Not Your Bubby’s Gefilte Fish

The sweet and (un)savory story behind the traditional dish.

Three Nazis walk into a Kosher restaurant in Warsaw.

While this may sound like the opening of an unsavory joke, it is actually a true story.

In October 1934, three “Hitlerite journalists,” on assignment to Poland from Berlin, were strolling through the streets of Warsaw in search of a good meal when they entered “Metrepole,” a Jewish, Kosher restaurant. The men took their seats, perused the menu and proceeded to order one of the oldest known Jewish delicacies of all time: gefilte fish.

The Sentinel, October 11, 1934

As the guests enjoyed their meal and a nice glass of whiskey, they requested that the in-house orchestra play on repeat, “this wonderful Russian Melody,” the traditional song of Kol Nidre, a prayer that is recited on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Oy vey.

The visitors finished off their gourmet meal and left the restaurant after giving their complements to the chef – “Auf Wiedersehn!”

It may seem strange to our modern sensibilities that a Jewish food as odd as gefilte fish would be available on a Warsaw restaurant menu in the first place, never mind that these particular guests would even order the dish.

For those who are not familiar with the traditional food, gefilte fish is a dish typically made of a combination of several different fish that are ground up and shaped into croquettes before being cooked. The dish is traditionally served on Friday night in honor of Shabbat dinner with a side of chrein, a dip made of horseradish and beets. The classic fish dish can be made in a salty or sweet preparation and, believe it or not, it is hotly debated which version is the proper dish. In fact, there is a defined “Gefitle fish line” that had been drawn through Jewish Eastern Europe on the salty/sweet divide.

“Lighting the Sabbath Candles,” illustration by Alphonse Levy, published by French photographer Etienne Nuerdein, from the NLI archive.

Born out of necessity in Europe, the preparation of gefilte fish was a way for impoverished Jewish families to stretch whatever piece of the pricey protein they could afford by adding onions, eggs, and matzoh meal. Gefilte, meaning “stuffed” in Yiddish, describes the method of preparation in which the skin was removed, and meat of the fish itself was ground up with the rest of the ingredients before the mixture was stuffed back into the skins in preparation for cooking.

Not only did this method help stretch a small portion of fish, it also remedied an issue in Jewish law faced by fish eaters on Shabbat. Borer, the prohibition against separating, prohibits the removal of bones from the flesh of the fish on Shabbat. By grinding up the fish together with the bones, there is no longer anything left to be picked out.

With the complicated process of preparing this traditional Jewish dish, there was a large market open to Jewish food companies to create an easier, more accessible version. In 1931, for the first time, the spicy goodness that is gefilte fish was “successfully imprisoned in cans,” by Ethel’s Food Products Inc, with the Kosher seal of approval from a rabbi in Chicago. The exciting announcement promised a superior flavor to the homemade version and ensured the use of first grade materials processed on sanitary equipment.

The Sentinel, January 16, 1931

Thus was born jarred jelly coated gefilte fish as you know it today (they come in cans as well). Kosher food companies vied for that coveted spot at the Shabbat table promising “Gefilte fish like your mother used make- only if your mother made great gefilte fish.”

Mother’s Gefilte Fish advertisement, The Sentinel, September 4, 1969

This Jewish delicacy- the epitome of Jewish soul food, is featured in Jewish art, books, and has several Yiddish folk songs written in its honor. One song, written sometime in the late 1800’s, found itself featured on Israeli radio! The lyricist describes the wonderful texture and the melt in your mouth flavor that gefilte fish has to offer every Shabbat at your mother’s table.

It’s a thousand flavored treat

First tasted at my mother’s knee,

It’s precious, it’s so good,

It’s the Jewish national food

As you eat, it melts right in your mouth,

The gefilte fish themselves are Jewish.

With a musical endorsement like that, who could resist temptation?

Gefilte fish, the little dish that could, has become such an iconic symbol of Jewish cuisine and culture across the world that it even has a festival named in its honor. Gefiltefest is an annual celebration that explores Jewish heritage, tradition and culture through food that is hosted annually in Europe.

Poster for the Gefiltefest Jewish Food Festival, from the National Library Jewish European Ephemera Collection

So, the next time you find yourself at your grandma’s Shabbat table at a meal featuring those jelly coated fish loaves, consider giving them a try. Hundreds of years of Jewish tradition can’t be wrong…right?

Check out this recipe for Gefilte fish taken from an 18th-century manuscript from Otensoos in Bavaria that is now preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The recipe is written in German using Hebrew letters.

Recipe for Gefilte Fish from an 18th Century manuscript. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. 

Gefilte Fish:

Take one fish, large or small. Let the fish handler slit it, wash it clean and salt it well.

Make the following filling: Take a small white fish and fillet it. Chop it finely with parsley, yellow carrots, raw eggs, an onion and chives. All of these should be chopped very small. Form into two white rolls while wet. When all this is done, put a large spoon of fat into a covered pot and allow it to melt. Slice an onion into the fat and braise until golden, then add vegetables and allow to simmer. Take bread and leave to boil for a while. Then put it aside and crack a few eggs into it. The filling needs to be thick. Add ginger, pepper, lemon juice and some yellow (perhaps carrots?). Fill the fish and cook it in butter, fat or oil.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Rare Photos: The Persian Princess Visits the Jewish Fashion Designers

This photo collection of Iran of the 1950s and 1960s shows the story of a world lost in history.

צילום: הארכיון המרכזי לתולדות העם היהודי

These pictures are from the global headquarters of ORT in Geneva, an organization founded in 1888 and focused on professional and vocational training in Jewish communities worldwide. The organization worked in the former Soviet Union, Germany, France, and many other European counties, not to mention, of course, their work in schools in Tehran, Shiraz, and other cities in Iran.

In this collection of photographs found in the NLI’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, some of which are published here for the first time, there are dozens of pictures of Jewish teenage girls learning to sew and studying to join the world of fashion design in Iran.

These young fashion designers learned the basics of sewing, measuring, and pattern making, but the school also boasted a curriculum of the history of fashion, as well as other creative workshops.

The prestige bestowed upon the Jews of Iran at that time is clear when you consider who came to see the final projects of this fashion design school. Among the many politicians and VIPs were the wife and daughter of the Persian Shah.

The Search for Sella Podbielski’s Books

How the National Library of Israel contributes to book provenance research.

I came to the National Library in December, 2017 in search of Sella’s books. Sella Podbielski née Weiss was born in Gostyn in Poland in 1888 and was most likely murdered in Auschwitz. Her books – if they still exist – would be the only surviving items from her possessions.

One of her two sons, the writer Gerhard René Podbielski, left Poland in January 1939 and I have been working for his son since 2015, exploring the family’s tabooed fate.

My autopsy work place in the reading room on 19 December 2017. Photo: Marc Jarzebowski

Sella’s books first came to my attention during an online search in a tangle of digitized microfilms from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington. They were recorded in the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD), established in early 1946 by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the American military government to collect books, manuscripts and archival materials that had been looted, confiscated or taken by the German army under the Nazi government.

In 1947, the organization, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc. (JCR), was founded to deal with the restitution procedure of Jewish property and heirlooms following the Holocaust. Its executive secretary from 1949 to 1952 was the political theorist Hannah Arendt. When the Offenbach Depot was cleared in June 1949, the remaining items from the more than three million volumes which had been handled there, most of which had already been restituted, were transferred to the Central Collecting Point (CCP) Wiesbaden. In Oct 1949 a list of books received from Offenbach was compiled, containing about 45000 books previously owned by private Jewish owners identifiable by signatures, stamps or ex-libris. According to this list, three of the books contained Sella’s signature.

I realized that I was searching for a needle in a haystack as the lists from Offenbach and Wiesbaden named the previous owners of the books but listed no book titles. But it was too early for me to give up. I found out in the NARA microfilms that about 12,000 books from this list were packed in cases and mostly sent to New York and Jerusalem in 1950. I realized that JCR provenances have not been recorded in the library catalogs, even more so the names of the previous owners. My correspondences with library staff showed that not much institutional knowledge of the processes of book distributions in the 1950s has remained.

I was fortunate that Daniel Lipson of Israel National Library was also interested in the books from the JCR and in their stories. He put much effort into responding to my request and he created an excel list with thousands of books, which the National Library had received from the JCR in the 1950s.

It is a reconstruction and – as Lipson puts it – definitely not complete and far from being accurate. But it was something to work with and I decided to work by taking random samples. I chose 40 books written by authors read and appreciated by Sella’s son – this was the only possible lead I had – and requested them into the reading room for an autopsy.

Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) label

Some of them still had the JCR label from Wiesbaden, but in other cases it has fallen off or has been lost during re-binding.

I found stamps, from institutions like the Jewish communities of Dresden and Frankfurt upon Main or the Königsberg Zionist Association, but also of Nazi institutions which had formed libraries mainly from looted books. I also found signatures, and some of such private owner marks can be directly connected to the 1949 list.

Just to give one example: The library’s third copy of Arnold Zweig’s Novellen um Claudia contains the following handwritten entry: Else Ehrlich, Hildesheim, Juli 1921 v. L. Meyerhof (Else Ehrlich, a resident of the city of Hildesheim, has received this book from L. Meyerhof in July 1921).

Signature of Else Ehrlich, Hildesheim in Arnold Zweig’s “Novellen um Claudia”


Else Hildesheim entry in 1949 Wiesbaden list

The Wiesbaden source does not contain the name Else Ehrlich, but lists one book from the possession of a Hildesheim Ehrlich. Evidently the person in charge could not decipher Else or simply forgot to include the given name in the list and put Hildesheim into the column for the given name instead of the place column.

As much research is being done on the victims of the Nazi terror, it took me only five minutes and a few clicks to find out about the deportation of Else Ehrlich from Hildesheim in April 1942 into Warsaw Ghetto. Her date and place of death are unknown, but this one book – and maybe more – has survived and we can hold it physically in our hands.

Book provenance research is – in the shadow of art provenance research – still quite a young discipline, but many public libraries in Germany have started to check their stocks for looted items and to document their previous owners, for example in the cooperative looted cultural assets database, with six – so far – participating institutions such as the Free University Berlin Library.

I did not find Sella’s books. But I found books from the possession of people who shared her fate. And with the help of Daniel Lipson I found a way to regain knowledge which had been lost over the decades in the shut library stacks. Ten matches out of the 40 books I have checked and compared with the 1949 list is a promising quota, but it is only just the start.

The School that Helped Children Heal from the Holocaust

In the Avigdor School magazine, dreams of becoming a princess stand alongside memories of starvation. The magazine offered an outlet for the memories of Jewish children after World War Two.

Jewish children arrive in London with the Kindertransport, February, 1939

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the need for Jews to flee from Europe became increasingly urgent. Following the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht in 1938, the extent of the threat to the Jewish people became even more clear.

A group of Jewish community leaders in the UK approached the British government with a plea to help the Jews of Europe. Among them were Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, a community leader and one of the unsung heroes of that dark time, who saved countless lives before, during, and after the Holocaust, at great risk of losing his own.

After the approval of the Kindertransport by the British government, thousands of refugee children were quickly removed from danger and put on trains bound for England. The Jewish children were taken in by volunteer foster homes across the country. Jewish, Orthodox children found themselves suddenly living in non-orthodox or non-Jewish homes, their own culture and heritage slowly fading into distant memory.

Concerned for the heritage of these children, Rabbi Schonfeld took it upon himself to find alternative housing options for the orthodox children where their religious practices and traditions would be followed.

A group photos of the Jewish Secondary School in Shefford, 1941. Photo from “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulders- Beyond the Kindertransport, (2008)” by Frieda Stozbeg Korobkin.

As London prepared for war, children were sent from the city to the countryside to ensure their safety. Rabbi Schonfeld sent many of the Orthodox Kindertransport children to the Jewish Secondary School (JSS), which had moved to Shefford after the start of the war, to provide them a safe haven where they would be surrounded by Jewish life, culture and studies.

After the war, the children and the Jewish school moved to London where the JSS was renamed the Avigdor School. It was at this time, in 1946, that Rabbi Schonfeld began helping child survivors in displaced persons camps in Europe. The Avigdor School became home to these children who had survived the horrors of the Nazis and needed a place to start over and begin to heal.

Illustration of the Avigdor School included in the school magazine.

Already home to British children and the German refugee children, the addition of the Polish refugees created an entirely new dynamic at the school. Frieda Stolzberg, one of the children who escaped on the Kindertransport and later met Rabbi Schonfeld, described the experience of the melting pot that was the Avigdor School after the arrival of the refugee children in her memoirs, “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulder”:

“We old-timers referred to the newcomers as ‘the Polish children.’ Some of them were wild and unmanageable because of their wartime experiences. Many of them suffered from nightmares and were often found sleepwalking,” she described.

“Our feelings towards the Polish children were somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, we regarded ourselves as British by now and felt superior to these foreigners who spoke an ugly, guttural language. Their arrival upset the equilibrium and routine of our lives causing tensions and resentment.”

The staff and administrators struggled to find a way to contend with the trauma that came to the school with the child survivors. They decided that, as a method of healing, the children would be allowed to express and share their experiences and their stories, to let out the pain they were experiencing, in an attempt to begin to heal. The children would not be stifled- rather encouraged to remember, to write, and to tell their story.

The Avigdor School Magazine published ahead of the Jewish New Year in 1947.

The Avigdor school magazine became a space for students to express themselves and share their experiences. The issue prepared ahead of the Jewish New Year in September 1947 shows the dichotomy and contrast of experiences between the different groups of children living and studying together following the Holocaust.

In the section of the magazine dedicated to original articles and poems written by students, a poem written by a young girl who dreamed of being a princess, feasting with her valiant prince stands alongside articles by survivors of the war writing of their fears and experiences. Another article written by Frieda Stolzberg related the great successes of the Avigdor teams at sports day: “Well done Avigdor! The shield is ours again this year”. Just a few pages after it, we find a testimony written by an author identified only as G.S.:

“We could not stay any longer in Italy because it was very dangerous for us, now that the Germans had overrun the country and would take us to concentration camps….Now we are in England but I think I shall never forget our troubles which we had to bear for nearly 8 years.”

“The Jewish Tragedy,” an excerpt of testimony from the Avigdor School Magazine.

The stories of the horror faced by these children came to life in their writing. In a piece entitled, “The Jewish Tragedy,” another student wrote of the experience of being transferred to the camps in a cattle car.

“I shall never forget the scene, when one early morning, German offices came to us, into the Ghetto. We were ordered to pack a parcel…Ten minutes later we were taken to the station and put into a cattle-wagon in which there were already 95 persons… Three days and three nights we could not sleep even standing; children were crying all day long; they cried for thirst, hunger, sleeplessness and wariness until we reached our destination, Auschwitz, many people died.”

Pages 18 and 19 from the Avigdor School Magazine

On the opposite page of a poem penned by a girl named Edith on her love for the glorious season of winter, where snowballs and sledding are a source of joyful cheer, an unknown author shared a painful poem entitled, “The Death of a Rose,” in which a flourishing rose was ruthlessly plucked from a blooming bush and left for dead.

“When with quick step from that spot he hastened,
The rose dropped to the ground unknown
Where it lay quite crushed and broke, all its beauty gone.
 Longing-longing for the rose bush where it had happily grown.

A wild thing destroyed by the hand of man,
His fault that it now lay in this everlasting sleep
From which it never again would wake on huge and dirty rubble heap.”

The seamless juxtaposition of these realities, from the excitement of a child ahead of the jolly days of winter to the crushing memories of another who had been stripped from their source of life, exhibits how the school magazine provided the children with an outlet – regardless of their history or experiences.

The magazine became a place for the child survivors to share their memories, their experiences, the horrors they faced and to, on some small level, begin to heal. The administrators at the Avigdor School worked to create a unique and open environment of solidarity and understanding that brought the children from the different corners of Europe together all working towards the same goal of recovery from loss, pain, and trauma following the worst tragedy ever faced by the Jews of Europe.

For more on the experiences of Frieda Stolzberg, read, “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulders- Beyond the Kindertransport, (2008)” by Frieda Stozbeg Korobkin.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection in the National Library of Israel.