Michael Berkowits’ Tiramisu

On Friday, I had the pleasure to meet Michael Berkowits, an 81 year-old Holocaust survivor and chef living here in Southern California. I had heard of Michael through my friend and fellow food blogger Jackie (DomesticFits.com) who runs a social work program for local seniors. She told me that I would enjoy meeting Michael, and helped set up a time for us to talk. When I arrived, Michael was there– open, friendly, and ready to share his story. By the end of the day we’d become fast friends, brought together by a mutual love of food and his willingness to tell his life story. With his permission, I share a summary of his story with you here, along with one of his favorite recipes. Anybody who has spoken at length with a Holocaust survivor knows how changing the experience can be. It is my hope that through telling stories like Michael’s, we are reminded of how easily society can change in the face of evil– how even today, large scale human tragedies are happening around the world. We must never forget our past, in order to ensure that a catastrophe of this magnitude never happens again.

In his thick Eastern European accent, Michael told me of his childhood in Transylvania (what is now the central part of Romania, and was once part of Hungary). Michael is Hungarian-Jewish. He was born in 1931 and raised by an Orthodox father and mother, the youngest of 8 siblings– 4 brothers and 4 sisters. His father dealt in food processing, making products like flour and sunflower oil, and their family was well liked in their little village. At one point, when the Nazis were advancing through Europe, a gentile Romanian neighbor offered to help Michael’s family to leave the village and find safety in neighboring Romania. Their village was 30 kilometers from the Romanian border, and had they crossed it they would have been under the leadership of King Michael, who at that time was trying to protect the Jewish citizens of his country. Michael’s father refused the offer for help– he told the neighbor, “Whatever is going to happen to my Jewish community is going to happen to me.” He couldn’t have predicted the horrors to come. During World War II, when the Nazi’s took over their village, Michael’s entire family was forced to board the ill-fated trains bound for Auschwitz concentration camp.

Michael’s Mom, brother, and aunt. Michael is the baby on the right.

When Michael’s family arrived at Auschwitz, they stepped off the train and were herded with hundreds of other people into the camp. A Polish Jewish prisoner had been assigned to work at the train depot, a kindly man who spoke Yiddish. As Michael was shuffled through the crowd, the man bent down and mumbled quietly in Yiddish– “How old are you?”

“Thirteen,” Michael answered.

The man shook his head. “Shhh. Do you see that man over there? That is Dr. Mengele. When he asks you how old you are, you tell him you are eighteen.”

When Michael approached Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, the man gruffly asked him in German how old he was. Michael answered, “Eighteen.” Mengele nodded to the left, meaning Michael could go with his brother towards the labor camps. His father, an older, somewhat frail man, was sent to the right– the line that led straight to the gas chambers. Michael never saw his father again.

In the camps, Michael lost almost everybody– his mother, his sisters, and his father. Only one brother survived. Michael believes that he was able to survive and move beyond the horror he experienced in part because of his young age. He told me, “I lost my family, but it wasn’t as hard as the people who were 30 and 40 years old– they lost their wives, their husbands, their children. How do you recover from that? I was young. It hurt to lose my parents, my sisters… but I could move on. So many could not. The people who survived, but lost their children… how they suffered when it was all over.”

After the war, when the camp was liberated, Michael and his brother moved to Israel, where he lived, married, and had children. After a second marriage, he moved to America and started a cooking career. He owned a small cafe in the San Fernando Valley, then later went on to become an executive chef, supervising all the kitchens for the popular Jerry’s Deli franchise.

Michael serves his tiramisu.

Many years later, Michael visited a new restaurant that had opened in Los Angeles. A waiter noticed the numeric tattoo on his arm (the system the Nazis used to identify prisoners), and asked if he’d been in Auschwitz. Michael replied that yes, he had. The waiter told him that his grandfather, a Jewish man now living in Chicago, had worked at a train depot in Auschwitz. His grandfather had saved many lives by telling people in Yiddish how to get past Dr. Mengele– how to get into the line that would ensure you would go to the labor camps, instead of the gas chambers. Michael asked for the man’s phone number. After so many years, he was able to call and thank the man who had helped him to survive Auschwitz.

While Michael doesn’t cook for a living anymore, he still cooks for fun, sharing his food with the other seniors and the people who work in his complex. For our meeting, he had made his favorite tiramisu recipe, famous throughout the complex. With his kind permission, I am sharing the recipe here with you. Michael gave me both a dairy version and a pareve version, so if you want to make it dairy free just follow the pareve substitutions below. The great thing about this dessert is that it can be made ahead– in fact, it tastes even better after 24 hours.

If you decide to make this delicious dessert, please think of Michael and his family when you do. Share his story to help keep the memory of the victims alive. May we never forget.

 

Michael Berkowits' Tiramisu

Ingredients

  • 16 oz. heavy whipping cream (pareve substitution below)
  • 1/2 lb. cream cheese, softened (pareve substitution below)
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp sugar (or more to taste)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp instant coffee
  • 2 tbsp Kahlua (kosher substitution below)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 24-30 ladyfinger cookies
  • 1/2 oz. dark chocolate (pareve substitution below)

You will also need

  • electric mixer, 2 mixing bowls, large 10-inch loaf pan, spatula
Total Time: 4 Hours 30 Minutes
Servings: 20
Kosher Key: Dairy or Pareve
  • PAREVE/KOSHER SUBSTITUTIONS: To make this recipe pareve (dairy free), substitute Rich's RichWhip topping for heavy whipping cream, Tofutti cream cheese for regular cream cheese, Sabra coffee liqueur for Kahlua, and pareve ladyfinger cookies for regular ladyfingers. Also, make sure your dark baker's chocolate is pareve.
  • Pour the whipping cream into a bowl with 1/2 cup of sugar. Whip the cream with an electric mixer for 4-6 minutes till it thickens and forms soft peaks. (If using Rich's RichWhip, thaw in the refrigerator and shake before pouring into the bowl-- it will take 7-10 minutes to reach the desired consistency.)
  • Mix in the cream cheese on medium speed till the mixture is well blended and forms stiff peaks. Taste the mixture; add additional sugar, if desired (the ladyfinger layers in this tiramisu will be quite sweet, so you don't need to overdo the sugar in the cream layers-- I added another 1/4 cup which was perfect for my tastebuds).
  • In a mixing bowl, mix 2 cups of cold water with 1 1/2 tbsp instant coffee. Whisk in Kahlua or kosher coffee liqueur, vanilla, and 2 tbsp of sugar. Set aside.
  • Take your ladyfingers and your cold coffee mixture and place them nearby. Commercially made ladyfingers (the crunchy kind) work best for this dessert, since they tend to be very absorbent. In your large loaf pan, use a spatula to spread an even layer of cream across the bottom of the pan.
  • Dip the ladyfingers one by one into the coffee mixture for 2-5 seconds each. How long you will dip them depends on the consistency of your ladyfingers. You want them soft, but not overly mushy, so test one or two to get a feel for the ideal amount of soaking time. They will continue to soften even after you take them out of the coffee mixture. Let any excess coffee drip down off the ladyfingers after dipping.
  • Arrange them one by one in a horizontal layer on top of the cream. You should need 8-10 ladyfingers to cover the surface of the cream.
  • Cover the ladyfingers with another layer of cream.
  • Continue to layer the soaked ladyfingers and cream till you've made three layers of soaked ladyfingers. Finish with a final smooth layer of cream across the top of the loaf pan.
  • Use a grater to grate 1/2 ounce of dark chocolate shavings into a bowl.
  • Sprinkle the shavings onto the top of the assembled tiramisu.
  • Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap, being sure not to let the wrap touch the surface of the cream. Place the tiramisu in the freezer for at least 4 hours.
  • Remove the tiramisu from the freezer about 10 minutes before you plan to serve it. Slice it straight from the freezer into the amount of servings you need using a knife dipped in hot water between slices to make cutting even and neat. Place pieces onto serving plates and let them defrost for 10 minutes before serving (they can be eaten frozen too, it will taste more like ice cream cake that way). Store tiramisu in the freezer covered with plastic wrap. Enjoy!

Comments (44)Post a Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing Michael`s story. I have heard and read other stories of coincidences such as this. Life is strange.

  2. Reading this story just after coming across, on Twitter, the only known video footage of Anne Frank, watching neighbours go to their wedding, just overwhelmed me, and when I got to the point where he found the man whose wise counsel saved his life, I caught my breath. That Michael chose a life of making food, giving sustenance and pleasure to people, after such horror, is a testament to his character. Thank you for sharing this story.

  3. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Such a touching story. We need to hear these so we are aware how life can change, and no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a nice human heart somewhere, trying to make it better!

    I will definitely try this recipe. Makes it much more special!

  4. Tori thank you for this beautiful story and thank you also Michael for sharing it with us, I told the story to my family and they can’t wait to try his recipe that will always remind us of Michael beautiful story. A big hug from us to him. xoxo

  5. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tori–Thank you for this wonderful recipe! Just wondered if you have heard of the Holocaust SURVIVOR Cookbook of recipes collected from around the world with stories of those survivors. Michael should definitely share the recipe with the author for publishing in one of her next editions! Much of the revenue goes to helping feed impoverished Israeli’s at the Carmie Ha’ir Soup Kitchen in Jerusalem & to Jewish Organizations around the world. Recipes and stories included are from across the U.S., Cnada, South America, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Africa & from some that escaped to Asia. Author is Joanne Caras, who lives in Florida.

  6. Thank you for this story which is both moving and inspiring. how sad, and yet how beautiful and hopeful.

  7. One of my favorite parts of friday was when you gave him your card and he got such a kick out of it! He said, “The Shiksa?! Ha! It says ‘The Shiksa’! This girl, I’m so glad I met this girl!” I think you two are kindred souls. So glad that I could coordinate and that you were able to write his story down so beautifully.

  8. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Great post. It’s my dad! That’s my dad! :-) My father came by today and gave me Tori Avey’s card, the SHIKSA in the KITCHEN, I love it!!! So we can to look at the site just for fun, my brother in law noticed that there is an article on my dad on here, wow… we were shocked, my dad did not even know… Thanks Tori!!

    Love your site and wish you lots of success!

    ;-) Love the other posts as well, yes my dad is a sweet man, make no mistake about it, may he live to be 120.

    1. Issac, thank you for commenting!! I have your father’s cell phone number, I was going to call him this afternoon to let him know it had posted online. I’m so happy you found the blog! :) Tell your dad I’ll call him soon.

  9. Michale, peace be with you. It’s so hard to understand how one can be so cruel and hateful to another without even knowing anything about them. one must be soulless to do what was done to Michael’s family and the millions of others.

  10. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Oh, my God, this gave me goosebumps when I read it!!! How these two survivors were brought back together, it is an amazing and heartfelt story. Thank you so much Tori for honoring Michael and thank you to Michael for giving us this wonderful recipe! XO Carol

  11. How do you pronounce that? Is it tir-am-isu like in the Hebrew tongue. Maybe it is Transylvania/Romania dish? Then it would be pronounced tira-misu? I can only find references to an Italian dish called tiramisu. I must be odd asking for a linguistics lesson on a food website LOL.

    Such a good story even if the subject matter is sad. It needs to be told. Thanks.

    1. Hi Joe, tiramisu is an Italian dish. Michael does cook traditional Hungarian and Romanian food, but the recipe he chose to share with me was tiramisu. I may be learning some more traditional recipes from him soon, though. Stay tuned!

  12. Such sadness they all endured years ago. Like many others that survived such horror and heartache, he’s kind enough to discuss the experience. I love that he chose a ‘pick me up’ dessert recipe to share. Thanks for posting this Tori.

    1. Yah you right, you only hope that future generations will not forget!

      So sad, that someone can be so cruel and kill so many people….

      no words ….. i have no words…..

      But life must go on, we must know that G-D does things for a ‘good’ reason, and accept them, and move on with life. One day, everything will be clear, to each one of us.

  13. I love his story, his outlook on surviving is so good. He must be a very special man. I am going to make this for my 87 year old mother tonight. She will love both his story AND his tiramisu.

    1. Issac, thank you for posting this! I was having trouble finding it on Google search. Your dad showed me part of it during our visit, but my Hebrew is not strong enough to understand it all yet, so my husband is going to help me translate.

  14. Wow Tori, what a beautiful story. Chills went up and down my legs when I read he was able to call the man who helped save his life from the gas chambers.

    Thank you for sharing his story.
    And when are you going to make me his tiramisu? heh heh

    1. Anytime Heather! I’d invite you over, but it sounds like I’ll have to come to you with this twisted knee of yours… feel better soon! xx

  15. Hi Tori, I love your blog and every friday I love to see the new recipes. I´m from Brazil and my father is also 81 years old and he is also a Holocaust survivor, but the interesting part of it is that still meets his ´´kutsa“ from Terezin every two years and his madrich is going to turn 90 years old this year so all the families are going to meet in LA in july, so we´d love to have dinner at Michael Berkowits’ restaurant, can you send me the contacts? Thanks in advance and Shabat Shalom! Daniela

    1. Hi Daniela! Thanks for writing. Michael doesn’t have a restaurant, but he does still do some catering and kosher catering for parties and gatherings. If you’re coming to LA, I would love to organize a dinner for everybody, and maybe Michael and I can cook together for your father and others! I will email you. :) Shabbat Shalom!

  16. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tiramisu is my absolute favorite dessert, and my fiance, along with being Jewish, is lactose intolerant. I have been dying to find a dairy-free tiramisu recipe so that I could make this wonderful dessert for both of us. Thank you so much for including the non-dairy substitutions so that we can both enjoy tiramisu at home!

  17. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tori this was such an amazing read. I come away so moved by what Michael and others like him must have gone through. It breaks my heart to think about what happened back then. It’s people like Michael who give human kind hope. I hope you continue to tell these stories. I am going to try the recipe one day soon and think of Michael when I do. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  18. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    That is an amazing story, it gave me chills. Thank you for sharing on your site. And thank you to Michael for sharing with you. I clicked through from domestic fits, first time I’ve been to your blog, and coincidently I have a brother named Micheal and a sister named Tori. Looking foward to looking through your recipes!

  19. I ended up using a springform pan instead of a loaf pan (and only 2 layers of ladyfingers) and it turned out beautifully! This is the best tiramisu I’ve ever had- thank you Michael, and thank you Tori! What better way to celebrate life than by eating dessert? :)

  20. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    What a great story and a fantastic recipe! I just made it parve for Rosh Hashana and it was PERFECTION! Thanks so much – Shana Tova!

  21. Wow, thanks for sharing this heartbreaking, yet beautiful story Tori! I was looking for a parve tiramisu recipe for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah dinner Friday night, and came across this. I plan on reading this story to everyone when I serve dessert. I am going to send the link to my children in Israel.

  22. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    It is so easy to go through life savoring all of the blessings that so many of us have been so fortunate to receive. Reading your story reminds me of how many were lost before us in the holocaust and how much beauty and love were taken from all of us.

    I will make this wonderful recipe and savor the results knowing that it comes to me as a gift to share along with a moment of remembrance for the sweet lives that are not here to enjoy it with us.

  23. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tori,
    Thank you for sharing Michael’s incredible story. I am a middle school teacher and I can’t imagine one of my students being sent to a place like Auschwitz. My father fought in WWII and I was always so proud of him for that. When I hear a story like this, I know it was worth it. Thank you so much for sharing both Michael’s story and his amazing food!

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