When Rosalie Simon was 12, her family was evicted from their home in Kriva Velka, Czechoslovakia, and sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp that killed 1 million Jews—one sixth of the total that died during the Holocaust—in less than five years. In her darkest moments, she tells SELF, she couldn’t help but think about potatoes.
“I said, ‘If I ever survive this hell, all I would want in my life is enough potatoes. I would never ask for anything else.’”
Rosalie, now 91, is one of more than 40 survivors who contributed recipes to Honeycake and Latkes: Recipes from the Old World by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors. The idea for the cookbook, out September 13, came about in 2020, after a group of 120 survivors went back to Poland for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. While there, a common theme kept coming up in conversation: food.
Many survivors began talking about recipes from before the war that they continued making afterward as they restarted their lives. The conversations continued after they returned home, when they began recipe-swapping over Zoom. The idea for the cookbook took root and was later brought to fruition by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
It may seem like an incongruent combination, since food is a loaded subject for many Holocaust survivors—particularly those who have lived through starvation (as Rosalie did in both Auschwitz and, later, in Dachau, another Nazi camp). In one qualitative study from 2004 published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers found that Holocaust survivors tended to share certain behaviors about food: They had a hard time throwing away food, stored more than they needed, and felt heightened levels of anxiety when food was not readily available. Wider trauma research supports the lasting effects of food insecurity: A childhood history of not having enough food can lead to depression, anxiety, and disordered eating later in life, along with other health complications.
As for Rosalie, food had huge meaning to her during the war and afterward. Throughout her imprisonment, the promise of food was used as an incentive and starvation as a punishment. She recalls her arrival to Auschwitz, during which Dr. Josef Mengele, a Hitler coconspirator widely known as the Angel of Death, separated families into groups: Those who would be sent to work were moved to the right, and those who would “receive more bread” to the left. However, despite the promise of extra sustenance, the latter group was actually being sent to the gas chambers. Rosalie’s mother and younger brother were killed there on that first day in 1944.
But it was actually this promise of bread that indirectly helped Rosalie survive, she explains to SELF. She snuck out of line to get her older sisters, who were sent to the other group to work, because she wanted them to receive bread too. Unable to rejoin the bread group, she instead remained in the work group with her sisters, who ended up surviving the camp and the war as well.