Joan Nathan wrote a wonderful piece in this week’s New York Times food section, Brisket Was His Madeleine (her wonderful title is unfortunately never referenced in the body of her article). In it, she writes about Edward Serotta‘s extraordinary efforts to preserve the cultural and culinary legacy of Eastern Europe’s Jews through his organization, Centropa.
The first thing that must be said about this site is the gorgeous graphics. It is a visually rich and inviting site. But they have not stinted on content either. These are some of the sections:
Mimi Sheraton’s Remembrances of Flavors Past
Witness to a Jewish Century (Flash mini-documentaries)
Fiction and Memoirs
It is an extraordinary and deeply moving achievement.
The genesis of this project came, as do so many of the great works of culture and literature, from food. The food of one Eastern European Jew in particular:
Centropa has roots in a kitchen epiphany. In 1999, Mr. Serotta was producing a documentary for the ABC News program Nightline on Rosie Jakab, a Romanian in her 90’s who was still cooking the food she loved for both Jews and non-Jews, at a home for the elderly where she lived.
“They cooked so well that I hung around for five weeks. It was so embarrassing. The good thing was they kept feeding me, so I thought, `Why hurry?’ ”
While editing the film, Serotta thought it was a pity that the Jewish cultural and culinary heritage of Central and Eastern Europe was being lost. His translator introduced him to two newly arrived Israelis, who had been trained to record oral histories. Serotta hired them immediately, along with an Internet-oriented archivist from Belgrade.
That was the start of Centropa
To further explore Centropa’s culinary archive, see Eating Around Eastern Europe.
What also drives Serotta’s passion for this project is the certainty that with each passing year, his best informants are dying out. That’s why he’s hired 90 staff members and a dozen interviewers to record every memory, every photograph and every recipe that they can find to document as much of this slowly passing cultural legacy as possible.
Two food-related epiphanies inspired his commitment to preserving these Eastern European Jewish traditions. In the early 1980s, he was a stockbroker in Atlanta and decided to take a vacation that would include visits to Jewish communities to Eastern Europe:
“I was sitting in a coffeehouse in Prague,” he said during a fund-raising trip to Washington. “I was eating great baked Czech chocolate pastries and talking with an elderly Jewish woman, watching the snow falling.” He was entranced by her stories about growing up in the years before World War II. “I thought, `I am not going back to Atlanta,’ ” he said.
While he did return home, he could not resist the pull of his Eastern European Jewish roots and food again helped determine his fate. At the Bucharest Jewish community center:
“Someone served me a piece of brisket the size of a telephone book with big boiled potatoes. It felt like home,” he said. “Then I realized, it is the old country, and these were the recipes of my grandparents in Poland.”
He vowed then to capture the family stories of these people. Three years later, he sold everything he owned and moved to Budapest. He has produced three books and four documentary films. His photographs are in the permanent collections of many American museums.
Here is how Serotta describes Centropa’s mission:
We are an international team of historians, filmmakers, web designers, journalists, educators, photographers and Jewish community activists. Our goal is to create a window into Jewish history, and current events, in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. By marrying the newest technologies and research methods, we want to take Jewish history off the shelf, and bring it into your homes, classrooms, synagogues, libraries, book clubs and organizations.
Our largest project, Witness to a Jewish Century, is a searchable online library of Jewish family pictures, and the memories that go with them. Right now, more than forty Centropa interviewers are visiting elderly Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe, asking them to share their precious family photographs and their stories about the people in those photographs. While we would be happy for you to look for your own family, think of Witness as your own tool for creating custom made files on everyday Jewish life before, during, as well as after, the Holocaust.
Serotta’s books, videos and documentaries are extraordinary documents in themselves. Ted Koppel has run several of Serotta’s stories on Nightline including a memorable piece about his search to find and preserve the incomparable and priceless Sarajevo Haggadah during the Serb siege of the city. Serotta recounts his miraculous and ultimately successful effots to find and save it.
The accompanying Serotta images document the enormous destruction wrought by Serb shelling on Sarajevo’s cultural institutions and artifacts.
Maud Michal Beer says
I have been interviewed, am glad that
Centropa exists. It gives life to our murdered family members and way of life.