As Purim fast approaches and I am preparing the dough to make hamantaschen’s for my five great-grandchildren, I am reminded of the time where I was residing at the St. Ottilien Monastery months after liberation where they nursed me back to health. Have I ever told that story? Let me tell you…
Excerpt from book “Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream”
Even though it was summer and months past the Purim that had taken place in February of 1945, the Rabbi who had come to help the patients felt very close to all of us and wanted to make a Purim Seuda, a Purim feast to celebrate our escape from death. He wanted to make up for all the Purims we had missed during the Holocaust and figured that since we had all just been delivered from horror and annihilation, that God would understand and approve of this Purim in July.
This was a very ambitious undertaking because there a couple hundred of us to feed. And although St. Ottilien cooks had volunteered to assist with the meal, the rabbi really needed more helpers to bake the traditional challahs and, of course, the hamantaschen. So, he asked all the young women to help, but for some reason, none of them would volunteer. Maybe they were shy or didn’t think that they had the baking skills that were needed. As I sensed his disappointment, I suddenly had my first conscious flashback of my father in Niepolomice – the loving warmth of that memory just enveloped me. I knew that baking challah for this Purim was something my father would have wanted me to do. So, despite my fear that I wouldn’t be up to the task, I volunteered.
The grateful rabbi took me into the monastery’s huge bakery which the monks had generously given up to us for the occasion. They said, “Go ahead. Here are all the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the cocoa. Take whatever you need.” Then they showed me a room with large vats where the dough would be kneaded. When I saw all this massive equipment, I began to wonder if I should have volunteered! It had been years since I had done any baking, and it certainly hadn’t been in this kind of set-up! I was used to doing small batches at a time, using a bowl, a schissel, for mixing things together.
But at that point everyone was depending upon me, and I couldn’t let them down. I knew that if I wanted to accomplish something, I had to find out what needed to be done, and then just go ahead and do it. And now, for some reason, the girls were eager to volunteer. It turns out that despite our circumstances as Survivors, we still possessed the usual teenage interests – like flirting with the opposite sex! So, in order to properly celebrate the many miraculous escapes of the Jewish people, I decided to make one big-beautiful challah. Since we had recently heard the horrifying rumors of the Holocaust’s Jewish death toll, I decided that this would be a memorial challah. It would be six feet long in order to commemorate the six-million who had been lost.
Just as my father had taught me, except for the much larger proportions, I began by sprinkling the yeast over the warm water, and then beat in the oil, eggs and salt. I added the flour, one big bowl full at a time, heating after each addition – I began to sense when the dough had reached the right consistency. I then covered it with warm cloths and waited until it doubled in size. Next, I punched the great dough down, placed it onto the greased baking sheet, divided it and carefully rolled it into four strands for braids. And although I wasn’t sure that my father would have approved, I realized that to braid a challah this big, something very unusual would have to be done. So, I told the girls my plan – hoping that they would agree to it.
Would you believe that these previously shy, quiet girls took their shoes off and got right up on the top of table? I assigned each one her own numbers, one through four, and each was in charge of her own yeasty strand of the braid. Once they settled down, I said “#1, move over to number #3!” And then, “#4, cross over to #2” As I directed them, they carefully changed places with each other until enough of the bread had been braided for me to reach it and finish the loaf. Somehow, in the midst of much giggling and shrieks, as feet missed the table and the girls barely missed falling on the floor, the loaf had been transformed into a beautiful braid. I was like choreography! We weren’t just creating bread – we had created a dance of joy! L’Chaim! A dance to life.
Next, we let it rise again for about an hour, and finished it up by brushing the top with beaten egg yolk and sprinkling it generously with poppy seeds. Finally, all together, we carefully carried the heavy baking sheet with its precious cargo to the oven. Suddenly the giggles stopped, and we looked at each other solemnly, each thinking the same thing. Our hearts, minds and souls had suddenly been flooded with images of the other, deadly ovens.
As the bread was baked, we set ourselves up like an assembly-line to make other traditional pastries – none more meaningful than the hamantaschen! While we were occupied in the bakery, the monastery’s chefs were busy in the kitchen, cooking the food for the banquet. And they even made sure it was all Kosher. When everything was ready, the tables beautifully decorated, and several hundred residents and staff-members were all seated, the girls and I carefully carried the challah into the dining room. With me at the front and two girls on each side, we looked and felt like pallbearers. We also knew, however, that this procession carrying the challah represented life – we were alive!
Upon uncovering the challah, I explained to the rabbi the significance of the challah’s length of six-feet. The room was silent as was the rabbi and all started to cry with emotion. And then, we celebrated the ancient holiday of freedom from oppression – something none of us thought we’d ever do again. As you can imagine, our 1945 Purim in July, at the Benedictine St. Ottilien Monastery in Germany, was the most unforgettable Purim celebration of our lives. From beginning to end, it was full of miracles.
And today, at 92 years old, 76 years after liberation, I think about my children, my children’s-children and the miracles of my five beautiful great-grandchildren and smile.