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 (aka The Beeroness) 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.
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Michael Berkowits' Tiramisu
- 16 oz heavy whipping cream (parve substitution below)
- 1/2 lb cream cheese, softened (parve 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)
- 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!