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Survivors share memories — and recipes — that sustained them

A story for Mother’s Day


Bronia Furst of Linden was only 9 when she was separated from her parents in her native Poland and sent to a concentration camp in the Ukraine.

“We slept on the floor, and every morning I would see dead people all around me,” she recalled. “Anyone who was left alive got schlepped around to different camps in the Ukraine. I don’t even remember all of them.”

Furst’s story has a surprise ending, as chronicled along with 129 other narratives in “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook,” first published in 2007 and now in its fifth printing. The book includes 250 family recipes alongside the stories of survival — many of them depicting courageous acts by the survivor’s mother.

After liberation by the Russians, at age 12, Bronia was shipped to an orphanage in Odessa. “That orphanage was worse than the concentration camp — just terrible,” she said. In January of 1946, a Jewish army officer came there to claim a girl he had hoped was his daughter. “I fit her description and I was from his hometown,” she said. Both knew immediately that Bronia was not his daughter, but she begged him in Yiddish to take her anyway. The next morning, he returned to claim her, took her to the train station, put her on a train to Poland, and disappeared.

“The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” editor Joanne Caras, center, with, from left, son Mickey, husband Harvey, son Yonatan, and daughter-in-law Sarah (holding Zahava), presenting a display check for $100,000 to Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen.

“I was two weeks on the train,” said Furst. “The goyim used to come on the train and see a little girl by herself, and they would give me cheese, a piece of bread, an apple. So I wasn’t hungry, just dirty.”

Finally arriving in her hometown, Bronia went over to a woman at a kiosk and asked to be directed to the Jewish market. “I had never been there, but I remembered hearing about it,” she said. “The lady told me it no longer existed. But she asked my family name, and she said that she knew my aunt was still alive. She took me home, fed me, washed me, and put me to sleep.”

The next day, the kind woman brought the “aunt” to see Bronia. In fact, it was her mother. Yet thrilled as she was, she initially was hesitant to stay.

“My mother was remarried and I didn’t want to have a stepfather,” Furst explained. “I was ready to run away. But my stepfather was a very, very good man. He had lost his wife and children, so he was a very good dad to me. He legally adopted me. When he passed away, I sat shiva.”

The reconstituted family first went to Israel, where Bronia later married. They all came to live in Linden in 1959. Her mother, who died at age 70, passed down her recipes including two that are in the book — one for apple cake and another for rugelach.

“I still have nightmares,” said Furst, whose husband died 11 years ago. “I am twice a survivor, once from concentration camps and once from cancer. And I thank God for every day that I can get up and be useful. If somebody needs help, I am there for them.”

Joanne Caras of Florida, editor of “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook,” told The Jewish Standard about another of her favorite submissions, from Ruth Steinfeld of Texas. “When she was very young, her mother was taken away to a concentration camp. She doesn’t remember her mother’s face. The only thing Ruth remembers about her mother is the smell of her chicken soup. She said that even today, when she makes the soup, the smell makes her feel like her mother is in the kitchen with her. This chicken soup recipe is in our cookbook.”

Caras also shared the story contributed by Desiree Kate of Ohio. “She told us about her mother, Ruth Gans Mayer. When Ruth was in the concentration camp, she was selected for the gas chamber. But her mother switched places with her, choosing death in order to preserve the life of her daughter. And in spite of the tragedy she suffered as a child, Ruth’s motto was ‘Cherish the sweet things that life gives you.’ We have recipes for sweet treats from Ruth in our cookbook.”

It is fitting that the book itself was a project of a mother, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law. The concept grew out of a visit by Caras and Teaneck resident Gisela Zerykier to their children soon after the newlyweds moved to Israel in 2005. Sarah Zerykier Caras took the moms along when she volunteered at Carmei Ha’ir (City Gardens), a Jerusalem soup kitchen that serves about 500 meals each day.

“They both were really impressed because it looks like a restaurant and people are served with the dignity of paying customers,” Sarah Caras said.

Bronia (Netzler) Furst and Abraham Furst at their wedding party.

Sarah and her husband, Yonatan, mentioned to their mothers that they were thinking about compiling a cookbook. That summer, Zerykier’s mother died and she sent her loved ones an e-mail describing her Belgian mother’s Holocaust survival story. When Joanne Caras read it, a light bulb went off in her head: She suggested to her son and daughter-in-law that together they edit a cookbook in memory of Sarah’s “Oma” and other survivors, donating all proceeds to Carmei Ha’ir.

“Yonatan made a Website [] where people could submit stories and recipes, and it was publicized through word of mouth, newspaper articles, and radio and TV interviews with my mother-in-law and me,” said Sarah Caras. “Everything was for tzedakah, so we had no advertising budget.”

The stories poured in from Argentina, Australia, China, England, Sweden, and the United States — from every continent except Antarctica. “We’re working on that one,” Sarah Caras said with a laugh. The first edition came out in 2007. “Every time there’s a new printing, we rededicate the book to those who have passed away” since the previous edition.

Joanne Caras reported that some 28,000 cookbooks have so far been sold. “As of Jan. 10,” she noted, “our family has donated $100,000 to Carmei Ha’ir. In addition, we have also raised over $400,000 for Jewish charities” by partnering with them to sell the book.

“It’s mostly being bought in the States,” said her daughter-in-law. “But there has been a large demand for it lately in England. My mother-in-law is planning to go there for a week in June to do speaking tours. The book has also made its way to Australia and South Africa.”

She reflected that growing up in local institutions such as The Moriah School of Englewood and Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron instilled in her an awareness of the power of charitable endeavors. “There were always huge tzedakah projects going on at school and shul,” she said. “From an early age, mitzvah work was part of my world.”

In northern New Jersey, the book may be obtained directly from the Zerykiers at (201) 862-0868.

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