“Just before his sixth birthday, Eugene Ginter was liberated from Auschwitz,” the photographer Ellen Silverman tells me. He was moved to a Jewish orphanage, and his mother found him after hearing about a boy with red hair. By the time they reunited, he was emaciated and had trouble eating, so his mother created a special recipe for him.
It’s a memory that’s stayed with Eugene Ginter throughout his life, as he moved with his family from Czechoslovakia to Austria and finally to the United States, where he became a mechanical engineer. Honey Cake & Latkes is an ode to the many dishes that survived the unthinkable, the people who made them, and the memories and dreams they carried.
Rachel Roth, who was imprisoned in Majdanek, used to share stories about Friday night dinners, as the other women listened, remembered, and imagined. Benjamin Lesser remembers making compote with the fruits from his grandfather’s orchard in Munkatch, Hungary, as a child; now, he lives in Los Vegas, and he makes his compote with fresh pears from his garden. Anneliese Nossbaum left her waffle recipe tied to her will with ribbon so that her children would always have it. And Marion Wiesel shares Elie Weisel’s latke recipe.
Silverman, who is passionate about food photography, spent several days with five of the survivors in the photo studio, watching them make their recipes from scratch. “One of the most astonishing revelations of the survivors’ stories is that they often talked about food in the camps, which seems counterintuitive while being systematically starved,” she reflects.
“Sharing recipes and recounting meals was a way to keep people connected to their families and loved ones. After the war, preparing favorite dishes helped to keep alive memories of those who perished and served as a bridge that connected and bonded the new generation to the old.” We asked her to tell us more about what it meant to help to bring this book to life.
Can you tell us about the in-studio food photography sessions you did with the survivors?
“At one of our pre-production meetings, I asked Maria Zalewska, the Executive Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and the project’s editor, if she thought it would be possible to have some of the survivors come to the studio during the shoot so we could photograph them preparing their recipes.
“This was a difficult ask as it was during the height of the pandemic. It turned out, though, that five childhood survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, all between the ages of 82 and 93, were eager to come to the studio to work with us during two of our shoot days.
“The most difficult part of photographing them was having to concentrate on shooting while listening to them share their stories. There were several moments where I caught myself looking through my lens with tear-filled eyes. Poignant stories were interspersed with many moments of laughter. It was an honor to have them as our guests and hear their stories. Some even brought family photos to share with us.
“They were fascinated by the process of taking the photos. ‘All these people in the kitchen just to take pictures of us making matzoh balls,’ wondered one survivor. At the end of the shoot, I showed them the photos; they loved seeing the results and, of course, all had opinions about which photos were best. One noticed red lipstick on her teeth and asked for a reshoot. No need, I told her, promising I could easily remove the lipstick in retouching.
“Despite feeling weak from chemotherapy, another survivor, a Romanian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz at age fifteen along with several family members (miraculously, eight of his eleven siblings survived), still cooked two dishes during his shoot. With a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, he joked with me as I photographed him making his mother’s stuffed cabbage and shlishkes recipes.
“Sadly, he passed away before the publication of the book. His wife told me that she was able to show him the PDF of the book before he died. He was delighted to see his photos and happy to know that his story and family recipes will continue to be shared.”
You went to a gathering in October 2021 with some of the survivors who contributed to the book. What was it like to be there?
“The publication of the book was celebrated at a gathering that was simultaneously celebratory and emotional in the elegant wood-paneled dining room of Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. Waiters passed trays of hors d’oeuvres filled with offerings from the book: potato latkes, eggplant salad, rugelach, and other favorite recipes, as survivors, family members, friends, and press began to fill the room.
“I felt humbled to be in this room and grateful to have had the opportunity to tell a part of these survivors’ stories by memorializing some of their memories of family through their treasured recipes and by photographing some of them making the recipes they had shared.
Although it may seem at odds with the experience of the holocaust to write a cookbook, as Ronald Lauder said, ‘this book is a story of hope and triumph of the human spirit.’
“Maria Zalewska added, ‘More than a cookbook what you are holding in your hands is a collection of heirloom recipes that convey survivors’ stories through the mnemonic lens of cooking and food.’
“For so many of us, just a bite or the aroma that a specific dish releases conjures a flood of memories of family, friends, home, and celebrations. Standing in this room amongst all of these people here to applaud the publication of Honey Cakes and Latkes reinforced the fact that this book is much more than a cookbook. It is a collection of the individual memories of survivors, brought to life to be shared with future generations.
“There are two things that I will always carry with me from this project: the experience of meeting and photographing the five survivors who came to the studio was so powerful and touching, and then being together again to celebrate the launch of the book.
“For me, this book is the most important book that I have photographed. It goes well beyond being simply a book of recipes. Rather, it is a book that honors and preserves the lives of those who were lost in the holocaust and is ultimately a celebration of life and triumph for those who survived under a system determined to destroy them.”
Can you tell us a bit about the art direction for the food photography? Why did you choose the photograph the dishes the way you did?
“I approached each shot as if I were taking a portrait with the focus being solely on revealing the character of the food. I was guided by Maria’s vision for the book that the food photographs look modern without a trace of the old world, they should be ‘clean,’ which meant keeping things minimal—a surface, plate, and perhaps a utensil so that the food would be the focus.
“She directed us to keep the backgrounds cool and neutral in color and to avoid any props that would suggest nostalgia. This presented a unique challenge as these Eastern European recipes for the most part are lacking color. What at first seemed a challenge, came together as a stunning collection of photographs, a perfect compliment to the design of the book.”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
“There is an excellent quote from Tova Friedman,* one of the survivors who was at our shoot, that I wanted to mention: ‘Food is home and if you talk about it the smell comes back to you and home comes back.’ I think this is the essence of the survivors’ relationship between food, home, and memory. It really encapsulates everything I was trying to say.
There is a word, commensal, which has a scientific meaning but also a social one. The derivation is Latin for ‘coming together at the table.’ When we come together at the table to share food, all of life flows from this spot—it truly is where we share everything, from the mundane parts of our days to the big things that are happening in our lives.
“Stories get passed down through recipes—whether you are cooking with an older family member who is teaching you a family recipe that they ate as a child or whether you have been forced from your home and your country and have had to leave with only what you can carry. You always carry your food traditions and your recipes, which you can recreate wherever you go. They will always bring you back home, hopefully to the sweetness left behind and not the trauma.”
*“By the way, since the book was published, Tova Friedman’s grandson has helped to turn her into a TikTok sensation. She has over 8.9 million followers, and she is also a working therapist! “
**Book credits: Chris Steighner, editor at MELCHER Media, and Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation executive director Maria Zalewska. Food Stylist: Christine Albano. Prop Stylist: Suzie Myers.