Although many traditional gender and family roles were turned upside down during the Holocaust, these social traditions also grew in importance for some people as they struggled to preserve a sense of their identities and their normal daily routines. One of the ways in which people preserved their prewar gender identities and family roles during the Holocaust was by recording recipes.1
This cookbook was written by Eva Ostwalt between 1943 and 1945 while she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women.2 She had been living with her daughter Heidemarie in Merano, Italy, until they were forced to return to Germany after her passport expired in 1938. Heidemarie stayed in Dresden with her father, while her mother moved to Cologne. Eva was arrested with her mother, Else, in 1943. Else was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. Eva was sent to forced labor at Ravensbrück.3 At the end of the war, she was evacuated from the camp on a death march. In summer 1945, she traveled to Dresden to find her daughter only to learn that Heidemarie had been killed in the Allied air raids on the city.
The two recipes featured here—apricot dumplings and a Hungarian omelette—are fairly typical Central European dishes. The ingredient list includes rich, filling items like butter, sugar, potatoes, apricots, eggs, and even (in the case of the omelette) cow's brains. All of these foods would certainly have been scarce during wartime. In the context of the concentration camp, they would have served as reminders of a very different life. We can only speculate if such memories were cruel or comforting to the women who recorded recipes like these.
Why would Ostwalt bother to record these recipes while she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück? Was she reminding herself of these dishes, sharing the recipes, or preserving them for her daughter? Simply asserting one’s humanity and maintaining one’s identity could be forms of self-preservation and resistance against the cruelty of life under Nazi rule.4 Other creative responses, such as drawing or writing poems and plays were pursued by men and women alike in a variety of seemingly impossible situations.5
Unlike other cultural activities that are viewed as less gender specific, the sharing of recipes is often seen as unique to women. Indeed, this specific act is often viewed as evidence of women's "resourcefulness" and supposed tendency to bond with one another, which reflects stereotypes and expectations of established gender norms. In examining Ostwalt's cookbook, one might ask what types of assumptions we make when we regard this activity as a specifically female response. Do these assumptions reflect our own expectations of gendered behavior or those of the time?