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A Holocaust Survivor’s Story Through Food & Memories

Throughout history, food and stories have helped bring people and cultures together, carry on legacies through generations, and connect people over shared experiences. For Irene (Piri) Berkowitz, a Holocaust survivor living in Pittsburgh, her family recipes were learned and passed down to her own children with both tragic and heartwarming stories of life in Czechoslovakia and in the camps. 

Irene came from a large family, and they all helped her mother in the kitchen. She was around her mother while she was cooking and learned how to cook the same food without recipes and with her own personal touches. Irene’s mother made stuffed cabbage and mushroom barley soup, but she doesn’t make it the exact same way her mother did. Irene’s daughter Marsha shared, “My mother was a good cook and these were some of the things she made regularly. I think cooking for the family was her way of expressing love.”

Whenever Irene’s family lived in Europe, before the Holocaust, they would put cabbage in a huge wooden barrel so they would have it throughout the winter. They placed apples in between the heads of cabbage, and they would ferment. Irene said, “The apples were delicious–like champagne!”

In the concentration camp, Irene was there with her mother and four sisters. Her mother would work to keep their morale up and dream of life outside of the camp by telling them she would cook and bake for them again when they get home. Irene’s mother dreamed of coming to America and opening a restaurant of her own. She would tell her children that she remembered living through World War I and would try to encourage them that they would make it through, saying, “The war went on for years and then one day it was over.” While Irene’s mom and older sister unfortunately did not make it to America due to typhus, Irene and her other sisters made it out, and Irene and two of her sisters settled in Pittsburgh, where she also had an aunt living. 

Irene’s aunt sponsored them to come here from Czechoslovakia, but the process still wasn’t easy, even after they were liberated from the camp. “It was a long process to come to America and we had to escape illegally,” Irene explained. “Even after we got out, we had to wait for permission to come to the US.” It was five years before she was eventually be able to come to Pittsburgh.

Cooking became an important part of Irene’s new life in America. “I only ever cooked, never went to restaurants,” she said. “We worked hard, and I was happy to be here in the US and raise my children.”

Irene’s daughter Marsha shared that when her mother made soup, there was always more than enough for the family. “She always made enough to share,” Marsha said. “She would always send some home with her children and grandchildren.” Marsha also shared that with Irene’s two sisters in Pittsburgh, their family gatherings were always large and filled with delicious food–much of which was learned from childhood. “They all made stuffed cabbage, which they all learned from their mother, but they all made it a little bit different,” Marsha said. 

For Irene and others like her, food is an important part of retaining and sharing a culture and home left behind. From passing recipes down through her children and grandchildren to remembering food that reminds her of family and childhood, Irene’s life and story is interwoven with food and meals together with others, through challenges and successes.


Find Irene’s recipes here: 

Mushroom Barley Soup

Stuffed Cabbage

Apple Cake


You can learn more about Irene’s story in Flares of Memory: Stories of Childhood During the Holocaust. You can also find more recipes and stories from people around the world living in Pittsburgh at our Global Food Blog.