April 2, 2020

The Baker: A Bittersweet Life

Ernie Feld; Photo by John M. Glionna

Hello, Jewish Journal blog reader.

Come along for a wild ride into the life and times of a Jewish baker who made his mark on modern history with little more than a rolling pin and a bad attitude.

Over the coming months, I’ll be posting weekly installments of a long-form narrative piece I’m calling “The Baker: A Bittersweet Life.”

It’s the gripping tale of the late Ernie Feld, a Jewish pastry chef whose culinary genius and curmudgeonly kitchen demeanor launched him on perilous worldwide escapades spanning the 20th Century.

But before we get into Ernie’s story, let me tell you a little bit about how I first encountered this amazing man.

In 2015, as a national correspondent for the LA Times, I wrote a story on the recollections of an aging Lake Tahoe-based Jewish pastry chef who was taken captive during World War II was forced to make his signature strudel for the a band of ruthless Nazi SS officers.

His voice was low, his accent guttural, his story fascinating.

The piece caught the attention of Hollywood producer Dave Wolthoff, who brought the 2013 movie “Concussion starring Will Smith, to the screen.

Dave wanted to develop Ernie’s story into a film, and suggested there might be even more to the tale. Together, we revisited Ernie, heard many more of his anecdotes.

After several months of interviewing family members and researching archives — including a 1992 interview Ernie gave to scholars working with the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project I wrote an 22,000-word nonfiction narrative Dave is shopping to Hollywood executives.

Through the experience I came to know Ernie, who taught me a lot about chutzpah, conviction and the personal cost of being yourself. When he died a few years ago, Dave and I were pallbearers at his funeral.

Now, in short bursts of storytelling, I want to chronicle the adventures of this surly Jewish baker who barnstormed through the history of his oppressed people.

Like his recipes, Ernie’s life adventures are varied and well-seasoned: Holocaust Survivor, Israeli freedom fighter, Cypress prison camp hero and, later, determined businessman, accidental emissary to the United Nations and baker for three world leaders.

He was the cantankerous chef who, because of his world-class baking skills, force of personality, and even reluctant Judaism, survived it all – the Nazis, British warships, indentured servitude, and perhaps most tragically, even a broken heart.

He met the love of his life during the Holocaust, and chased her across four continents, five decades and throughout Jewish history. Along the way, his hardbitten resolve literally saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Despite all that, he’s mostly remembered by those who know him best as “Hitler in the kitchen.”

In a way, Ernie’s story is a love letter to Judaism: At every pivotal moment – despite the fact that he did not fully embrace his faith until late in life — it was his being Jewish that saved him.

Ernie’s tempestuous personality – charming one minute, rigid taskmaster the next — helped him stand up to the Nazis, but in the end cost him the love of his family. 

Which is ironic, because the only thing that Ernie ever longed for was family.

It created a bittersweet life.

So here goes. We open with a prologue about Ernie being, well, Ernie, even in times of extreme duress.

Prologue

The big guns had opened fire on the old salvage boat jam-packed with Jews. Once again, Ernie Feld, the brash young Jewish pastry chef, was in the middle of the fray.

The year was 1947 and countless British warships crawled the Mediterranean Sea to prevent Jews just freed from Nazi death camps across Europe from reaching the shores of Palestine to help create a new Israeli state.

Even before the British attack on Ernie’s boat, the voyage was rough, with 3,500 Jews crowded together like African slaves or British convicts bound for Australia. The high seas made people sick and the stench of vomit pervaded below deck. 

Ernie, the 22-year-old cook, had lightened the mood by playing his accordion each night; renditions of folksongs that were the cultural soundtrack of the cause.

The surprise attack came just before first light, as the old boat at last reached waters just off Haifa. That’s when Jewish resistance leaders hatched a plan:

As the British ordered the refugees to surrender, with the big searchlights isolating them like actors on a stage, the voice came over a loudspeaker: “You are all prisoners,” it ordered. “You are illegal. Give up!”

But the Jews didn’t give up They began to sing and dance.

Gathering in circles on deck, they performed the traditional Hora, arm in arm, singing out loud to drown out the British commands.

The ruse confused the British, if only for a moment. But they rallied.

First they ships fired water cannons across the deck of the overwhelmed boat. Then came the dreaded tear gas. And still the Jews danced.

Ernie and others distributed old rags soaked in water, so people could cover their faces against the searing chemical sting. As the British boats rammed the rickety vessel and soldiers poured onboard for hand-to-hand combat, young Jewish fighters scurried up to the crow’s nest.

Ernie handed them empty bottles to bombard the invaders. The missiles began hitting their mark. Soldiers fell. The British retreated.

That’s when the gunfire came.

All around him, Ernie recalled, bullets and bottles flew.

One by one, Jewish fighters were struck, calling out, falling to their deaths into the turbulent waters below.

“From the top, my friends,” Ernie said, “they were just falling down like flies.”

NEXT WEEK: Ernie Meets His Nemesis — His Daughter in Law


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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