Review: Vivien Horler
Alice’s Book – How the Nazis stole my grandmother’s cookbook, by Karina Urbach (Maclehose Press)
Unlike her famous grandmother, Karina Urbach cannot cook. She thinks this is probably why it took her so long to realise there were two cookery books on the shelves of her childhood home with the same title: So kocht man in Wien! (Cooking the Viennese Way!)
The text and colour pictures were identical – but there was one glaring difference: the 1938 edition was by Urbach’s grandmother, Alice Urbach, and the 1939 edition was attributed to a man called Rudolf Rösch.
Alice Urbach lived in the US while her granddaughter Karina grew up in Europe, so they didn’t know each other well, and then Alice died when Karina was a child.
“I knew from family lore that she had been a famous cook in 1930s Vienna and that her culinary skills had saved her life, somehow.”
Karina became a historian, but wasn’t particularly interested in her grandmother’s story.
Then one day her American cousin gave her a box containing family papers and letters as well as old cassette tapes, thinking she should have them as the historian in the family. The papers included two memoirs written by Alice, one intended for the rest of the family and a second private one. Karina was fascinated, and after a lot of research and travel, wrote this extraordinary story.
Alice’s father was born in the Jewish ghetto of what is now Bratislava, not that far from Vienna. But the family moved to a better home when he was 11, thanks to the ghetto being opened, and the fact his father was a successful fabrics merchant.
Alice herself grew up in some wealth in Vienna, going to balls, the theatre and concerts. Unlike some of her siblings who went to university, her only post-school training was at a select little cookery school, which proved to be a turning point.
Aged 26 she married a GP, but the marriage wasn’t a happy one as the husband turned out to be a gambler, a drinker and a philanderer. It did however produce two sons, Otto, born in 1913, and Karl, born in 1917.
After World War I which Austria – and Germany – lost, times in Vienna were hard. Her husband died in 1920, her father the same year. Because Alice had had a generous dowry when she married and which her husband had gambled away, her father left her nothing in his will. She found herself a 34-year-old widow with two small sons to support.
Cooking saved her – not for the last time. She started catering for society ladies’ bridge parties, and ended up opening a popular cookery school.
The family had an income, but Otto was a restless boy desperate to leave Europe. His mother despaired of him. He eventually won a scholarship to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he made important friends, friends without whom his mother and younger brother would never have survived the coming Holocaust.
But in the mid-1930s things seemed to be going well for Alice and Karl. Karl was studying medicine at the University of Vienna, and Alice had published what turned out to be her bestseller, So kocht man in Wien!, published by the publishing house Ernst Reinhardt Verlag.
In 1937 Rheinhardt’s nephew Hermann Jungck took over the company.
So kocht man in Wien! was liberally illustrated with colour and black-and-white pictures, both of food and of cookery students in the kitchen, but the only images of Alice were those of her hands, chopping or kneading.
Why was this? Karina Urbach speculates that “with her striking nose she simply looked too Jewish”. Karina writes the surname didn’t sound Jewish, but Alice’s face “would have told a different story. And in 1935 this was a story a German publishing house would not be keen to tell”.
With the Anschluss in 1938 things deteriorated in Vienna for Alice and Karl. Alice was forced to sign away the copyright to her bestseller as well as to two other cookery books she had written, but which had not yet been published. Karl was kicked out of university.
Karl’s wartime adventures are a story on their own – he was even sent to a concentration camp but inexplicably released. Eventually, with the help of Otto’s friends in Oregon, he was able to get a visa to travel to the US.
Alice, in the meantime, left Vienna for Britain in late 1938 for a job as a cook in a stately home, and thereafter spent the rest of the war running a home for Jewish refugee orphans in the north of England.
A year after the war ended, she was able to join her sons in the US, again thanks to Otto’s powerful American friends.
Three years later, in 1949, Alice went back to Vienna on a brief holiday. One day she passed a bookshop and there, in the window, was a copy of her book So kocht man in Wien! – but with someone else’s name on the cover.
She discovered her book, along with many other works by Jewish authors, had been “Aryanised”. Or as the publisher Jungck wrote in a memoir in 1974: “After the Anschluss of Austria I was obliged to find a new author for the cookbook because Alice Urbach was a Jew and otherwise the cookbook could no longer have been sold.”
From then on Alice was on a mission: to reclaim ownership of her book.
Karina Urbach writes: “[She felt] this book must be given back to her, at least. She had lost three sisters in the Holocaust, compared to which the loss of a cookbook was a trivial matter. And yet for Alice it represented all the injustice and humiliation of the last few years. By reclaiming the book, she intended to regain control over life…”
This is an erudite and sweeping story of war with tales of secret agents, Zionism, the war in Shanghai where Otto only just escaped with his life, the story of the Kindertransport, goings on in Odessa which were later fictionalised by Frederick Forsyth in The Odessa File, and more
But at its heart it is the story of a family caught up in the heartlessness of the Nazi Reich, how they survived and went on to thrive.
- Alice’s Book was first published in German in 2020 and, after being translated by Jamie Bulloch, published in English this year.