Starving and exhausted, Elena “Ica” Kalina and other women prisoners sent to a Nazi concentration camp often had whispered conversations about their favorite recipes to distract from the hunger and horror around them. Many women would die, but Kalina created a tender tribute to honor them.
At night in the dark barracks, Kalina scribbled down their recipes with a stolen pencil and tiny pieces of paper. Tucked in a hidden pocket, the more than 600 recipes survived her liberation from the camp, her long trek to freedom, immigration to America, and the creation of a new home in Minnesota, where she prepared the foods as a personal tribute to those who would never taste them.
Now the recipes and their remarkable origins are being shared with the public as the world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp — where Kalina was confined the first two months of her captivity. In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Kalina’s daughter Eva Moreimi will share her mother’s story at Minnesota’s Holocaust remembrance event at Beth El Synagogue on Monday.
Some of the pastry recipes painstakingly recorded 75 years ago in those cold barracks will be served.
“These recipes were very precious to my mom,” said Moreimi, who penned her mother’s survival story in a new book, “Hidden Recipes.” “The women went through horrific times together. And they were there for each other.”
Moreimi hopes that sharing her mother’s experience will be a fresh reminder of the Holocaust’s devastation, especially to younger generations. Fewer than half of Americans know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.
Moreimi has donated the recipes to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where chief acquisitions curator Judith Cohen called the collection now available online “rare” and “poignant.”
“There are two things very significant,” Cohen said. “One is these women were facing near starvation, and they’re substituting real food with memories of food from before the war. There’s an incredible poignancy about that. Anything these women did to preserve their previous lives is so significant, as the Nazis tried to dehumanize people.”
Food a mere memory
In addition, Kalina’s papers reveal “a whole social network” of women that developed despite horrific conditions, Cohen said.
Preserving such collections is critical today, she said, as the world is losing Holocaust survivors at a rapid rate.
“It is the artifacts that survive to tell the story,” she said.
Kalina, known as Ica, lived in St. Louis Park with her husband, Ernest, for more than 35 years. They immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s following the Soviet invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia, where they had rebuilt their lives.
Theirs is among countless stories of Jewish suffering and survival during and after the Nazi regime. But Kalina had a tangible reminder that she carried to the future.
Moreimi recalled the tin box in her mother’s closet that held the fragile papers. The ingredients for sweet coffee cakes, tortes and cookies were typically written on the back of labels for ammunition and explosives, labels stolen from a factory where Kalina had worked.
“My mom would bake every week,” Moreimi said. “She’d spread some of the recipes out on the table, gently handling them.”
Because her mother tried to record the name of the woman who gave her the recipe, she’d often look up and talk about the person, Moreimi said. Her face would turn sad, because “it took her back to very painful times.”
Those painful times began in 1944, when Hungarian Jews were rounded up and sent to ghettos before being herded onto trains to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Kalina, her younger sister Babi and her parents arrived at Auschwitz in June 1944. Her parents were sent to the gas chambers immediately. Of the nearly 426,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz, about 320,000 met with the same swift fate, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The sisters were among the Jewish women later sent to a forced labor camp for a munitions factory in a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, Moreimi said. The women worked long hours in silence filling grenades and bombs with toxic explosives, watched by guards, trudging more than an hour each way to their barracks. Food was often grass soup, a sliver of hard bread.
Kalina, who spoke fluent German, had a little more freedom than most because she translated for the factory managers and had cleaning duties, Moreimi said. While cleaning, she stole a small pencil found on the floor as well as slips of paper from trash baskets.
It was a risk. But at night, Kalina — then known by her Hungarian maiden name, Ilona Kellner — was able to record her friends’ favorite foods. Some were family specialties, some from fancy restaurants. All seemed like a dream.
“It was a powerful survival tool,” Moreimi said. “It gave her hope that someday she would use them again.”
When Allied troops began closing in on the factory in March 1945, Nazi guards rounded up the workers. The women endured a two-week “death march” toward another concentration camp before the guards fled under pressure from Allied forces. The women — emaciated and exhausted — were free. And the recipes were intact.
Recipes from the past
Last week, Moreimi stood in the kitchen at Beth El Synagogue, preparing her third batch of “hidden recipes” for the Holocaust Remembrance Day event. She kneaded the yeasty dough that her mother had made hundreds of times before. She flattened it with a rolling pin, spread a thin layer of raspberry preserves on top, and then sprinkled ground walnuts over it. Then came another layer.
“This is a recipe from a famous pastry shop in Budapest,” she said, looking up from the pan. “It was well known.”
Her mother prepared such pastries for Shabbat dinners, bar mitzvahs and other family gatherings at her home in St. Louis Park, Moreimi said. The Kalinas moved here from Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, following Moreimi and her family.
Fluent in several languages, but not English, the couple took basic jobs — Ica Kalina in computer parts assembly and Ernest Kalina in wholesale books. They cherished being with their family, their grandchildren, and being able to practice their faith without fear, she said.
“They had a happy life,” said Moreimi, whose mother died in 2011 and father died in 2007.
She said she never intended to publish a book about her mother but felt compelled because of the rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
“Because of hatred, 6 million Jews died and many others perished,” she said. “This is my message. We can learn from the past. Kindness and compassion must win over hatred.”