Angel Food in a Concentration Camp to a Kitchen Delight
By George Erdosh
Concentration camp food in Germany during the World War II years was not the kind of
food you think back with fond memories, yet it's remarkable that one of the most
unforgettable meals in my life came from that unlikely setting. The time is 1944, the camp
is Bergen-Belsen between Hamburg and Hannover.
But first let's go back a step. An unusual and, to American taste, weird, food from my
Hungarian childhood was a sweetened noodle dish, common in the Hungarian culinary
tradition. Resourceful housewives developed this interesting dish during the many lean,
hungry years in Hungary's turbulent history when protein foods were scarce. Starchy foods
filled the gap.
But a good, rich, hearty vegetable soup, followed by this particular noodle course
provided a full, contented stomach and nearly complete nutrition-the pasta topping was
high in protein. It was an excellent and tasty substitute for the unavailable meat
The housewives generally used either of two toppings-finely ground walnut kernels or
finely ground poppy seeds, sweetened with just a dab of sugar. For such fine grind, both
walnut and poppy seed grinders were as much part of a Hungarian kitchen as microwave ovens
and blenders are of ours.
After boiling it, the cook tossed in a dab of melted, farm-fresh butter with the
freshly-cooked pasta (traditionally wide egg noodles) and when the melted butter well
coated the noodles, she blended in the sweetened ground walnut having cornmeal consistency
or fine pepper-sized poppy seed or served the topping separately. This is an unheard-of
combination to our American palate, yet this sweet pasta dessert made an excellent,
sumptuous and nutritious ending to a meal.
Imagine the wonderful combination of glistening, creamy-white, perfectly-cooked egg
noodles with the generous sprinkle of tiny flecks of terra cotta-colored ground walnuts,
or with the even more dramatic black specks of ground poppy seeds, as if a fine drizzle of
black mist had covered every surface of the noodles. As kids we thought of ants when
eating poppy seed noodles though not in an distasteful way.
Such a down-to-earth dessert cannot compete with the elegance of a creamy Napoleon or a
slice of a seven-layer Hungarian Dobos Torte, yet in its flavor the contest would be
harder to decide. Its preparation time was only minutes which made it a popular week-day
How does such a dessert bring up memories of concentration camp food that generally
consisted of cooked sugar beets, either as thick, stew-like dish or thin soups accompanied
with dark, dense, stale bread? And never, never ending with a dessert that were only in
our dreams but with black, weak coffee brewed with coffee substitutes. Desserts were in
our dreams and day dreams, as were meat and poultry dishes, potatoes and creamed
vegetables, good, hearty soups and fresh ripe fruits, crisp vegetables, cheeses and
sausages, ice-cold milk and hot cocoa. We were always hungry, even right after finishing
our meals. Food was a constant topic of conversation and never strayed far from our
The Bergen-Belsen camp was a working camp where adults had regular 12 to 14-hour work
schedule to unwittingly help the German war economy. While the adults worked, we kids - I
was nine-had complete freedom to roam the camp and find something to do. We were careful
not to go too near the 8-foot barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp and was heavily
guarded by armed soldiers and their dogs.
One rainy, gloomy, misty, cold winter day while I tramped around the muddy grounds I
happened to come within hearing distance of the fence area and I heard a sound like
someone hissing. I looked around but saw no one. No guards, no dogs, not even any of the
ever-present camp kids nearby. I started walking but there was the hiss again from the
direction of the barbed-wire fence. One more hiss and a wave of a hand directed my eyes to
a movement behind a leafless bush on the outside of the fence.
"Hier," someone said in German in a low voice. I didn't speak German but I
understood the command. The hand motioned me to come closer. I looked left and right and I
still didn't see guards or guard dogs. As I walked closer I saw a bundled-up woman's head
about my mother's age through the leafless bushes. Quickly she passed a white package
through the barbed wires and immediately disappeared behind the twigs.
I picked up the melon-sized package. It was something wrapped in a clean white napkin,
the opposite corners tied together. Without hesitation I hid it inside my coat and quickly
walked away from the dangerous fence zone. The woman's timing was perfect-within seconds I
saw one of the guards walking the perimeter of the fence but luckily not noticing anything
I walked back to my barrack, dying of curiosity what may be inside the napkin. It was
something soft that felt like a little pillow we used to have back home before the camp. I
hid the unopened package under my straw pillow on my half of the bunk bed that I shared
with an old woman. Even though I was very curious, there were children, old people and the
sick around, and I felt I should only look inside the package in complete privacy. I also
thought it was best to wait until my mother got back from work-she would know what to do.
When my mother returned late afternoon, I whispered to her the story of the package
during our customary three-minute evening meal. She took my little sister and me outside
into the dark while I again hid the mysterious package under my coat. In the relative
privacy of the night, she untied the two knots and partially opened the napkin.
There was something wrapped in several layers of waxed paper inside and it faintly
smelled like food. All three of us probed the content in the dark with our exploring
fingers. It felt soft and sticky with a little oily sense. I licked my finger. It was
sweet-a taste sensation I haven't experienced for six or eight months. And there was also
the familiar hint of walnut flavor. I grabbed a piece from the package and put it in my
mouth. It was cold but it was unmistakably the buttery walnut noodle! And a whole package
There was no question of us sharing the package with anyone. Just a whisper of us
having such a package would start a stampede in our barrack and the guards would surround
us in ten seconds. The dogs would find the package in another ten.
My mother made an instant decision. She divided the package as well as she could in the
dark into three portions, (and chances are hers was by far the smallest) and we devoured
the walnut noodles in seconds. No other food ever tasted as good in my life, and half a
century later I wonder if any tasted better since.
Who was the German woman who dared to take such a risk? The guards would not hesitate
to shoot her on the spot should they discover her passing anything through the barbed
wires. Was she perhaps an angel? She must have watched the guards for hours to gauge their
timing before she dared to make the risky move. And it was our luck that I happened to be
at the right place in the right time.
For weeks after that adventure I hung around the same spot near the fence but no one
ever appeared again-except the predictable, clockwork rhythm of the guards pacing the camp
Sweet buttery walnut noodles -- will the Angels serve it in Heaven?
HUNGARIAN WALNUT NOODLES (DIOS
Hungarian cooks traditionally serve this lightly sweetened, filling dessert after a
hearty soup. The two courses provide a satisfying, nutritious and quick weekday meal. For
the freshest flavor, grind the walnuts yourself shortly before serving.
INGREDIENTS: 300 grams (10
ounces) dry curly egg noodles 1 tablespoon unsalted
butter 1½ cups walnut pieces 6 tablespoons sugar
INSTRUCTIONS: Bring a 4-liter (4-quart) pot of salted water to a boil. Add the
noodles and boil until tender, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain. Add the butter to the cooking pot
and let it melt. Return the noodles to the pot and mix well to coat with butter. Cover and
keep the noodles warm.
Process the walnuts with the sugar in a food processor until the walnuts are very fine,
about 40 seconds.
Transfer the warm buttered noodles to a large warmed serving bowl. Let your guests help
themselves to the noodles and have them generously sprinkle the noodles with the sweetened
HUNGARIAN POPPY SEED NOODLES (MAKOS
Poppy seeds must be fresh and must be ground to bring out their full flavor. Every
Hungarian kitchen is equipped with a small seed grinder for this purpose, but elsewhere
you may not have an easy way to grind these tiny seeds. A food processor whirls the seeds
around without breaking them. If you don't own a seed grinder (and how many of us do?) you
can buy canned ground poppy seeds, but these are not very good. Grocery stores
specializing in Eastern European and German foods often carry fresh-ground bulk poppy
seeds. Make sure they are fresh and have no bitter or rancid flavor.
INGREDIENTS: 300 g (10 ounces) dry curly egg noodles 1 tablespoon
unsalted butter 1/2 cup poppy seeds, or 15 tablespoons ground poppy seeds 6 tablespoons
INSTRUCTIONS: Bring a 4-liter (4-quart) pot of salted water to a boil.
Add the noodles and boil until tender, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain. Add the butter to the
cooking pot and let it melt. Return the noodles to the pot and thoroughly mix with the
butter. Cover, and keep the noodles warm.
Grind the poppy seeds in a seed grinder (or use preground seeds) and mix thoroughly
with the sugar. Transfer to a serving bowl. Transfer the warm buttered noodles to a large,
preheated serving bowl.
Let your guests help themselves to noodles, generously sprinkling them with the
sweetened poppy seed mixture. The noodles look unusual, as if they had been sprinkled with
tiny ants, but the flavor is delicious.
George Erdosh is a member of the International
Association of Culinary Professionals.
from the August 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine