Eastern Europe - Helen Schon

Eastern Europe - Helen Schon

Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper


‘My baking, they call it excellent,’ Helen Schon says as she places three pieces of her most recent creations onto a glass plate.

There’s a dark chocolate torte, a recipe learnt from her Hungarian girlfriend; a white and black slice made from chocolate chips, ground almonds and chopped apricots; and her most famous cake, zserbo, a common treat from her Czechoslovakian childhood featuring delectable pastry and almond paste.

Yet despite her obvious talents in the kitchen, Helen insists her interest in cooking only really blossomed two years ago.

‘I was always interested in business,’ she says.

Helen’s childhood was spent in a Czechoslovakian town with a population of 20,000 people, including approximately 6000 Jews. She was born in 1925 and was the third of five children living at home, yet also had another five step-brothers and sisters from her father’s first marriage.

It was a large and loving household, with Helen often spending her after-school hours at her father’s oil and flour mill where she loved to help out any way that she could. It was here that she had her first taste of an entrepreneurial life.

‘We had to start the mill going before we went to school and [my father] said, “Do anything, just don’t stand around and do nothing”’, Helen recalls.

'Still today I cannot stand it if anybody is standing and wasting time.'

Her family was well-off, living in a large home on an acre of land, which included chicken and geese and also a dedicated vegetable garden. Because of this, the family rarely bought fresh produce, instead using their own potatoes, beans and onions as well as the flour and oil from the mill to create their everyday meals, which could consist of veal goulash with potatoes, blintzes with nuts or cheese, jam potato dumplings known as gomboc which were eaten as part of the main course, or creamed potato soup.

While the family had a nanny and a cook, Helen’s mother was very much involved in the kitchen, preparing meals for her family and ensuring there was always a strudel to enjoy.

Sabbath was sacrosanct in her home and Helen describes how each family member had their allocated place at the dining table as they devoured the traditional Friday night dishes such as chicken soup, gefilte fish, boiled chicken taken straight from the pot and compote. Saturday lunches always featured the meat-and-potato stew known as cholent that had been bubbling away overnight, preceded by an onion-and-hard-boiled-eggs dish that was ‘a must in every house’.

‘Still today I make it sometimes, my husband is quite happy with it,’ Helen says.

Helen’s childhood home was one filled with food, family and tradition until the day after Passover in 1944, just as the celebratory dishes had been packed away for the following year. The family was forced to relocate to a ghetto set up by the Germans who had infiltrated their village just two weeks earlier. For four weeks they shared one room with another family but managed to survive on extra food from a Hungarian friend. Then one morning, the family was lined up outside to be taken to Germany to work.

We didn’t know about the camps, we didn’t know anything,’ Helen recalls. ‘We marched with my family to the train station … we still thought we were going to Germany for work, we didn’t think anything else. How could we be so stupid?’

The train took them to Auschwitz where they arrived one evening in May 1944. That same night, Helen’s parents were taken to the gas chambers.

Helen was taken to work in a factory, where she said the conditions were relatively good, with morsels of food provided for each meal and cleaning facilities available.

‘But on the first of January I went to Bergen-Belsen,’ Helen says, speaking of the notorious death camp. ‘That was hell.’

Around 500 girls were forced into one room suitable for 30 people, where they were given no food, no washing facilities and no beds. Helen believes her father’s encouragement and insistence to always be busy kept her alive, as she tirelessly sourced any piece of food that she could.

She contracted typhus, which she somehow survived, and was liberated on 15 April 1945 by an Australian war correspondent who was there to photograph evidence of the atrocities that had occurred. Every year on the anniversary of her liberation, she calls him to speak and reminisce.

‘I was always behind him, following him, asking what is he taking photos of, there is no world, where will he show it, what for?’

After liberation, Helen moved from one German town to another until, under the directive of the Czechoslovakian president that all his people return to their homeland, she started her journey home.

She made it as far as Budapest, where she discovered her sister and brother-in-law had survived. Helen joined them until 1946, when she returned to Czechoslovakia for another three years.

During this time, her uncle had immigrated to America and was keen for Helen to join him, encouraging her to apply for papers as a student so she could leave Europe. But when she went to file her request, Helen noticed the option to move to Australia — and without knowing anyone or anything about the country, she put down her name.

‘I waited two years anxiously, coming home, looking in the letterbox,’ she says. During this wait she met David, the man who would become her husband, who had been accepted to go to America. So when her papers finally did arrive for Australia, she decided she would forfeit them.

But only three weeks after they married, David was called to the Czechoslovakian army. After much discussion, Helen decided to keep her Australian papers and in August 1949, she made the journey to her new home alone, as a purportedly single woman.

‘It was very illegal, but I took a risk, I was a risk-taker,’ she says.

Helen arrived in Melbourne, where she set about getting a job and applying for papers for her husband to join her, which he did in 1950, crossing the border into Vienna one night through the snow.

Helen immediately took a shine to her new home, describing it in a letter to her husband as a land of ‘green gardens, peaceful houses. You should see the shops, everything is available’.

‘I was as happy as anybody could be, the happiest person,’ she says.

Helen worked in a clothing factory as a machinist but, like her father had taught her, she kept herself busy by observing all aspects of the business. So in 1956, when her daughter Doris was three years old and the factory work had slowed down, Helen felt confident enough to open up a business of her own.

With £500 in the bank, Helen rented a room, bought herself machinery and started work on skirt samples. Seven days after giving birth to her son Sam, her first order came in.

Before too long Helen had a team of women working for her and, by 1963, Helen had saved £4000.

‘In 1964 I went for an Israeli trip with my own money, not owing anybody anything. I was successful with my designs,’ she says.

Her husband soon joined the business and Dorsam Fashions went on to employ 30 women who Helen managed until 1989 when the business closed.

During this entire period, Helen worked tirelessly, both in the factory and at home. After finishing a day’s work, she would rush home and cook dinner, feed her children and then leave the bathing and bedtime to her husband as she returned to the factory until one in the morning.

‘Food wasn’t so much in my house,’ she admits, claiming that her family was happy with the Eastern European fare she provided and otherwise, her time was spent at work.

‘When it was busy, that’s how it had to be,’ she says.

But as her children grew, married and had families of their own, Helen found herself with time to take a keener interest in the goings-on in the kitchen.

It was her housekeeper who taught her the recipes from her childhood, which Helen re-creates today for her family and friends to enjoy. Her oyster blades are a much sought after dish, as are her potatoes and Hungarian goulash, which she always has available in her freezer.

On Fridays during the summer, Helen hosts her extended family around her dining table for the Sabbath, which she still practises with a day of rest. During winter, when the days are shorter, she cooks and packs up meals for her children to take home to their own families, which can include traditional matzah balls known as kneidelach, chicken soup and noodles, schnitzels, rissoles and roast meat.

‘I love it, it’s busy … if there is a spare hour I can make a cake,’ she says. ‘I have to keep busy like my father said, just do something.’

And whether it’s her famous blintzes or the traditional Hungarian potato dish known as rakott krumpli that she’ll serve to commemorate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, for Helen, having her family around her and enjoying her food means everything.

‘I just thought the end of the world was in the concentration camp, that nothing else was existing somehow,’ she says. ‘Having a family, having children, it’s a miracle, an absolute miracle.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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