Our efforts to survive during the years of the Holocaust presented many challenges. Children needed to be taught how to cope. There were many things our parents could not say even to us. It was just too dangerous. Their words could be misconstrued, misinterpreted or used by others against them. But they could teach us by example and by innocuous stories. By making strudel, my mother taught me a lesson for life. Now, many years later, I would like to share that story as I learned it, experienced it, lived it and taught it.
Hungarian apple strudel (rétes in Hungarian) is one of my favorite desserts. It is delicious. Even the cabbage strudel my mother used to make is great! Now who ever thought of making a delicious dessert using cooked cabbage?
As a teenager, growing up in Hungary during the 1930s, I often watched my mother make strudel. Her strudels were always made from scratch. Starting with flour and water, she added some vinegar, oil and a pinch of salt and worked all this into a small ball of dough. Eventually the dough was stretched so thin that it would cover the entire table and you could put a newspaper right underneath it and read the newspaper right through the dough.
Part of making a strudel had to do with beating the dough smooth. We did not have electric mixers those days. Using all the strength she could muster, my mother would throw the ball of dough down onto the table, pick it up, and then throw it down again, repeating this process about one hundred times. It was hard work. Some observers today would perceive this process as a way to work off your aggressions. Was it psychotherapy? Perhaps it was. Either way it led to great results. And over the years, making strudel assumed a special meaning for me.
My own strudel making started during my first year at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was already married and much older than most of my classmates. During one of the first classes I attended, one of the other students asked a question that caught my attention. His accent sounded Hungarian. After class I introduced myself, and suggested that he come to my house, have dinner with us and we would make him Hungarian apple strudel for dessert. It was a brash promise.
Neither my wife nor I had yet acquired the skills needed to make strudel. Our first attempt was a total failure. But we persevered. Eventually my new friend had his Hungarian strudel for dessert. George and I remain friends to this day. My story of making strudel could easily end right here. But it had just begun.
We started to have strudel making tutorials in our apartment. We made different kinds of strudels: apple, cherry, cheese and cabbage. It was the Hellers’ version of a cocktail party. Our guests would arrive two at a time, scheduled in half hour intervals. I would instruct the first couple. Once they made their strudel, they would instruct the next couple, and so on. We would make as many as seven strudels on a Sunday afternoon.
Couples would develop a special attachment to their strudel. They would carefully watch the oven baking it and would want to slice and eat their own. At the end of the party, we often had the request. “We want to take home the leftovers of our strudel.” The experience of making a strudel seemed to have forged a special bond.
It was hard work to make strudels. At the end of the day, your clothing was full of flour. Even with the most careful stretching, the dough did not always cover the entire table. Sometimes there were many holes. But at the end of the party there seemed to be a special euphoria in the room. We made it! While having fun, we learned a skill that most people viewed as an impossible task: how to stretch out a small ball of dough slightly larger than a fist to cover our kitchen table of 36 x 72 inches.
As the years passed, we found many reasons to celebrate. How? We held a strudel party. For one of these parties I even made a large poster size flowchart that was used as our cookbook recipe.
When my older son Steve prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, he continued our family tradition. For many weeks, on Sunday mornings after Sunday school he and his friend, Mark made strudel. At his Bar Mitzvah the 150 guests each had a slice of strudel.
During March of 2007 my wife and I traveled with a group of high school juniors and seniors on a two week study tour to Poland and to Israel. We visited several Concentration Camps in Poland, including Auschwitz, where most of my family perished. And I talked to the high school students about my experiences as a slave laborer in Hungary and Austria and as an inmate of Mauthausen. My story of starvation and illness, bare survival and eventual coming to the United States were in sharp contrast to my life today.
To survive one needed to have a great deal of luck. And I talked about the importance of hope and faith and determination. One could not survive without them.
After our trip was over, I felt there was one more lesson I had to teach to complete my task: explain my life in America today. I chose a strudel party to do it. When the party was over, here is how I summarized what we have learned:
“I hoped that our get together would once more reinforce my mantra "Anything is Possible." Because whatever we do is only really successful when we have faith in ourselves. We must believe that our small ball of dough could be stretched to cover a large table, with some of it even hanging over the sides, and that this could be done (most of the time) without holes. But we can have and enjoy a great strudel even if there are holes in it! The person eating it only experiences how delicious it tastes.
“Only the strudel maker knows about the holes and the hard work of banging the strudel against the table to make it smooth and to help the gluten to develop.”
“Possibly during our tutorial it was not only the strudel that was stretched.”
Every morning as I sit down for breakfast, I see the large flowchart I made so many years ago hanging on our kitchen wall. It is under glass, framed and yellowing. The title of the chart reads:” Strudel Maker’s Undebugged Flowchart.” But when I close my eyes, the words I really see in my mind’s eye are:
“Anything is Possible.”
George G. Heller