February 18, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Five

PREVIOUSLY: World War Two begins and baker Ernie Feld is herded onto a train in his hometown with other Jewish prisoners — to where he hasn’t got a clue.

For countless hours, the young men rode inside a cramped railroad boxcar, huddled like cattle, as the train rumbled across the Czechoslovakian countryside and into Hungary.

Once there, the engine screeched to a halt and the prisoners were unloaded and divided into work groups. 

You go here. You go there.

Nobody knew anything.

Ernie’s mob was led to a barn where they were ordered to sleep at night. 

It was early March, 1944. The men shared the rank quarters with hundreds of cows, which Ernie recalled weren’t as bad as you might think: their constant flatulence stopped the men from freezing.

“We put down our blankets and things. We slept on one side, in one row, and the cows on the other,” Ernie later told his Holocaust Project interviewers. “And it was pretty good, because winter, from the cows, it stinks a little bit, but it was pretty warm.” 

With his kitchen training, Ernie was quickly named the camp cook and began making hearty meals from scratch for large groups of men. 

In a nearby encampment, the Third Reich operated an airport outside Budapest known as Ferry Head, from which they dispatched bombers to carpet the Russian front.

The Nazi SS officers lived in a row of neatly-arranged barracks. The champagne flowed freely. But other delicacies were harder to come by, even for these privileged men. 

One day, a German SS officer walked into Ernie’s putrid camp kitchen. 

“He asked me, ‘What can you cook?’” Ernie recalled. “He needed someone to make appetizers for the officers to eat with their champagne and beer.”

Ernie told him what he baked.

The officer turned to the Hungarian camp sergeant. 

“I’ll take him,” he said.

At the Nazi’s airport headquarters, Ernie was at assigned to work under an older German cook who, he quickly saw, struggled to meet the demands of his superiors. 

So Ernie stepped up.

“Jews always make miracles,” he said later. “Moses and minyans.”

Soon, he was making the poppy-seed strudels his mother taught him to bake, a dish that quickly became a favorite among Nazi officers not use to liking anything associated with Jews. 

But that wasn’t all. Ernie also used military-issue canned goods to whip up dishes like wide-noodle pasta with poppy seeds and pastries with frankfurters.

The Nazis all approved, saying he cooked cannoli just like an Italian.

Imagine that.

He also made pates and a signature soup made of pigs’ brains and shin bones.

“I started making hors d’oeuvres and things from cans,” Ernie recalled. “I dreamed things up, because they had no ravioli and no pasta and no nothing – just flour. And from the flour, I made dough, and I made the pasta and the soup noodles — anything you want — from nothing.”

The Wehrmacht officers quickly became dependent on their Jewish kitchen-magician.

They tasked a German soldier with making sure Ernie always had enough supplies. 

“He was always watching over me,” Ernie said of his guard. “Because without me, there’s no Christmas; there’s no nothing.”

Often, the Germans sent Ernie into Budapest with his uniformed minder — who was along not so much as a precaution against the inmate’s escape, but to protect a precious resource. He could have been shot dead on the street by other Germans.

Wearing his yellow Jewish arm band, Ernie bought the items that allowed him to vary his menu for the scores of hungry officers. The excursions reminded him of the trips into the Czechoslovakian countryside at the behest of the chefs at his baker’s school.

And then, like now, Ernie knew how to make a deal. He bargained, and usually came away with more than he’d hoped for.

Because Ernie knew he was feeding more than just the Germans. Back at camp, he secretly fed the leftovers to fellow Jewish prisoners.

Then Ernie got an idea: He saw how many other Jewish prisoners were forced to perform the back-breaking labor of cleaning latrines and digging ditches.

He felt guilty and decided to use his newfound influence.

One day, Ernie’s German kitchen-overseer took him aside: the SS officers wanted pasta that day. But there were no noodles. 

It was a major problem, one Ernie was expected to solve.

“I can make it,” he told the officer.

Then he set his plan into motion.

“‘First of all,’ I said, ‘I need a hundred Jews.’”

He didn’t need that many, of course, but he was emboldened.

To be truly believable and fool his overseer, he pretended as though he viewed the other Jews with contempt as servants and not colleagues.

He played the role of a cruel kitchen taskmaster.

For Ernie, that part was easy.

He yelled at his new Jewish recruits. 

“I was yelling ‘Jews, go out!’ just so he felt I was on his side, just to make him feel better. Because when he says ‘Dirty Jews,’ it’s different. But if I say so …” 

None of the men complained.

“I knew how to cook,” Ernie recalled, “so everyone wanted to go with me.”

The Jews working in the kitchen eventually came to an uneasy truce with Hungarian soldiers working under the Germans, whose job it was to keep them in line. 

The Hungarians felt sorry the Jews and developed a ruse to fool the Nazi SS officers who occasionally showed up to inspect the kitchen.

“The Hungarians told us ‘We will insult you. If we don’t they’ll send us to the Russian front.” So the the Jewish prisoners endured the humiliation, until the SS officers left.

Meanwhile, Ernie’s kitchen was a busy place. 

When he began work on one of his creations, the men formed assembly lines and awaited their orders.

To make his poppyseed noodles, he mixed flower and water inside a mammoth kettle. One by one, the balls of dough were ushered outside, where workers rolled them flat with empty champagne bottles.

One man carried the rolled-out strands of dough back into Ernie’s kitchen. 

Then the master went to work. 

“I cut them, boiled them in water, put poppy seeds on them, and we had poppy seed noodles for the Officer’s Club,” Ernie said.

Ernie also made sweet butter from scratch. 

He soaked cans of salted butter in water and told his crew to wash and knead it with their bare hands, “like gold in the water.” 

Once the salt was scoured, he mixed ice and butter and eggs.

“I made cheese. I cut it in squares. Jews wrapped it. And the Germans had tea butter.”

The Wehrmacht officers eventually allowed Ernie to expand his kitchen empire. 

Using money he collected from fellow inmates, he enlisted farmers in outlying Hungarian villages to use their outdoor brick ovens to cook his recipes.

Not all of villagers were happy about doing business with Jews, he recalled. 

Still, every Friday, Ernie traveled to the countryside to collect the results. 

Sometimes, he used the country ovens to do his own baking for his own men.

He returned to camp with traditional Jewish pastries and precious challah the prisoners had almost forgotten existed. 

“When the guys came home from work, at first it was ‘How did you do it?’”

After dark, the Jewish prisoners would watch the Allied bomber planes swoop in, the heat from their strafing missiles lighting up the night sky.

“That was the most beautiful thing,” Ernie recalled. “We saw the Russians coming in, bombing Budapest, and then the American liberators; and they are bombing.”

Once, when a German Messerschmitt landing at the airport got stuck in some sand, officers ordered several Jewish prisoners at gunpoint to stand on a wing to give the plane the balance necessary for takeoff.

The plane rumbled down the runway, with several Jewish men standing on the wings, holding on for dear life, knowing the German rifles were pointed at their backs.

Just before the plane became airborne, the officers yelled for the men to jump.

“Well, I didn’t want to take a ride to the Russian front,” Ernie recalled. “So I jumped.”

He fell and broke his left arm. 

Decades later, he still had restricted movement in the limb.

After the war, when Ernie was living in the U.S., he met an American pilot who had coincidentally flown bombing missions over the Budapest airport.

The officer showed Ernie a picture of his bomber, on the side of which was scrawled the phrase “Jewboy.”

Ernie didn’t flinch.

“I was there,” he told the pilot. “You mean you didn’t see me?”

At night, as the German officers slept in their comfortable barracks, Ernie and the others returned to the barn, to sleep among the cows. 

Still, they felt lucky to be alive.

They didn’t know that at that very moment, the Nazis were using industrial ovens to exterminate many of their families. 

That horrible realization would only come later.

NEXT WEEK: The baffling Mystery of Ernie

John M. Glionna is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who chronicles the American West. He’s also a former national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, based in Vegas, and served as the Seoul bureau chief on the newspaper’s foreign desk, where he covered the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il. He has also written extensively about California. For more on Glionna visit his website.

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