It’s hard to know how to react when a friend presents you with a rare copy of what could be translated as The Theresienstadt Cookbook. I have a whole wall of books about Nazis and the Holocaust, but few, if any, had heretofore contained recipes.
My friend works for the branch of the Austrian government which returns the Nazi gold, and has the words “Victims of National Socialism” in German in her job title, so I know she will not find my joy at receiving this gift ghoulish. But still, when I return home, I don’t know know where to put it. In the Jewish Interest/Nazis corner of the library, or on the wall dedicated to books about food. With Anne Frank, or Anna Del Conte?
I eventually opt for storing it my larder, along with my stockpile of tinned confit canard, jars of morcilla, brined and salted olives of several varieties, and other European delicacies that will get me through the long, cold, hungry gap of our so-called lives in post-Brexit Britain. I also have 20 pats of Président demi sel beurre in the freezer, but that’s a frivolous and optimistic gesture towards there still being electricity and a roof over my head. Stockpiling is something my family takes very seriously. We’ve been preparing fo the worst since a particularly brutal expulsion from Strasbourg in 1349, but I’m pretty sure there are some tinned items in my grandmother’s larder that go back to the Exodus, which is generally agreed by historians to have taken place in the 13th century BCE.
My grandmother learnt how to cook in the municipal kitchens of the kibbutz where she lived and worked in the 1950s, and where she wold have regular fights with Holocaust survivors who had developed very funny ideas about food. The job of the cooks was to consolidate the kibbutzniks’ rations, turn them into communal meals. The elderly Hungarian woman who ran the kitchen had known suffering and starvation on an industrial scale, meted out as policy like watered down soup. She had worked in the concentration camp’s kitchen too, an unwilling pawn in the systematic starvation of her fellow internees. Day after day she would be force to dole out the meagre provisions - just enough, barely enough, to keep people alive. Enough to torture people with their own survival. Imagine being given the task of feeding people and always leaving them hungry. And less than a decade later, in another encampment, in another land, one can forgive this woman’s transgressions. Her well-intentioned force-feeding of any child that crossed her path. The surreptitious sneaking of meat paste sandwiches to anyone who passed through the kitchen.
My grandmother, then a twenty-two year old Eastender, learned to make do with less, and how to swear in Hungarian. She learned how to hide food and feed your loved ones whenever and whatever you could. She learned how to feed an entire camp full of your kinfolk on six tins of food a day, like a daily miracle of loaves and fishes.
Now in her 90s and back in East London, she has three chest freezers full of homemade meals and cakes. Her bedroom cupboards contains jars of jam and gravy, as though Ocado and Deliveroo to not serve the E18 postcode. As thought the supply lines could be cut at any time. As though it could turn out that your money’s no good, your papers no longer valid. As though the big shops no longer let you in, and small shop windows had been reduced to a thousand shards of broken glass.
I used to laugh at my grandmother, as I sat plump and privileged and surrounded by plenty. But the call to stockpile awakens an epigenetic twitch and I too am laying down the conserves for leaner seasons to come.
In 1947 my grandmother, Janetta, then a teenager, and her two friends Esther and Zelda, ran away from East London to join the Movement. Hubonim was a radical socialist Zionist movement, determined to live equally, communally, and to make the desert flow with milk and honey. Whether they were radicalised or radicalised themselves, who knows, but the girls had a very jolly time running around the countryside learning how to milk cows and work agricultural machinery, before jumping on a slow boat to Haifa.
Janette was British by an accident of birth. Her parents were Russian. Her brother was born in Canada and was raised in Palestine, where Janetta was supposed to be born. But the family ended up, temporarily, repeatedly, in London, and that is where my grandmother was born.
In 2015, Shamima Begum and two friends, all fifteen year-old girls, also from East London, ran away to follow their friend Sharmeena to join Islamic State. Despite the utter failure of the parents, school and local authority to safeguard these children from grooming, coercion, criminal conspiracy, not a single grown up has been charged with a crime, nor a serious case review been initiated into these failings. A few weeks ago, now aged 19, pregnant with her third child (the firs two sadly lost), turns up in a refugee camp in Sky, where she gives an interview to journalist saying how she would like to come home now please. The home office responded swiftly by withdrawing this British-born teenager’s UK Citizenship.
There are laws to protect us from terrorists. The laws designed to keep us safe did not keep her safe. The laws designed to keep us safe should not endanger someone else.
One makes assumptions about the place one is born and raised. One assumes a sense of belonging, identity, rights and privileges. The Jews of Europe have long known that these privileges can be be revoked at short notice, and that it’s a mistake to make yourself too much at home. My family’s stories of sewing jewellery into the lining of a coat and accepting an invitation to the next place before being deported from the last, are so numerous and varied that they merge and blur at the edges. We think we’re sitting pretty in London (Amsterdam, Strasbourg, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Odessa), we think we own property, we think our passports are good and our money is better, and our skin at least looks white. We learn to travel light.
The Windrush Generation were invited here and held our broken city and broken society together as we tried to rebuild the country after the war. They were invited. They were given citizenship. They lived and worked to a ripe old age, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath to reveal the shifting sands of the Great British Welcome. An invitation revoked as easily and informally as it was given.
A lot of us - the Windrush Generation, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, the EU citizens living and working and marrying and procreating in multicultural Remainiac London, thought we were on terra firma. We thought the Little Englanders and the Neo-nazis and the Good Old Boys were a dying breed, limping their way over the White Cliffs of Dover. But now a teenager is exiled for her dodgy politics, now a university in Essex decides that a J-Soc is beyond the pale, now the Labour party decides it doesn’t have a antisemitism problem because antisemitism isn’t a problem, now an elderly Jamaican woman is denied paliative care because not all is in order with her papers. The Hostile Environment now extends to people who thought surely, surely they don’t mean us.
My father always told me, when making friends, consider who would hide you in their attic. He’s something of a catastrophist. Last Christmas he bought me a tool, a weapon really, to keep in the glove compartment that would allow me to break my way out of the burning and upturned remains of my car, in the event of an emergency. One time were were holidaying the path of a hurricane and he built us a little panic room in a closet, filled with enough American candy to either survive the disaster or at least die happy. But I do look at my friends, my colleagues, my neighbours. I wonder who would make the space, take the risk, share the meagre stockpile of tins and biscuits and Normandy butter. I wonder how they voted, and what that means for us.
2 large cabbage heads
2 kilograms onion
2 kilograms green tomatoes
11 green peppers cut into thin strips
Mix with 40 decagrams salt.
Pour vegetables into a sack and let it hang over night and drain. Then squeeze the vegetables, put them into a bowl and pour 3 litres of boiling vinegar [over them]. After 6 hours strain the vinegar and squeeze vegetables. Mix them with 6 tablespoons mustard seeds and 1 tablespoon pounded allspice. In the meantime the vinegar has been boiled with 1/2 litre water and 1/2 kilogram sugar, and [when] cooled [is] mixed with vegetables. Put into jars. Cover and tie them and let them stand. Can be used after 1 month. Salad will keep for 3 years.