kept their connection to the family and friends they lost during the Holocaust. Many of the survivors she interviewed were children during the Holocaust and many of them lost parents. Now ages 75 to 90, they try to reconnect with the past through their cooking.

“Food memory is so potent, they didn’t remember how to prepare the dishes but they remembered what they ate and what their mother’s specialties were,” Hersh said. “One survivor told me, ‘I cook like this because it brings me closer to my mother.’”

It was often a challenge for Hersh to recreate those dishes in her own kitchen. She anticipated getting their stories would be the most difficult in her book writing, however, it was quite the opposite.

“It was easy to listen to them tell their stories, vivid clarity and detail, with them the night they were ushered into the ghetto and the day they were liberated,” Hersh said. “Their recipes, not so much.”

Most of the survivors gave her a concept and a vague family recipe of a “pinch of this, a handful of that,” and a broad selection of ingredients.

Hearty food

“I would go home and start cooking on the day I was given that recipe while the nuances were clear in my mind,” Hersh said. She would often have to call back for clarifications and start over until she got the texture and the taste right, realizing cooking is not only an art, but a science. She did this for a year until her husband, Ron, said, “Sweetheart, we’ve been eating like 85-year-old Polish peasants.’”

But from this experience, she has gained a collection of recipes she now uses in her own home, especially Gand’s short ribs that she makes for every holiday, to the barbecue brisket and the lentil soup she describes as “easy, fast, cheap, comforting, nourishing and wonderful with a modern edge to it.”

But her favorite recipe in the book is the Polish apple cake.

“It reminds me of my grandmother who died with that recipe,” Hersh said, who discovered the recipe from a friend of a Polish Holocaust survivor then served it to her own mother, who passed during the writing of her book. “My mother said, ‘this is my mother’s apple cake.’”

All of the recipes in the book are kosher, Hersh said, and although she doesn’t keep kosher at home, she did it out of respect for the survivor community. But writing these recipes led to her next book, The Kosher Carnivore: The Ultimate Meat and Poultry Cookbook, a how-to on preparing kosher meat, recently published by St. Martin’s Press.

Her next project currently underway is Simple, Simpler and Simplest, a cookbook that takes one central theme and ingredient, and demonstrates to the home cook how to prepare it on three different levels. She hopes proceeds will benefit the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation. Her daughter, Allison, 32, and photographer for her book, was recently diagnosed with dystonia, a movement disorder.

“I write cookbooks with a charitable flavor,” Hersh said, “eating well and doing good.”

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