Essay

The kindness of strangers

Creating connections with a vanished past

FOR ALL HER long life, Baba Schwartz baked two yeast cakes every Friday: one laced with chocolate and nuts, the other with poppyseeds and apricot jam. She was a stellar baker. Home – in Hungary, rural Victoria or Melbourne – was the smell of her Sabbath cakes baking.

In Sydney, Eva Grinston baked her grandmother’s favourite, a flourless chocolate, walnut and sour cherry cake, for the birthday of every child and, later, grandchild. This Slovakian specialty sat on the table along with fairy bread and chocolate crackles and now no family celebration is complete without it.

Both women were survivors of the Holocaust in Europe during World War II. Both arrived in Australia around 1950. Both worked, hard, to build new lives. They did not know each other, but met through the pages of my book, Just Add Love: Holocaust Survivors Share Their Stories and Recipes (Nero, 2019). This book is a collection of cooking secrets from the experts, women who cooked all their long lives – but, most importantly, it offers a masterclass in resilience.

Many women arrived here with only the clothes on their backs and the recipes inside their heads. Cooking again, having a kitchen in which to cook, was a sign of rebuilding; cooking the dishes they knew from home was a comfort and a pleasure, and a way to retain some European identity. You anchored your new family in the tastes of your old home.

And for those who didn’t have even a single photo of their family, the smell and the taste of this food was memory.

 

EVA GRINSTON IS a great cook and the mother of one of my closest friends. For years, I had watched her cooking from a battered old handwritten cookbook.

It turned out to be a book with a story.

Towards the end of the war, Eva was a prisoner in Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people were killed. Most of them were Jews, among them a quarter of a million children. They included Eva’s little sister, Vera, who was murdered on arrival aged thirteen. Her mother and aunt also died there. Eva survived because she was needed as a slave labourer. By the end of the war, she was an ill, emaciated sixteen-­year-­old. When the Red Army liberated the camp in May 1945, Eva was close to death from typhus. Soviet doctors nursed her back to health.

Months later when she was well enough to return to Bratislava, she visited her old home but found little that remained to remind her of her family – until, in the cellar, she discovered a box. In it was her grandmother’s cookbook.

That was the book I saw in Eva’s kitchen.

It was the book she had been cooking from ever since, keeping alive the tastes of that vanished world for her grandchildren. ‘I want to them to know there’s a link to Europe in our family and that it was beautiful while it lasted,’ Eva told me, as she baked a savoury cheese and caraway pastry called pogasca.

 

I MET BABA Schwartz while researching Just Add Love. Then in her eighties, she was radiant, and had the ability to see right through to the heart of any issue. She welcomed me warmly and agreed to share her story.

She described a happy childhood in the town of Nyírbátor in rural Hungary. She was sixteen when the Nazis invaded in spring 1944. Almost immediately, rumours spread that they planned to deport the town’s Jews, and people began burying their valuables for safekeeping.

Baba’s mother, Boeske, packed some family treasures into a wooden crate, including their silverware and that essential of Hungarian cooking, a tub of goose fat. At night, they dug a hole in a neighbour’s garden. To Baba, it was ‘a grave, and what was being buried was the life we had lived in Nyírbátor up until April 1944’.

The family was transported to Auschwitz one month later. Baba believed her father was murdered soon after arrival. Her account of seeing him for the last time was searing. By then the Nazis were running a well-­oiled genocidal machine, and killed some 400,000 Hungarian Jews in a matter of months. But, with the tide of the war turning against Germany, the need for labour overcame ideology. Work before genocide. After a couple of months, Boeske and her three teenage daughters were moved out of Auschwitz and put to work digging ditches in the snow. It was backbreaking labour, but at least it removed them from the ravenous gas chambers and ovens of the death camp.

When Baba, her mother and sisters returned home after the war, they found only around one in ten of Nyírbátor’s Jews had survived. They dug up the crate they’d buried to find most of their possessions had been damaged by rain. ‘They were symbolic of our lives after the Holocaust: damaged and, in certain respects, unable to be repaired,’ as Baba said.

 

BY THE MID-­1950s, Australia had accepted more than 30,000 Holocaust survivors, the highest number per capita of any country outside of Israel. Being Jewish was initially seen as an obstacle under the White Australia policy. But the need to ‘populate or perish’ cleared the way. Australia decided to accept these immigrants because they were European. We are markedly less generous to refugees now, when the majority are from Asia or the Middle East.

These survivors brought with them a weight of suffering that was incomprehensible, including to those within their own community. Later in life, this was how Baba Schwartz described her grief: ‘It’s a permanent partner, by now fossilised into me. It became a big, big stone inside me. We are the ones who suffer for the crimes of others.’ Along with that ‘stone’, they brought energy, determination and what the French politician and Auschwitz survivor Simone Weil called a ‘rage to live’. I would also add a rage to love.

 

BABA SCHWARTZ’S HUSBAND, Andor – known to everyone as Bandy – was also Hungarian, and the sole survivor from his large family.

Their youngest son, Danny Schwartz, remembers knowing about his parents’ wartime experiences from an early age. ‘Our household was devastated by the Holocaust,’ he said. ‘I remember my father waking up and saying, “I dreamt about my mother and father last night, I dreamt about my sister last night.” It was a constant in our lives.’

He could see that his popular, successful father was often depressed. ‘We weren’t really allowed to celebrate when good things happened. Even birthday parties were small. My father would say, “How can we celebrate, after the losses we’ve suffered?”’ said Danny.

Many Holocaust survivors were over-­protective of their children, not allowing them to participate in ordinary activities such as learning to ski or skate or even to swim or ride a bike. Danny said that was not the case in his family. ‘No, my parents didn’t stop us, they wanted us to be strong and resilient. My father wanted strong young men who could survive if it happened again.’ He says Baba’s energy and happiness balanced their father’s sorrow. ‘My parents were a great team. Mum’s heart and love and Dad’s strength made us a powerful unit.’

 

POSTWAR REFUGEES WERE intent on escaping Europe, but paradoxically, they carried it with them as well. European attitudes, sensibilities and tastes, and, of course, food.

Given our present-­day foodie culture, even in COVID-­19-­constrained days, it’s hard to imagine the regimented, white-­bread, 6-­pm closing, sealed-­shut-­on-­the-­weekends Australia of the 1950s. Jewish refugees who missed European café society set up restaurants that revolutionised the Australian food scene. Goldies in Melbourne and Old Vienna in Brisbane soon became institutions, frequented by artists and politicians. Sydney’s Café 21 was set up in 1958 by Hungarian survivor John Schiffer, who couldn’t understand why there weren’t more sidewalk cafés in a city with such a good climate. He imported one of the first Italian espresso machines and served ‘European’ coffee. His restaurant is still in the same spot, management taken up first by his son and now by his grandson. It’s famed for its longevity, rude service and cream-cheese pancakes.

The postwar refugees were intensely patriotic about their new country. More than one woman I interviewed used the words ‘love affair’ to describe her relationship with Australia. Safety was paired with beauty – a heady mix.

‘I arrived on Australia Day 1950 and I loved everything, from the first moment. The light, the warmth. I came on a Friday and had a job on Monday,’ recalled Eva Grinston. Now aged ninety, she still walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge every year as a celebration. She described her Australia Day walk in 2014 as special. ‘That year, as every year, I marvelled at the beauty of Sydney, thanked Australia for having opened its arms to me,’ Eva said. She became aware of two women wearing headscarves approaching in the opposite direction, pushing prams.

On impulse, Eva stopped to chat with the young Muslim women, who told her they’d been in Australia for eight months. ‘Your English is very good, better than mine was years ago, when I arrived here,’ Eva said. ‘I’m sorry that I stopped your walk, you see, it’s a special day for me, the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney from Europe more than sixty years ago. I would like to hope that you will come to love this place as much as I do.’

When Eva stretched out her hand to say goodbye, she instead received a kiss on each cheek, accompanied by a thank you whispered in her ear.

 

THERE HAVE BEEN other rewards too. These refugees passed on their drive and energy to their children, who flourished in peaceful, prosperous Australia, becoming successful in a variety of fields.

The authors Elliot Perlman, Lily Brett and Arnold Zable; NSW judges Jim Spigelman and Andrew Rogers; politicians Josh Frydenberg and Mark Dreyfus QC; Westfield founder Frank Lowy; Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; diabetes researcher Paul Zimmet; science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki; public intellectual Robert Manne; actor Anna Volska; jazz singer Renée Geyer (named after the woman who helped save her mother’s life in Auschwitz); painter Judy Cassab; publisher Morry Schwartz and his brother, entrepreneur Alan Schwartz, who heads Philanthropy Australia (two of the three sons of Baba Schwartz); Booktopia founder and CEO Tony Nash; Seafolly swimwear founder Peter Halas: all are Holocaust survivors or their descendants. Some escaped before the war, lucky to receive visas to Australia, saving them from the fates of family members left behind in Europe.

Despite their successful integration, some émigré high-­flyers found themselves professionally stifled in their new country. Austrian-­born architect Harry Seidler fled to England as a teenager in 1938, and arrived in Sydney ten years later. His Bauhaus-­inspired work changed the face of the city, particularly through the creation of Australia Square and the MLC Centre, and he led protests to keep Danish architect Jørn Utzon working on the Sydney Opera House. But in Australia, Seidler couldn’t always follow his own vision wherever it led. In the 1990s, he was invited back to Vienna to design a pioneering social housing project. That design was a vision in many ways too radical for Australia at the time – perhaps, given that it included waterfront social housing, it will always be too radical for Sydney.

Now, long after the end of World War II, a small number of the children of Holocaust survivors have returned more permanently to Europe. These include artistic enfant terrible Barrie Kosky, who worked first in Vienna before moving to Berlin, where he is artistic director of the Komische Oper. He has staged works by controversial German composer and renowned anti-­Semite Richard Wagner. Kosky admits to running away from Melbourne. ‘I used to tell my parents I was born in the wrong place. I can’t stand Melbourne,’ he said in a profile in The Monthly in 2010, ‘and I’ll never live there again.’ As an artist, Kosky said, he pursued ecstasy – sensual, sexual and musical. Where could he fit in casual Australia? Plus, he hated sport.

Game over.

 

MOST CHILDREN OF survivors couldn’t think of visiting their European homelands until the 1990s, partly because of a deep ambivalence about returning to ‘that Jewish graveyard’, as energetic centenarian and Auschwitz survivor Eddie Jaku has described Europe, but also because it was almost impossible to do so. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and many other states were behind the Iron Curtain. Only after communism fell in 1989 was a return possible.

These visits were often fraught, with present-­day residents refusing to let people into their old homes or, worse, recognising them and bringing out their grandparents’ possessions, which felt almost taunting.

Jewish Australians residing in Europe since have relished the opportunity to do what their grandparents couldn’t: to live, work and breathe there freely. Until the appearance of the coronavirus, which means that for the moment, few people can do that anymore, anywhere. Many of their descendants looked to the remaining Holocaust survivors for inspiration on how to endure the pandemic. Some of the advice given was practical, including what to store in your pantry for home cooking during a lockdown. Other advice delivered a dose of reality from more terrible times. ‘You’re home? Do you have a blanket? Do you have anything to eat? Nobody is hitting you? So, it’s not bad,’ said eighty-­seven-­year-­old Buchenwald survivor Naftali Pirsek, with the mixture of scolding and love characteristic of this generation. ‘We are all in the same place and meanwhile we are not hungry, we are not cold and we are not facing extermination. So be optimistic and everything will work out.’

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