On the face of it, the notion of a cookbook compiled by women bound for Auschwitz sounds macabre at the very least. In fact the ghetto where the authors of this book were interned on their way to that death camp was uniquely horrific: A decoy for Red Cross observers, Terezín was home to 144,000 "prominents"—Jewish painters, writers, performers and intellectuals. Behind its civilized facade, they lived in conditions so brutal that 33,000 people never made it to Auschwitz, some 40 miles away.
Astonishingly, Terezín's captives established a vital intellectual climate. They gave lectures, staged operas and educated children who were destined for the gas chamber. Mina Pächter, a grandmother and art historian, did her part by preserving shards of their domestic tradition. Famished, she and her friends talked obsessively about food—arguing about the proper way to make a Schnecken or a Linzer torte.
As a legacy for her daughter Anny Stern (then living in Palestine), Pächter set down family recipes and urged others to do the same. Written in faint script on scraps bound with thread, the sketchy directions for Central European dishes including cherry-plum dumplings and goose neck stuffed with farina ("a good supper," noted the author) were smuggled out before malnutrition claimed Pächter in 1944.
Twenty-five years later they reached Anny through a series of caretakers and, last year, found a publisher. The work of women whose memories were distorted by starvation, the book born in Terezín is both intimate and disturbing—a poignant reminder of a lost world and a spirit that refused to die. (Aronson, $25)