The story of every Holocaust survivor deserves to be told and as the years go by, the urgency to record these memories increases. Forgetfulness is the enemy of history, as Jews well know. To the chain of Holocaust memory, Alex Sternberg has added the story of his parents, Olga and Marton, honoring a promise to his mother that he would write about her youth in Hungary, her experiences in Auschwitz and Ravensbrück and her postwar life. His father is also from Hungary, so Sternberg weaves their stories together, and through the family’s journey, offers insights into the Hungarian Jewish community before, during, and after its destruction.
The author utilizes the recipes of his mother as a touchstone for her life story. To help endure their suffering, the women in the barracks at Auschwitz spoke repeatedly about the food they used to prepare, discussed recipes, and argued about the ways certain dishes were made. Olga mostly listened, at the same time memorizing their recipes. After the war, she wrote them down, calling them her “Auschwitz Recipes.”
Born in 1911, Olga grew up in the town of Dombóvár, which had a Jewish community of about 800 families. It was an emancipated, assimilated community, proudly Hungarian, yet with a life that was centered around the synagogue. Marton came from a very different background, born in 1907 in a rural village where the Jewish community was composed of Hasidic rebbes and their followers. When they married after the war, they brought those backgrounds with them, along with their Holocaust experiences. Furthermore, while Olga was taken to Auschwitz a single woman, Marton had a wife and a young son, both of whom were murdered there.
The “two lost souls,” as their son calls them, married and settled in the town of Pápa, determined to rebuild their lives. Yet forgetting was not possible, and at the dinner table, especially at the Friday night Shabbos table, “all conversations inevitably led to Auschwitz.” He adds that, “I digested my meals together with the stories of my parents’ painful memories.”
Likely for this reason, the author has found it difficult to leave anything out; cutting or at least shortening some of the more tangential material might have sharpened the focus of the story. The book also contains some grammatical errors, incorrect word usages, and spelling inconsistencies, which detract from the content.
Overall, however, the book is a valuable contribution to the Holocaust record and serves as a fulfillment of the author’s commitment to preserve his parents’ memories.