Eastern Europe - Mira Unreich

Eastern Europe - Mira Unreich

By
Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702865
Photographer
Mark Roper

Czechoslovakia

Mira Unreich has lived in many countries in her lifetime, from prewar Czechoslovakia to postwar Paris, to the streets of Melbourne’s leafy bayside suburbs where she resides today. Yet throughout, there has always been one constant: the presence of Judaism and Jewish food in her home.

‘Judaism is beautiful, I couldn’t imagine anything else,’ she says.

Born in 1927 in a Czechoslovakian village where she lived with her parents, three brothers and a sister, life was good for the youngest family member, surrounded by love, religion and tradition.

Mira recalls her hometown filled with observant but not seriously devout Jews, with neighbours dressed traditionally but without the religious garb. The town had a rabbi, a ritual bathing house known as a mikva and a certified kosher animal slaughterer known as a schochet, where Mira’s family would take their geese and chickens to be killed in the traditional way. It was not an activity Mira particularly enjoyed.

‘You hanged [the chicken] up and you had to hold it. I hated it, I never wanted to go.’

Mira grew up in a household of fantastic cooks, with both her mother and grandmother working together in the kitchen to prepare their meals and her mother being particularly known for her baking skills. One memorable dish was her chocolate rugelach that would make Mira and her older brothers swoon.

‘We were just dying to get hold of some, begging Mum, “Can we have just one” … she was a very, very good baker, everything would melt in your mouth.’

Yet while her mother excelled in the kitchen, Mira says she really was ‘not a cook who enjoyed cooking’.

Busy as she was running the family's materials and clothing business which sat at the front of the house, the children would often have to remind their mother that it was time to prepare a meal. Perhaps because of this, weekday dishes were simple fare, often including soup like the traditional Czechoslovakian sauerkraut featured on the following pages.

It was on the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals that greater preparation and care was put into each meal.

‘For Shabbat everything was very beautiful,’ Mira recalls, listing chicken soup and handmade noodles, dishes featuring meat and chicken, and sides of farfel and compote as items that would be served on the family’s best silverware. Despite a garden filled with poultry and produce, meat wasn’t always in abundance and thus was served only on Fridays and the Jewish festivals, to signify the sanctity of the day.

‘My late father and my brothers had the most beautiful voices and they knew all the Zmirot and the songs were sung,’ Mira says. ‘The walls were trembling, they were beautiful singers.’

The family would also highlight the Sabbath’s importance by eating their meals in the dining room, as opposed to the kitchen table closer to the shopfront.

Mira recalls all the Jewish festivals being observed with gusto, particularly Pesach, which meant the arrival of new clothes for all the children, and Succot, where the family would celebrate in their hand-built hut known as a succah that sat temporarily in their garden.

‘Every chag [holiday] was beautiful,’ she says.

Yet despite the importance placed on food in her family home during these festivities, Mira says she wasn’t particularly interested in cooking, preferring instead to work in the shop. And then in 1939, at the age of 12, Mira’s life turned upside down with the onset of World War II.

In September 1944, when Mira was 16 years old, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she would be interned for 10 months until she was liberated on her seventeenth birthday.

Upon liberation, Mira was intent on being reunited with whatever family members had survived. After arriving back in Czechoslovakia, she asked about her brothers and if they were still alive. She was told they were but their whereabouts were unknown. People knew of an aunt who was living in the town near Mira’s childhood village.

Arriving in the middle of the night at her aunt’s house, Mira called out her aunt’s name when she got to the door. Unbeknownst to Mira, her brother had stayed over that night and on hearing his long-lost sister’s voice, he literally jumped through the ground floor bedroom window, where they were finally reunited.

Mira returned to the large town where her two surviving brothers were living and set about working in their warehouse. Her brothers were already established and so had a maid to prepare their meals, but Mira was determined to become acquainted with the kitchen.

With produce scarce after the war, Mira headed to the fresh food market where local village people would sell their wares.

‘I could see fish, tiny little fish and I bought it,’ Mira recalls. ‘I came home and I told my brother, “Have a look, I bought some fish” and he started to laugh. He said “Those fish are the bait!”’

It was her brother who would teach her the cooking basics, which came in handy when Mira met Pavel on a holiday in the Tatras and then married him in 1946. But despite her initial lessons, her cooking wasn’t yet quite up to scratch.

‘One day my husband bought liver which was a very hard thing to get. So I wanted to cook the liver but I didn’t know, I thought the more you cooked it the better it is. It came to the table and you could not cut it, it was so hard!’

Luckily for Mira, she didn’t have to run a kitchen straight away as she and her husband went on an extended honeymoon around Europe for almost a year, before returning to Czechoslovakia when she was eight and a half months pregnant.

After giving birth to her son Fred, the family moved to an apartment where a maid was again employed, allowing Mira to cook only when she so desired.

Sabbath quickly became a constant again in her home. Yet after the war, Mira did not fully observe the Jewish festivals, or the kosher laws in her own kitchen. It wasn’t until her husband brought over a business acquaintance who refused to eat in their home because it was not strictly kosher that Mira vowed her next kitchen would be more observant.

The time for this came about in 1948, after the family was forced to leave Czechoslovakia due to the rise of communism. Taking little more than the suitcases they could carry, the family relocated to Paris, where they lived for 10 years.

Mira had two more children, Janet and Lillian, and while she admits that Paris itself was beautiful, there were still restrictions placed on Jews and which universities they could attend. So, hearing of the Jewish educational opportunities that would be available to her children in Australia, the family migrated to Melbourne in 1959.

‘The moment I came, I loved it,’ Mira says. ‘I loved Australia with a passion.’

Her husband soon secured a job running a factory, her children settled into Moriah College and Mira was welcomed by the expatriate community.

By then Mira had a wider repertoire of dishes, but she noticed that in Australia, ‘everything tasted different, it had completely different flavours: the lettuce, the tomatoes, everything’.

Yet despite her adaptation to new tastes and ingredients, Mira’s food didn’t change. She preferred always to serve her family the traditional Jewish dishes she herself had grown up with at home.

‘I did chicken soup, sauerkraut soup … I did nockerli which is egg and flour and then you let it stand for a little bit and you throw little pieces in a spoon into boiling water.’

Gefilte fish was one dish she didn’t eat in Czechoslovakia, as fish was hard to come by, so instead she learnt it from Pavel.

‘There was always someone who told me something and I picked it out,’ she says.

Mira and Pavel separated, with Mira remarrying in 1964 and subsequently having her fourth child, Rochelle. The family lived in an apartment in Elwood, where Mira still resides today and where she takes great pleasure in bringing the family together to enjoy her Sabbath meals.

‘To me, it is a gathering of the family. They are together, the children, the grandchildren, they all come,’ she says.

‘It’s important that they are together, that all the grandchildren know each other … they talk, they’re family.’

Mira rarely alters her Friday night dishes, which still remain the same from her childhood, saying to do so would upset her family who all have their favourites. For Mira, it seems that providing for her loved ones comes naturally, as does celebrating her love of Judaism and her family’s role in it.

‘Having been during the war and knowing what to be Jewish means, to turn the other way is very easy and often done here,’ she explains.

‘I am hoping that my children and grandchildren are going to continue [in Judaism] and that they enjoy it … whatever I can do to contribute to that I do, and if it is because of the cooking, then so be it, that’s my way.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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