The Fendez family—a beautiful family full of love and happiness whose lives were disrupted by the Wehrmacht invasion of Yugoslavia during World War II—were suddenly faced with a boxcar and other Jews and condemned lives in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon arrival, Steven recalled how the Germans immediately separated them: the women and men from each other.
Steven went with his father one way while his mother and sister went the other. That was the last time he saw his mother. Shortly after the German soldiers put the men to work, his father took ill and was taken away and died in the gas chambers. Steven was a good worker, so the Germans spared his life is the only conclusion he could come up with. Likewise, they also spared his sister’s life. They were both liberated from Auschwitz and reunited but had to fare together independently without their parents. Steven was fourteen, and his sister was seventeen.
Steven recalled how his father spoke about the terrible invasion with his mother. They feared for their lives and the lives of their children. It was April 1941, and Yugoslavia suffered an attack and was dismembered by the German, Italian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian armies, each occupying or annexing different parts of the state. The April War was a German-led attack by the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Hungary) on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Steven would later add to his presentations as a Holocaust survivor the alarming numbers: of the 82,500 Jews from Yugoslavia alive in 1941, only 14,000 (17%) survived the Holocaust.
Amidst the rich culinary scene of New Orleans, there’s a restaurant, SABA which means grandfather in Hebrew. Its owner, Israeli chef Shaiya Balaang has won numerous awards for his modern middle eastern cuisine. This stray from his regular cooking was a little bit odd for anyone who knows him since when he first emigrated from Israel at the age of four with his parents, his roots were something he hoped to erase. A tortured soul with a foot in two cultures so diametrically different, Shaiya quickly noticed that the chickpea fritters he brought to school for lunch as the other kids were bringing tater tots caused him to want to keep his Israeli identity hidden.
In culinary school, he ditched the hummus and pita and went full Italian: pasta, charcuterie boards and pizzas were his new passions. Something odd as the Italians were also responsible for persecuting Jews in Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Until sometime in his mid-thirties, while on a trip to his homeland of Israel, the dishes of his youth breathed anew inside him. He realized that he had been missing out on the part of who he really was, a part of him began cooking Israeli food that helped him fully understand his identity and who he really was as a chef.
His mission to cook traditional foods brought him one day to the archive of the U.S. Holocaust Archive Memorial Museum—a most unlikely place for a chef. He was blown away at how someone could turn to food at some of the most horrible moments of their lives and that food could have that kind of power.
He was heartened and disturbed to learn that during the Holocaust, those forced to Jewish ghettos and concentration camps would write down family recipes. Not to cook but rather to remember. It reminded people of pleasure in the lousy, abysmal place where they felt no longer human.
Steven Fendez was thirteen when his train arrived in Auschwitz in 1944; all the tangible evidence of his life before had been ripped away. Or so he thought. To his surprise, after the allies liberated him and his sister from Auschwitz, his mother’s recipe book with her name on the first page, “Ferives Estera,” written there by his sister, surfaced many years later in the United States.
Shaiya was meant to have found it in the basement of the Holocaust Museum’s collection, and he had one big question for the curators. “You mean I could actually talk to the person who remembers eating this food?” The curators were happy to “Put the two of you in touch.” How that book survived is just one of those stories.
The Fendez family lived an upper-middle-class life in Yugoslavia. They employed a maid, governess, chauffeur, and a cook named Maresh. “She was a big woman with a very thick Hungarian accent,” Steven said with a smile. On the day looters invaded the Fendez home, as they were being led off—to the box cars and presumably to the concentration camps and the gas chambers—Maresh, who wasn’t Jewish, raced in to save the family cookbook. “For reasons that nobody understands,” as Steven would relate in his presentation as a Holocaust survivor “other than she felt a strong loyalty out of love for the family—a brave thing to do since everything anyone did was punishable by death,” Steven stated so matter-of-factly.
When Shaiya heard Steven’s story, Shaiya set about recreating the delicious food Steven enjoyed in childhood. There were no easy instructions with the recipes. The heating instructions were rendered useless since the cooks of Steven’s childhood used cast iron stoves, causing Shaiya to experiment with preparing some dishes.
Among them were: potato circles, a walnut cream cake, and a dish that looked an awful lot like a tater tot but wasn’t. The process was lengthy as Translators translated the recipes from Hungarian into English; Shaiya then cooked the food for Steven and shipped it to him. Steven tasted the food of his childhood for the first time in over 70 years and was overwhelmed but overjoyed.
Fendez’s walk down memory lane, where he rediscovered a painful personal connection that he thought had gotten lost over the years. “My presentation became so routine, so cold as I delivered it. But Shaiya’s cooking reminded me of all that was lost. He got me out of a significant slump as a volunteer survivor who told his tale to others to learn from about war and hatred. For that, I am blessed. The recipes had come full circle. Where once the people at Auschwitz-Birkenau found comfort in the worst of times in their lives by recording them for comfort—I, too, now found comfort where my presentations had become flat in my life as I told the tale of Aushcwitz-Birkenau disconnected from it all.”
The effect on Steven was very pronounced and profound. “Enjoying childhood food was the best?” he said. “It seemed to be something tangential that went by the way, with many other things that went by the way. But the cookbook survived pretty well, given all it’s been through! Along with me.” he said with an ear-to-ear grin as he went on to say, “There was a reason for all of this to occur this way in this manner.”
Passover is about the imperative to remember: the good and the bad. Shaiya Balaang offered that gift through food. And because of it, Steven has a renewed sense of telling the terrible tale that Steven must tell. Steven showed a picture of his grade two class to Shaiya and said, “nine out of the ten in this picture died in Auschwitz, which is still a haunting memory for me.” The silence lingered between the two men. What more was there to say?
Together the two host donor dinners where Steven’s mother’s dishes are served, and Steven speaks to tell his family’s truth. So far, they have raised 300,000 dollars for Holocaust Conservation Efforts.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This story was based upon an interview that I saw on television that moved me in such a way that I felt compelled to create this story about the lives of these two men. Both struggling with their identities and how their Jewish stories were being told to others. Steven’s relaying events of the Holocaust had become routine and mundane; almost cold and detached from him. Shaiya was a chef who was not creating any dishes that were traditional Jewish dishes by nature. Until they both came together over Steven’s mother’s cookbook full of her recipes.
Lily Finch, the pen name for an aspiring writer and editor, is an emergent writer recovering from an Acquired Brain Injury. She writes fiction and non-fiction short stories about life. Lily has publications in short stories and flash fiction. “The Beauty is in the Watching,” The Literary Yard, Sep 20, 2022. And “Escape From Morocco” in Half Hour To Kill, Nov. 9, 2022. She will publish in Scars Publications in June of 2023 in their v334 (the 30th-anniversary issue of cc&d magazine released 6/1/23). In addition, Lily has two flash fiction publications, “The Ruse,” Worthing Flash Fiction, Sep 24, 2022, and “Is This Love?” will publish in Worthing Flash Fiction on April 29, 2023.