Like many Americans before her, Sandy Lee stumbled into culinary nirvana while living abroad in Europe. But while most people return home raving about the spectacular cheese or wine or charcuterie, Lee fell in love with a cookie. The particular object of her fascination was lebkuchen—a complexly spiced cousin to gingerbread that is ubiquitous in Christmas markets across Germany.
Lee, a New Yorker who works in the world of advertising and finance but has a penchant for passion projects, first tasted the cookie while living in Berlin. “It was such a magical combination of flavors,” she said, speaking of lebkuchen’s ginger, cardamom, and cloves, its rich nuttiness, and candied citrus peel. “I kept going back and trying different kinds, and I got a little obsessed.” After discovering that lebkuchen are all-but-impossible to find in New York, she started to make them at home. Never mind that she had no German background and had never been much of a baker—she was on a mission.
Her deep dive into lebkuchen resulted in an impressive collection of vintage cookie tins and 19th-century German baking trade manuals, and a year’s worth of trial-and-error attempts to re-create the cookie she loved. “I would travel to Nuremberg to try every type of lebkuchen I could find, remember what I liked best, and reverse-engineer the recipe based on the ingredient lists,” she said. Lee’s research began as a personal quest but soon morphed into a business. In 2011, Lee launched Leckerlee, a boutique business that sells an authentic (and very delicious) take on classic lebkuchen throughout the Christmas season.
Through founding Leckerlee, Lee also tapped into an unexpected, and rather astonishing, side story. It turns out, her beloved Christmas cookie played an instrumental role in the survival of two families of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Shortly after launching Leckerlee, Lee was contacted by a man named Bill Freund. Freund, now 90, is the former chief economist of the New York Stock Exchange and a retired economics professor. But he is also, as he told Lee over the phone, the author of a 2011 children’s book called The Cookie That Saved My Family. In 1937, his family left Nuremberg and the escalating persecution that Jews were facing there. In the weeks before their departure, his mother, Paula, whom Freund described as “a marvelous baker,” persuaded a local pastry chef to teach her how to make traditional lebkuchen—a recipe that tends to be closely guarded by those lucky enough to know it.
“Nuremberg is the lebkuchen capital of the world,” Freund told me. “And she was thinking of ways to make a living in our new home.” Although he was just a child at the time, Freund has distinct memories of the baker coming to his house to instruct his mother on which spices to use and how to properly form and glaze the cookies.
Upon arriving in Manhattan, Freund’s parents took menial jobs to scrape by. But in 1939, when WWII broke out and German goods could no longer be imported to the United States, they started a bakery called Paula’s Lebkuchen in their Washington Heights neighborhood. Open from Labor Day through January, they sold the Christmas cookies and other turnovers to the neighborhood’s heavily German immigrant population.
Meanwhile, 10 miles away and across the East River, another Jewish lebkuchen story unfolded in Jackson Heights, Queens. In 1939, Ed Klugman said goodbye to his parents and his hometown of Nuremberg and boarded a kindertransport train to England. It would be one of the last before the war began. As he left, his parents gave him a book of recipes with the urgent instruction to keep it safe until the family could be reunited in the United States. The book, which came from a high-end pastry shop, was fat and heavy, filled with detailed illustrations for decorating pastries and cakes—and a recipe for lebkuchen. Klugman’s father was in the liquor business in Nuremberg but, like Freund’s mother, had researched other possible professions to pursue in America.
“I’m not sure how my parents originally got the recipe book, but it was a wise move,” Klugman, 91 and a retired professor of early childhood development, said. “It would become the backbone of my father’s new career in the United States.” Indeed, the Klugman family, who reunited in New York in 1940, would eventually open the Liberty Brand Cookie Company in Jackson Heights, a bakery that specialized in lebkuchen and other high-end cookies.
According to Luisa Weiss, a Berlin-based food writer and author of the recently published cookbook Classic German Baking, lebkuchen is a blanket German term for gingerbread, encompassing “multiple dozens” of spiced and honeyed cookies baked during the Christmas season. They date back to the 13th century, where they originated in German monasteries. As Gil Marks wrote in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the monks often “maintained not only baking ovens, but also apiaries and orchards, which provided honey and walnuts” for baked goods.
The most renowned variety, and the one that Lee re-creates at Leckerlee, is Elisenlebkuchen from Nuremberg—a dense, chewy pastry made primarily from almond paste and ground hazelnuts, studded with candied orange and citron peel, and covered with a thin sugar or velvety chocolate glaze. They are baked on top of small, edible wafers called oblaten, Weiss told me, which helps keep the batter from spreading in the oven. Oblaten are very similar in shape and composition to the communion wafers used in Catholic services. Freund told me that after World War II began, the oblaten his family had imported from Holland became unavailable. “We went to a Catholic Church and asked where they got their wafer from,” he told me. “They pointed us to a manufacturer in Chicago.” Problem solved.
There is no denying that lebkuchen are a Christmas specialty. But they were also enjoyed in Germany’s Jewish communities. According to Marks, Jewish families began baking different varieties lebkuchen as early as the 15th century, preparing them at home so as to avoid the monasteries. “Its pareve nature made it ideal for meat occasions,” he wrote. The cookie was served on Rosh Hashanah because of the honey it contained, and also during Hanukkah since it was Christmas-adjacent. The earliest Jewish American cookbooks, from Aunt Babette’s Cook Book to The Settlement Cook Book (both written by German-Jewish immigrants) contained recipes for lebkuchen.
For decades, when neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were home to sizable German immigrant populations, lebkuchen were widely available. Today, imported versions (and also Lee’s lebkuchen) are sold at a few specialty shops like Schaller & Weber. But without Lee’s renewed enthusiasm for the cookie, they would have been essentially lost to New York history. Meanwhile, without Lee, Freund and Klugman would never have connected. Despite their geographical proximity and parallel histories, Freund and Klugman had never heard of one another, nor of their competing businesses, until Lee connected them over the phone. “What amazes me is how well we were both able to fare, despite the odds,” Klugman told me. “I’m grateful.”
Two Jewish boys from Nuremberg, two recipes for lebkuchen shuttled across the Atlantic Ocean, two unlikely stories of survival. You might just call it a Christmas miracle.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.