“MINA’SRECIPE BOOK “ and “IMAGINARY FEASTS”
Food as a Metaphor— Two Films by Anne Georget
In looking at the titles of these two short films, I would never have thought that they were going to be about the Holocaust. The stories here and little known but need to be told to wider audiences. They are stories of imagination and resilience against the worst kind of deprivation the world has ever known.
“Imaginary Feasts” is an exploration of how in places such as Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags and Japanese prison camps, prisoners who are starving and near the ends of their lives manage to share talk about their favorite meals and recipes. Somehow this helped them to survive. Of course this is quite difficult to see at first glance and we must examine closely what was said that these words became words of resistance. The prisoners and deportees wrote down cooking recipes. Hundreds of those recipes were then copied in small notebooks by starving human beings of all origins who took huge risks to write and keep them. What we see is that telling about these objects of survival, the film then explores a phenomenon of incredible Resistance. Until now, no study or publication had ever been made on them.
The film explores notebooks filled with fantasy recipes that prisoners left behind under unimaginable circumstances as proof of a remarkable kind of quiet resistance.
“They feasted on words because they were dying of hunger,” said Andre Bessiere, who was interned at the Nazi camp Floeha in eastern Germany. The prisoners there met each week and exchanged hundreds of recipes they wrote in makeshift journals.
Georget discovered the precious relics, often made of scrap fabric or other found materials, after working on a previous documentary and book about the fantasy recipes of a woman imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
She received several letters recounting similar experiences in other Nazi camps, in Sheshe discovered that this surprising and, at first glance, paradoxical means of coping with hunger could be found at the Potma gulag, and in Japanese prisoner of war camps in Kawasaki during World War II. “The systems aren’t comparable and you must not compare them but the circumstances had the same cruelty in common — there is the same instinct to survive and maintain your humanity,” Georget said.. “The suffering and the pain are palpable,” master chef Olivier Roellinger tells Georget as he goes through copies of the notebooks.
The film is structured through a series of interviews, the documentary tells the bitter-sweet stories of the recipes that were written and bound in concentration camps across the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the Nazi concentration camps of Ravensbruck, Flöha and Leipzig – in Germany – and the Soviet Gulag of Potma, to the Japanese war camps of Kawasaki and Bilibid. Scratched in pencil and hand stitched together, these recipes form an oxymoronic artefact: through the richest resplendence of cuisine, they evoke the harshest deprivation and starvation conceivable.
“Imaginary Feasts” is a film built on contrasts – warmth and cold, hunger and satiation, fantasy and reality and of course, life and death.. Cold-toned shots of the now abandoned camps and snowy fields punctuate footage of warm kitchen-hearth sides and cozy book-lined rooms, as historians, psychoanalysists, philosophers, neurologists and writers leaf through the recipes. A woman’s voice whispers of ‘boeuf bourguignon’, ‘flan fromage’, ‘vanilla creme’, ‘cafe creme’, and ‘Petit Buerre’ as the camera pans pages-on-pages of aged paper, covered in neat, tight handwriting. The he film does not include a single shot of ‘real’ food (out of respect for the minds that imagined them?) allowing the dishes to remain alive only on the page.
As director Anne Georget reveals, these recipes allowed a kind of collective remembering for prisoners, out of which came resistance in the form of solidarity, and brief moments of joy. Indeed, at the end of the film, Olivier Roellinger turns to his favorite page of the collection, 164, the last, blank one, which he describes as ‘pure potential’.
“Mina’s Recipe Book” follows the journey of one of these recipe books. Anny Stern’s mother, Mina. In the 1940s, Mina Pachter was sent to a Nazis concentration camp in Terezin where she died of starvation. She carefully recorded her favorite recipes, hoping they would somehow make it to her daughter, who had escaped to Palestine. Twenty years later, her daughter was given a handwritten book, covered in craft paper and held together by a simple piece of string. She opened it to read: ‘Cakes for new mothers, Baden Caramel sweets, Quetsch strudel, Linzertorte…’
Taken together, the two films are tributes and testaments to the strength of men and women who even in the darkest of times and under the worst circumstances were able to create a form of resistance.