The only person ever to admonish me to do something specific to “become a proper Jew” was my husband’s Aunt Rachel of Queens, New York. By then my conversion to Judaism was a few years old. Having moved from Germany, my husband Harry and I had made a nice Jewish life for ourselves as graduate students at the University of Chicago, replete with kosher kitchen and attending services at our local Hillel.
One afternoon in the summer of 1992 found Harry and me at Aunt Rachel’s dining room table. We were in New York to attend a friend’s wedding, and of course we had to visit Aunt Rachel and her husband, Uncle Max. Both had survived Auschwitz, and family was immensely important to them as they had so few relatives. Had we lived in New York, we would have had to spend every holiday with them.
While we sat at the table, Aunt Rachel shuttled to the kitchen, bearing Tupperware filled with tuna salad and plain romaine lettuce, aluminum pans with cold roasted chicken and gefilte fish.
“Here, Annette, have another piece of gefilte fish.”
I had already had one, and gefilte fish is not my favorite food. It is a staple of East European Jewish cooking; without gefilte fish, a holiday is not a holiday. Gefilte fish literally means “stuffed fish,” but what is meant is the stuffing itself, served cold as unassuming, palm-sized lumps of beige matter. This batch was too salty for my taste, and so I said, “No thanks, I already had one.”
Aunt Rachel thrust the Tupperware towards me, her dark eyes flaring up. “Come on, have another piece, you must learn to be a proper Jew!”
For a moment, her eyes, her outstretched arm with the tattooed number on it, and the Tupperware were suspended in dead silence. A look of horror passed over Max’s face, and before Harry could huff, and I could decide whether to be annoyed or amused, Max said to Rachel, “Let her be.”
He began to clear the table. Harry exhaled and said, “I don’t know how you stand it, Motl,” referring to Uncle Max by his Yiddish name.
In response, Uncle Max stopped behind Aunt Rachel, who was sitting down now, still chewing on that lettuce. He leaned over her to peer at Harry and said, “No one has suffered more than this woman has. It is unbelievable what she has suffered. It is unbelievable how she has managed to live her life.”
In the family rationale, Harry’s father hadn’t “suffered” because he had not been in the camps. At age 21 he had been put on a bike when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Slonim on the Russian/Polish border. His father told him to ride east into Russia and wait at a customer’s house. The family would follow by carriage and meet him there. But they never made it, and Harry’s father found himself alone in Russia. He joined the Red Army, which gladly accepted any able-bodied man.
Aunt Rachel, who was actually a first cousin, was the only one to survive of those who had remained in Slonim. She and Harry’s father were close; to each the other was the only one who knew what life in their small Jewish town, the shtetl of Slonim, had been like, who spoke the same kind of Yiddish, knew the same jokes, remembered that chickens were kept under the kitchen bench in winter, or ox skin tails should be saved for soup.
I always wondered about Uncle Max’s suffering—this slight man who was such a gentleman of the Old World, in his vest when the weather was cool, his shirts and his slacks, his hat and his tan overcoat. He always pulled out my chair before I sat down, helped me into my coat and held open the door. His past as a camp survivor was not talked about, at least not within the wider family, while Aunt Rachel’s was well-known. She suffered from epilepsy due to the head injuries she had sustained in Auschwitz. Anything, her son had warned me, could set her off—you might be in the subway with her, and suddenly she’d be writhing on the floor, and the screeching of the train would, for her, become the screams of torture victims. She’d be back in Auschwitz, crying for her younger sister, who had been torn from her by Dr. Mengele himself.
Ironically, the first time I met Aunt Rachel, she had taught me how to make gefilte fish “the American way.” Both Harry and his mother had insisted that Aunt Rachel should show me how to do this, and I still use her method to the critical acclaim of “proper Jews.”
It was the winter of 1988/89, and a good friend of mine from the university in Munich was in New York collecting oral history for her M.A. thesis. I went to visit her for a weekend. She was staying with her American boyfriend, who happened to live one block from Aunt Rachel and Uncle Max’s apartment in Queens. It, therefore, followed that I should spend Shabbat at Aunt Rachel’s.
In retrospect, I am astounded that I went by myself to meet Aunt Rachel for the first time, wholly unprepared for the ferocity of character I’d encounter. But I also had the power of the stranger then. Family is only dangerous if they know where your buttons are, if they know who you are. And Aunt Rachel had no idea who I was. She must have grilled Harry’s father before my visit, but given that he was one of the few people who could withstand her, and gossip wasn’t his style, he might not have let on much. He might just have said, “See for yourself.”
I showed up at Aunt Rachel and Uncle Max’s apartment early Friday afternoon, allowing enough time for her to show me how to prepare gefilte fish before Shabbat began.
The door opened to a small woman in a housecoat, who studied me with a mixture of suspicion and interest out of amazingly alive dark eyes. At least, I thought, I am not the typical blond German girl—although my eyes are blue, my hair is brown and wavy. When I introduced myself and extended my hand in greeting, she said, without smiling, “Come on, give me a hug, you are family now.”
I had to bend down to hug her. Her gray hair was dense and cropped short, and from her aquiline features I could see that she had been a beautiful woman.
“Come,” she waved me into the apartment. “Motl is still out.”
The hallway opened into an impeccable living room with plush ivory carpet, doilies spread on top of arm chairs, and porcelain bowls gleaming on a polished coffee table. I followed her into the kitchen, dragging my overnight bag. She opened a door into a small adjoining room. Harry had told me I’d be staying in that room because it had a fold-out couch and was the only extra space in the apartment.
“Here,” she said, “you will stay here. Put your bag down.” It was a charming room with two windows, bookshelves above the couch, and family photographs smiling from all corners.
She sat down on the couch and patted the cushion beside her.
“Come, sit. Tell me about yourself. What brings you to New York?”
“I’m visiting a friend who’s collecting oral history for her master’s thesis.”
“What oral history?”
“About the Upper East Side, the old German community.”
She frowned. “Where are you staying?”
“Her boyfriend lives around the corner from you.”
After some back and forth about my friend’s boyfriend and how he could possibly live so close without Aunt Rachel knowing him, I said, “Harry wanted you to show me how to make gefilte fish.”
“Yes, come,” she said, rising and walking into the kitchen. “We better get to it.”
“Here, do me a favor,” she said, pointing at a cabinet. “You’re tall. There are two jars of gefilte fish up there.”
I handed them down.
“Here,” she said, waving an apron at me. “Put this on.”
“What comes out of the jar is not edible,” she said, opening one of the jars of Manischewitz gefilte fish. She slid one beige wet lump out of the jar, teased a piece off with a fork and offered it to me. It didn’t taste fishy, only bland. Still, those lumps in that jar were a marvel of Jewish life in America. Prefabricated gefilte fish! No such thing was available to the small Jewish community in Munich where Harry had grown up.
At Harry’s instigation, his mother, Nana, had shown me how to make gefilte fish from scratch earlier that summer, before Harry and I had left for the U.S.
“I don’t think Annette will do what I have to do. They have better things in America,” Nana had said, but she had acquiesced to a day of making gefilte fish.
My gefilte fish session with Nana had begun with three beautiful blue carp, cooked whole in a big pot.
“Do you know the best part of the fish?” Nana had asked, balancing her cigarette on the rim of the ever-present ashtray. She was stocky and at 5’8” tall for her generation, and while she dressed elegantly when leaving the house, she wore what looked like cleaning lady dresses at home, made of polyester and featuring tiny geometric patterns.
“I do,” I had said, digging out the cheek from under one of the carp’s eyes with the tip of a knife. My Bohemian grandmother had taught me that. Nana was pleased.
With a butcher’s knife she chopped off the carps’ heads.
“The head comes off easier when the meat is cooked and soft,” she said. Their dead milky eyes stared at us.
At least the carp had been gutted by the fish monger. Nana and I skinned the fish, pried out the spine with as many rib bones attached as possible, and combed the gray meat for more bones.
Boiling the bones makes a broth, and when cooled this broth becomes the wiggly gelatin that the gefilte fish will sit in. We cooked the heads and skin and bones in a big pot of water for about an hour, then poured it through a sieve for the fish stock. We scrambled eggs, chopped onions, julienned carrots. We spooned chunks of carp into the meat grinder, seasoned the mush that oozed out with salt, black pepper, and paprika. We kneaded in the eggs and onions and added some matzo meal. Then we wet our hands so the mush wouldn’t stick, formed palm-sized lumps, dropped them into the roiling broth along with the carrots, and cooked it all for another hour and a half. Then we arranged the gefilte fish in a ceramic dish, strained the fish stock and poured it over them. This we placed in the fridge where the stock would jell and the gefilte fish would cool so they could be served cold. Then we rubbed our hands with lemon halves to kill the fish smell.
It is ironic that Harry’s mother, who had grown up in Paris and had never experienced shtetl life, taught me this shtetl way of cooking, and not Aunt Rachel, who came from the shtetl. While Nana and I were mushing and seasoning, adjusting the heat and watching the broth, I decided that if there were better things in America, I would not be grinding fish and kneading mush. The preparation time alone was stupendous to my 1980s get-things-done-in-one-swoop mind-set. I was used to preparing feasts for Thanksgiving and other parties, but that entailed fixing one dish after another, planning oven time so the roast could go in when the pie came out. It did not entail spending an entire day preparing one dish.
“See, this is what you do,” Aunt Rachel beckoned in her pristinely white, 1950s-style kitchen in Queens.
“Chop onions into big chunks,” she said, pushing three onions, a cutting board, and a knife my way. I sat at the Formica table and chopped. My eyes started cramping from the onions until they filled with tears and I couldn’t see anymore. I wanted to go on and not be a wimp, but I had to get up to stumble to the sink for some cold water. Only cold water would help now.
“The onions bother you?” Aunt Rachel said and I only nodded, wetting my hands and pressing my fingers against my burning eyeballs.
“Funny, that never bothers me,” she said. Of course not, I thought. Someone who’s gone through hell on Earth is not going to be bothered by onions.
I heard her run the faucet.
“Here,” she said, tugging my sleeve. She pressed a damp towel into my hand.
“Thanks,” I groped my way back to the table, sat down, and pressed the towel to my eyes. Slowly my eyeballs relaxed. The burning subsided. Aunt Rachel kept shuttling about and when I opened my eyes, the onions were gone, and a few carrots had been peeled and chopped.
“Come,” she said, motioning for me to join her by the stove. “Now all this gets cooked to make a broth.” The carrots tumbled into a big stock pot in which the onions already waited. As I looked on, she tossed in a few sprigs of parsley and dusted it all with black pepper, salt and a load of paprika. Then she rolled up her sleeves, grabbed the pot and held it under the faucet to fill it with water.
As she held the pot, I saw the number tattoo on her left forearm. I was surprised how blurry the numbers were. She must have felt my gaze because she said, “It doesn’t bother you to see the number?”
“No, of course not,” I said, embarrassed.
“You know,” she said, heaving the pot onto the stove, “some people had it taken off. But I will never take it off. People should see, you know?” She looked at me with a challenge in her eyes.
“We have to let it cook for a while,” she said as she ignited the blue flame under the pot.
“Do you know what this means?” she asked, rubbing the inverted dark blue triangle that was tattooed in front of the numbers.
I should, I thought, but I didn’t.
I shook my head.
“This was the sign for Jews,” she said. “They never finished it.”
I nodded again. Two triangles make a Star of David.
“Do you like salad?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Shall we have salad for Shabbes?”
I helped wash lettuce, chop radishes, and slice tomatoes. After a while, Aunt Rachel was ready for the next step in the preparation of gefilte fish. She pried the Manischewitz gefilte fish out of their jar, dropped them into the broth, and brought the whole thing to a boil again.
“Now it needs to simmer for a while and then it has to cool off,” she said. “We started too late, so they won’t be cool enough for Shabbos, but tomorrow they will be good.”
In the midst of our cooking, Harry called to wish a good Shabbos. The phone, mounted on the wall by the kitchen door, had an incredibly long cord. Aunt Rachel squeezed the receiver between ear and shoulder and talked to Harry while moving a pot of soup from the fridge to the stove. The cord swung behind her.
Then she said to Harry, “Talk to your wife,” and handed me the receiver.
“Hallo, wie geht’s dir?” I said before catching myself, wondering how Aunt Rachel might react if German were spoken in her kitchen.
Harry must have thought the same because he immediately said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to speak German?”
I eyed Aunt Rachel who was going about her business unperturbed. It was awkward to speak to Harry in English; German is our language together, so I decided to speak to him the way I always did.
“Ich glaube das ist OK,” I said. I think it is OK.
I leaned in the doorway while I talked to him, and after a while, Aunt Rachel sat down at the dining room table, which was in front of the door to the kitchen. She sat as if she were concentrating, listening intently.
When I hung up, she said, “What were you speaking?”
“Then why don’t I understand it?” She was asking herself more than she was asking me. I didn’t know what to answer.
“Were you speaking a dialect?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “High German. I don’t really know how to speak a dialect. I only know a little Bavarian.”
“Then why don’t I understand? I heard this for years.” She tugged at a pleat in the table cloth, smoothing it out.
“Maybe what I heard from the guards was just other things,” she said, getting up and scuttling by me into the kitchen.
How true, I thought. Concentration-camp guards certainly spoke of different things to the prisoners than a wife speaks to her husband. Especially guards who tried to beat someone like Rachel to death. Harry had told me that in Auschwitz one time, when Rachel showed up at the camp kitchen for her daily ration of soup, the officer on guard barked at her that she had already gotten it. When she replied that no, she hadn’t, he beat her unconscious and tossed her into a ditch to die among a pile of corpses. One of her bunkmates saw her stir and crept out at night, pulled her from the ditch, and dragged her to the infirmary. Normally, no one emerged from that hospital alive because if you were sick, you weren’t able to work, and you were left to perish. Nevertheless, Rachel managed to recover a bit and escaped to her barrack, where two bunkmates hid her among the straw and nursed her back to function again by sharing their bread rations with her.
“Let’s see how the gefilte fish are doing,” Aunt Rachel lifted the lid off the pot. A cloud of steam rose, smelling of paprika.
Aunt Rachel was the straightforward cook compared with Harry’s laboring mother. Her kitchen was not fogged up by fish steam. Nana’s gefilte fish were famous in the family, mainly because of all the work, but to my uneducated tongue, they did not taste significantly better than Aunt Rachel’s. And Aunt Rachel’s had the family stamp of approval. No one could argue with her gefilte fish, not even Harry’s father, so I was safe to embark on making gefilte fish her way. Of course, much of this method depends on the right combination of salt, pepper, paprika, and onion. So far, every Rosh Hashanah and every Passover, I have had a good hand.
“Why don’t we have gefilte fish more often?” Harry asks every time he dips the first fishy lump into the customary beet-red horseradish.
“Because then it wouldn’t be special anymore,” I always answer.
Gefilte fish is still not a favorite food of mine, but I don’t dislike it, either. Were it not for Aunt Rachel’s easy method, I doubt I would have kept the tradition. As it is, I have gone on to teach my daughter the Aunt Rachel method. Aunt Rachel has passed away in the meantime, but her ferocious spirit and practical approach to life are with me in my kitchen at holiday time.
That day when she taught me, a remainder of blubbery gelatin was left in the jar. “You can save that for later and pour it over the gefilte fish if you want,” Aunt Rachel said, looking at me while holding the jar over the sink. For a second, our eyes locked.
Then in one swoop the gelatin was splattering into the sink.
“But I don’t like it,” Aunt Rachel said, turning on the faucet, “so I don’t do it.”
Neither do I.
Excerpted with permission from Jumping Over Shadows, Copyright © 2017, published by She Writes Press.
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust.