A year ago in a footnote, where all good stories at university must of course start, I stumbled across a rather obscure cookbook.
‘In Memory’s Kitchen’ arrived the next day, recipes and the memories of days gone by spilled out of the pages. Chocolate cakes, strudels, pierogi… stuffed eggs?! It was an eclectic mix to be sure, collected by one woman, sourced from the women around her.
I decided that for the next year in the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January I would make as many of her recipes as I could. Holocaust Memorial Day takes place each year on 27 January, this year marking 78 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The theme this year is ‘Ordinary People’, highlighting the ordinary people who let genocide happen, the ordinary people who actively perpetrated genocide, and the ordinary people who were persecuted. In making these recipes and sharing them with those around me we could come together to remember one ordinary woman and the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Mina Pächter was a Czech Jewish woman born in Frauenberg to Heinrich and Anna Stern on 16 June 1872. She lived in Bodenbach, south of Prague, with her husband Adolf. They were fairly well off as Adolf owned a button factory. They had two children together, Heinz and Anna, and she cared for the children from his previous marriages as well. She enjoyed collecting art and antiques, which when Adolf died in 1915 she turned into a profession. She loved opera, especially Wagner, and she played the piano, although not well. When the region was occupied by the Nazis in 1939, Mina and her family fled to Prague, thinking they would be safer there. She was deported to Theresienstadt on 16th July 1942. She lived in room L/403 on the main street. By October she had narrowly escaped deportation to the death camp Treblinka in occupied Poland.
During this time she worked with other women in the small and overcrowded room to collect recipes on scraps of paper which were then sewn together. It is easy to imagine these women arguing over the best recipe and the correct ingredients, passionate about the recipes they were to pass on that had once been passed on to them by their mothers. They called it “cooking with the mouth”, surviving on less than the minimum required calories a day, these women and everyone else in Theresienstadt and ghettos and camps like it, were obsessed with food.
I felt instantly that I knew these women, I think of cooking with my own mother, her teaching me her favourite recipes, of how she refuses to measure anything. I think of the times spent laughing while cooking in the tiny kitchen of my flat with friends, arguing over what order to put ingredients in and how much. It is familiar to me. It is home.
Despite everything that was going on around them, through the creation of this book they managed to hold on to this part of themselves. Variously described as evidence, resistance, testimony, even untouchable, Mina’s collection seems to divide opinion. In making some of her recipes I have sought instead to bring people together. It is no one of these things, it is all of them. It is possible to simultaneously see the toll of the ghetto in the missing ingredients and incorrect recipes, as well as an attempt to carve out individuality.
These women’s memories are stored within these pages, if it is evidence, it is evidence of ordinary acts of community, love, and family. What should have been an ordinary act had become an extraordinary one. Nothing of them was meant to remain but they demonstrated an exceptional will to maintain their humanity and culture, leaving a powerful legacy behind with us.
Mina sadly fell ill in 1943 and died a year later in hospital on Yom Kippur in 1944.
Mina was an ordinary person. Mother. Antique collector. Piano player. Cook. Resistor.