Survivor cookbook honors victims, helps those suffering today

Joanne Caras redefines Holocaust commemoration, inviting readers to engage with difficult memories through treasured family recipes. “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” combines recipes from Holocaust survivors around the world, along with their stories and photographs.

The author recently visited the Bay Area to talk about her book, which she calls her “world mitzvah project.” J. caught up with her at Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco, one of many stops on her itinerary before she headed off to Europe on an international book tour.

Caras’ inspiration for the book came in 2005 at a Jerusalem soup kitchen, Carmei Ha’ir, where she was struck by the generosity and dignity she witnessed.

“When I walked into that soup kitchen — and my children had just made aliyah — I wanted to honor them with a project,” said Caras, a resident of Port Saint Lucie, Fla.

Joanne Caras

She had never written a book but had collected recipes for a few community fundraisers at her shul. Her decision to focus on survivors’ recipes and stories came after the death of her daughter-in-law’s mother  — a Holocaust survivor to whom Caras felt intimately connected.

Caras sent letters to Holocaust museums and Jewish publications around the world, seeking survivors’ stories, pictures and recipes. For six months there was silence. Then one day she got a call from New Zealand, asking about her “cookery book.” That got the ball rolling.

Over the next two years Caras collected 129 stories and recipes from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, and throughout the U.S. “I wasn’t a survivor, and so for me to be able to collect these stories was such an honor,” she said.

She also saw this as a way to honor her husband’s family from the Ukraine — all of them buried in the mass grave of Babi Yar.

In the book’s introduction, Caras includes instructions for families to read the stories together around the Shabbat table, continuing a Jewish tradition of connecting food with collective memory. “There’s something about reading a recipe and sharing the story that connects us through all the senses,” she said.

“The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” was published in 2007, and since then an additional 115 survivors have been inspired to share their stories and recipes with Caras. They are included in a sequel, “Meals and Miracles,” which should be published later this year.

Caras said her family has spent $50,000 on the cookbook mitzvah project: All book sales proceeds go to the Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen to help keep it afloat, she said.

“Sixty-five years ago they starved,” Caras said of Jews who suffered and died in the Holocaust. “Today we are feeding hungry Israelis with their stories. That is the best way to honor them.”

Her goal is to sell 6 million cookbooks.

The “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” has received overwhelmingly positive response, Caras said, noting that a Florida middle-school teacher even used the book as an educational tool to counter anti-Semitism on campus. The program grew to reach more than 700 students, she added.

More recently, Caras has begun to plan for a series on  JLTV, called “Miracles and Meals,” set to debut in the fall.

And this summer, she said, campers at Chabad’s Jewish Girls Retreat in Troy, N.Y. will create a video production based on her book. Caras hopes the experience will help them relate to their history. “We cannot undo the past,” she said, “but our generation can create a miracle.”

“Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” by Joanne Caras (350 pages, Caras & Associates, $36)