February 18, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Eleven

Ernie Fuld

PREVIOUSLY: Ernie is among thousands of Jewish freedom fighters captured by the British and exiled in Cyprus

For the 3,500 captured Jews, landfall in Cyprus was chaotic.

The prisoners were herded off of the British ships, forbidden from carrying any belongings. Instead, the English searched all of the bags, emptying the possessions into a massive pile of people’s precious keepsakes.

Ernie believes they did it out of spite.

For weeks, people sorted through the tangle of pictures, clothes, shoes, musical instruments, papers and photographs. Ernie’s accordion – the one he played on board en route to Palestine – was lost. He also lost his shirt and could only find one of his shoes. 

“I was going around with one shoe, from one camp to the other,” he recalled, asking ‘Did you get my other shoe?’”

Miraculously, someone finally found it.

The accordion never surfaced.

Eventually, the prisoners were divided into camps, joining thousands of other Jews who had been captured before them. They set up barracks-style tents, wiling away the days by playing poker, socializing and arguing.

Inmates were expected to cook for themselves.

Once again, Ernie took over as camp cook.

Quickly, a humble black-market economy took hold. Some prisoners had smuggled money into the camp that they used to buy their own food from an upstart cantina, stocked by local Greek farmers and donations from the Jewish underground.

Ernie organized contributions from his fellow inmates and built an outdoor kitchen with a stove and chimney — that became the one and only camp bakery.

He set out to transform the dreary foodstuffs delivered in bulk each day by the British. He collected the leftovers among inmates, and went to work on creating some special camp creations.

Using extra ingredients that he bought from the Greeks, he made chocolate coffee cake and sweet butter.

Even ice cream.

“The British said it was better than in Nicosia,” he recalled proudly.

The feat accomplished even without electricity.

And here’s how Ernie did it.

First, he bought several large blocks of ice from the canteen. Then he paid three Jewish prisoners to dig a deep hole and fill it with straw. He laid the ice inside and covered the makeshift cooler with wooden planks.

A Romanian inmate devised a large machine Ernie used to grind up salt, ice, eggs, milk and oranges to make his ice cream. 

And here comes the real entrepreneurial part.

Ernie even delivered.

He collected money to buy an old table and carved out two large holes to hold his ice cream pots. He then devised handles on both sides and hired two guys to lug the contraption like pall bearers bearing a coffin.

“We had Christmas bells, and they were going around, in ten languages, yelling around the camp, “Ice cream!’”

That wasn’t all.

Things had changed since Ernie devised a reverse-osmosis technique during his days under the Nazis, where he scrounged for ingredients to make pasta for SS officers. 

In Cyprus, another problem arose: there was too much British-issued pasta. 

“Who can eat pasta day after day?” he recalled.

So Ernie took the leftover pasta and boiled it down for use in other dishes. 

To transform the noodles, he bought several drums of Army-issued sweet milk, adding water and filling the drums with as many noodles as he could fit. 

After a few days, the covered noodles and milk had condensed into dough. He then added yeast, sugar and chocolate and sold cake to the entire camp.

His most popular feat was a cake topped by sweet icing made from hot sugar – baked in the shape of the British camp. 

And the coup de grace? 

He was most proud of the tiny barbed-wire fence that looped around the tiny icing prisoners, all of it fashioned from sugar.

“It was a model of the camp that featured a tent,” he said. “There were people and the sand and, in the middle, the Israeli flag, and I displayed it.”

Like the Germans before them, the British officers were impressed by the feats this wily Jewish baker could achieve.

Ernie basked in the praise. But on the side, he worked to sabotage his British captors.

Over many months, working at night in shifts, prisoners constructed a series of underground tunnels beneath the barbed-wired camp exterior that was patrolled around the clock by armed British soldiers. 

Under the cover of darkness, hundreds of Jews were spirited through the tunnels to nearby fields, where Greek workers hid them inside huge crates of oranges.

“The Greeks waited outside with big trucks, baskets the size of a guy,” Ernie recalled. 

The containers were trucked to the nearby seashore, where the escapees were picked up by the Jewish underground and taken on to Haifa.

Years later, when the British finally released their Jewish prisoners, they realized they had a few thousand fewer than they thought.
“The British couldn’t understand,” Ernie said. “They were giving all the rations all this time and there are 4,000 Jews less. They died? What?”

Ernie’s time in Cyprus was marked by another major event: His marriage to Helen. 

Since they had met years before in Europe, training together as freedom fighters, the two had become inseparable.

In the final months of incarceration, when everyone knew the release of the prisoners was imminent, U.S. aid workers suggested that couples who were living together in the prison camps might marry before they reached Israel.

The Americans even had an incentive.

They gave a gift for all newlyweds. Ernie and Helen got a toothbrush and toothpaste.

“That was our wedding present,” Ernie recalled. “So we got married just for that.”

A rabbi presided over the couple’s camp wedding. Ernie even baked a special creation for the event: a mammoth cake with a frosted top made of burned sugar, in the shape of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. 

There were nuts and caramel inside. 

When the ceremony was over, prisoners who had endured long months of captivity there alongside Ernie and Helen, lined up for a serving of cake.

It was, perhaps, this wartime baker’s greatest creation.

NEXT WEEK: Life in Israel. Can Ernie thrive without war?

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