One of the most powerful displays at Auschwitz, and one of its most sickening, is a darkened room piled to the ceiling with human hair. Behind an expanse of glass is nearly two tons of it, some of it still in braids — all of it shorn from an estimated 140,000 women killed in the camp’s gas chambers. (We also see how the hair was used in industrial-grade carpet and upholstery.) Some in our group leave in tears; others wonder how much more they can take.
After being shaken to the core by viewing a manmade mountain of hair, then rafter-high piles of vitally important prosthetic legs, favorite shoes and cherished family suitcases, the raw emotion I’ve desperately tried to keep in check unravels in an adjacent room. I’m at a small display most visitors probably overlook, especially while grappling with the preceding gut-wrenching exhibits. It’s probably my passion for cooking and sharing food, however, that allows the glint of cooking utensils to catch my eye. I survey a mix of well-loved pieces confiscated from prisoners upon their arrival. (Sadly, within hours, many of those people, if not most of them, would be gone forever.)
What would the owners of these wares have cooked for comfort, had they been able to? Had any of these items belonged to their mothers or grandmothers? When forced from their homes, why did they choose to pack cookware while scrambling to take only their most valuable possessions?I’m reminded of something I learned during our visit to the women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. To survive at least emotionally, if not physically, many of the imprisoned women talked at length about what they’d cook once returning home, or what they wished their mothers could make for them. Some prepared imaginary meals for each other. Others shared recipes. Since they weren’t allowed to write anything down, survivors say they memorized them. A few risked being beaten or killed by writing the recipes on scraps of paper before hiding them.
Some Holocaust survivors, such Regina Finer (imprisoned at Majdanek), have written cookbooks. Home cooking is “that thread that can take you from tragedy to triumph,” Finer said shortly after her book was published. Savoring her family’s food in her mind during life’s darkest hours, “was comforting and nourishing and nurturing. And that was the place that was the happiest.”
May we be forever blessed with such food for the soul.