February 18, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Nine

When the war ended in 1945, Ernie returned to the only home he knew: Lucenec. 

He took the train, walking the last 20 miles on foot, amid bomb craters and devastation. A new restaurant had opened to serve free meals to residents and Ernie went there for word about his mother and younger brother, who he had not seen in years. 

Were they dead? Had they survived the Nazis? 

He wasn’t the only one.

Each day, scores of men waited at the city’s main station for news from the camps. One after the other, trains crowded with Jewish refugees arrived from Germany and Poland. 

Men and woman ran into the arms of returning loved ones, whose faces were often gaunt and who had to be helped onto the platform.

Ernie watched these reunions. 

But no one came to him. 

“I went to that station every day for weeks,” he recalled. “I asked people, ‘Did you see my mother? You did? Where did you see her?”

Sarah had reportedly been seen at one camp, then another. 

Finally, someone said she had been gassed at Auschwitz. 

That’s when Ernie finally admitted to himself that both his mother and brother were dead. Because Alex had been so small, he probably would have been forced to accompany their mother to the ovens. 

At least they died together, Ernie thought.

After several months, Ernie left Lucenec for Prague, to start his life anew.

He had nothing now, but his career as a pastry chef.

He opened a bakery with a Czech partner. “I had no money,” Ernie recalled. “I had the brains. He had the money.”

While in Prague, Ernie had heard that young Jewish revolutionaries were organizing a force to travel to Palestine and create a free Jewish state.

That’s when the young baker made an extraordinary personal transformation: The boy who never openly embraced his Judaism was challenged to rethink his convictions.

His mother, brother and countless relatives were all dead at the hands of the Nazis. Their only crime was being Jewish.

Now here was movement to create a sanctuary for Jews like himself. So many had died during the war; the killing had to stop.

Ernie decided to join the movement.

“They were organizing all the youth leftover in Czechoslovakia,” he recalled. “They created these camps and got the young children without parents, telling them about Israel, and all that, and moving them to Israel.”

In the city of Karlsberg, the tables had turned on the remaining German civilians. Like Jews before the war, they were forced out of their houses to make way for Jews and other Czechs.

Entire families were allowed only one 100-pound bag of belongings as they were carted off back to Germany. Ernie moved into a vacated six-story house with 20 other men.

“If you came home from the concentration camp, Jew or no Jew, you got a house to live in Karlsbad,” he said.

He and his business partner began baking to help feed a growing army of volunteers – all of them preparing to go to Israel.

And just like he’d done all his life, Ernie put his street smarts and willpower to work.

He and his partner opened a new bakery. Ernie’s job was to collect raw materials on the black market and he traveled as far away as Prague, using connections to buy sugar and flour.

An uncle who lived in Prague advised him to give up this dream of a Jewish state and instead go to America. He was a talented chef, the uncle said. 

“Go someplace and make yourself into a rich man,” he counseled.

But Ernie’s mind was made up. “He couldn’t convince me,” he said. “Anything I made, I just put it into the kibbutz, all the money.” 

Word soon got out about this talented baker.

Like the German SS officers had done back in Budapest, a member of the Zionist underground in Prague paid him a visit.

“Israel calls you,” he told Ernie. “I need you. We need you.”

Ernie was dispatched to travel between six giant Zionist training camps in surrounding woods outside Karlsbad to make sure frontline cooks knew how to make enough food for the growing ranks of fighters. 

The camps were supported by the Russian government and run by the Czech army, which instructed the recruits on how to fire weapons and engage their future enemy.

Already, Ernie’s kitchen demeanor was unyielding. 

He began ordering around some new recruits. One of the men didn’t like Ernie’s attitude: He punched him in the face. 

“I told the bosses ‘You’re sending me an elephant – I can’t talk to him,” Ernie said. 

There were other problems: The camp’s suppliers began skimming money; buying the cheapest meat and cheese and pocketing the difference.

The food’s quality and quantity immediately suffered.

The recruits complained. Ernie told them, “I can only cook from the material they give me. I cannot cook anything else.” 

A food revolt ensued.

The recruits took the small balls of soft Swiss cheese served up to them and threw them at the mess hall ceiling, where it stuck like gooey stalactites.

Ernie wasn’t miffed. He was the one leading the protest.

He also led a strike among his cooks. “Three days, we don’t cook,” he said. “We wouldn’t go in.” 

Finally, the suppliers were fired and the food improved. 

Later, Ernie got a new assignment: The underground established a hospital to care for expectant mothers inside a converted hotel. 

Ernie was sent to cook his pastries.

The young man with an eye for pretty girls was overjoyed. 

“I was there, me and two more guys, with 200 pregnant women,” he recalled. “Imagine!” 

That’s when Ernie met his future wife Helen. A slender beauty with high cheekbones and an aristocratic demeanor, she fell for this bossy man with the jaunty chef’s hat. 

For the next few years, she would remain by his side.

By the end of 1947, tens of thousands of Jewish fighters boarded trucks bound for Western Europe, where they would embark on the sea journey to Palestine.

And to war. 

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