In the museum and memorial that now stands at Auschwitz, amongst the rows of reconstructed dormitories, there is an unassuming building, uniform and indistinguishable from its neighbour. In this building there is a room, and in this room there is a mountain of beautiful but eclectic pots. The vibrant colors remain even after eight decades, and since beauty is so rare at Auschwitz, it’s easy to lose sight of their significance. Each pot once belonged to a Jewish family brought to the camp, and the bright colors that once decorated a room now echo a warning of danger.
The first time I stood in that room, I pictured a husband and a wife, clutching their children in a ghetto, being rounded up and forced to pack one suitcase of their belongings. Only the most precious things were packed, each item a symbol of their battered hope in the future. Why, amongst everything, did a bulky, awkward pot make the cut? Because that pot was a centerpiece to the family table, a witness to regular meals and shabbat dinners. Bringing that pot was a symbol of hope that no matter where they were being taken or what suffering ensued, there would still be meals to be shared. Each pot was brought with the intention of uniting family, community, and friends together around a table, and to share love, laughter, and sorrow.
Of all the collective horrors, and legacies of pain and terror, I was surprised at how deeply that mountain of pots spoke to me.
I’ve loved to cook for much of my life. My father, a Vietnamese refugee who settled in Canada, did most of the cooking in the household when I was growing up, and I spent a lot of time together with him preparing meals or watching him while I did homework at the kitchen table. Most weekends my family would gather around the table for a huge bowl of Vietnamese beef soup that my father prepared for each of us. He would stay up all night tending to huge pot on our stove, just to make sure the delicate broth was pristine in color, clarity, and flavor. I suspect one of the ways he coped away from the world which was most familiar to him was to draw upon the flavours and aromas of his childhood. It was his way of mourning a world that he lost, and a way of honoring his cultural history and traditions through the sacrament of the family dinner table. At its core, cooking was the language in which he loved us. And as I learned to cook the same dishes my father prepared for me growing up, it became a way of connecting to a culture I shared from a country I never knew.
When I began to travel, food and cooking developed a different dimension in my life. The experiences I had in new cities and countries were ingrained in the flavours imprinted upon me. Cooking was a way I could reach back into my past to those memories and relive them, and every time I found myself in a new culture, I searched for a flavour I could anchor my memories to. In India, I remember drinking hot glasses of Masala chai, while finding shade under the burning New Dehli sun. In Hong Kong, the savory-sweetness of cha siu while watching the world bustle by. Food and memory are intricately linked in my mind. And now, as I’ve moved away from the home I grew up in, I find I deal with homesickness in the same way I like to think my father did: by pulling out old family recipes.
But, I admit, food is a strange thing to connect to Auschwitz. When I first saw the concentration camp, it was with a Holocaust educational experience called the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), alongside thirty other university students from across Canada. We travelled through Germany and Poland for ten days, led by a Holocaust survivor named Pinchas Gutter, who told his story on the very ground it took place on all those years ago. There were many powerful memories and emotions associated with that time together with my MRH family, but there were two themes in particular that stood out to me: the power in the act of remembrance, and the importance of lifting one another up in community. Over the years since, there are two memories in particular that I keep coming back to. One is the feeling I had when I first encountered the pots. Second is the memory of the first shabbat dinner we had as a group in Poland. In a little Jewish restaurant in Krakow, we broke bread and had a meal as a group, observing an ancient ritual of intentional rest and remembrance. As we lit the candles and poured the wine, Pinchas closed his eyes and sang the prayers and shabbat blessings that he had done so many times before. We gathered, we ate, we laughed, and we told stories. Only hours beforehand I had been standing before those colorful pots of hope; right then at that table, I was experiencing the moment of hope that all those families held. It struck me later that it was not the food that made that moment memorable, but the new friends I shared that table with, and being bonded together as community through ritual.
Food and cooking has become part of my own identity and language of love, but I’ve come to recognize the emptiness of food without this community. It’s not the food that blesses the tables we gather around; it’s the people who surround it. For the most humble meal can be elevated as long as it’s shared, and the most extravagant banquet is wasted without guests. It wasn’t the pots that stopped me in my steps at Auschwitz; it was the empty tables I pictured them centered on. It’s not the food or the flavors that create the community; it’s the food that amplifies the community. Food binds us to one another, and is meant to be enjoyed in community.
And so, every shabbat evening that I have the chance, I take the time to prepare two loaves of challah, the same bread we shared that shabbat evening in Krakow. As I knead and braid the loaves, my mind returns to my experience with MRH, the friendships that sparked, the timbre of Pinchas’ song, the images burned into my memory, and that regardless of race, creed, or identity we are all children made in the image of God, having inherent value beyond the work we do or the things we create. It’s these two loaves of bread that I anchor those memories to. One loaf I keep, to enjoy and remember. The second I share– because nothing reminds us of our shared humanity or creates community quite like breaking bread.
Applications for the 2020 March of Remembrance and Hope cohort are now open until January 14, 2020. It’s a program that I deeply believe in, and continue to volunteer my time to; apply today.
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