A lifetime spent digesting war
How a grandmother’s memories of hunger became lifelong lessons in thrift — and a reminder of how food connects us even after the ruptures of war.
By Lisa Gow
On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I asked her the secret to living such a long and healthy life.
“Well, I make sure to eat a little bit of sauerkraut and quark every single day — that's how I stay fit and strong!” she proudly replied.
We were sitting in a charming, medieval-style restaurant in the rolling hills of the Moravian-Silesian countryside in the Czech Republic, surrounded by family. Some of us had flown in for the special occasion, which was held in a round, castle-like room, its one curved stone wall adorned with medieval garb and topped with a high, turreted roof.
We ate traditional Czech dishes like svíčková na smetaně — delicious slices of sirloin floating gently in a vegetable and cream sauce, served with cranberries and fat, bready dumplings. Ever the matriarch, my grandmother presided over the huge round dining table flanked by my brother and uncle, and at one point she broke into song. But even though several generations had come dressed up for her milestone birthday, she insisted upon wearing a humble house dress.
My grandmother Elfriede, or “Omi” as we called her, was born in the first Czechoslovak Republic, created out of the newly dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. The early decades of her life unfurled under the conditions of scarcity and hardship common for many of her generation.
In 1945, when the Czech lands were being liberated from Nazi occupation, my grandmother was around 24 years old. She and her older sister Anna fled their home in the tiny mountain town of Rýmařov and hid in a nearby forest to avoid the Soviet soldiers who were making their way across the region, raping people and committing other heinous crimes.
Their father was long dead. Anna’s husband had been tortured and murdered by the Nazis during the occupation. Their brother had been forcibly transferred, along with millions of other Germans, to Germany’s Soviet-occupied zone under the Beneš decrees, a series of laws drafted by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, that triggered the violent ethnic cleansing of Germans from Czechoslovakia. The women were on their own, and there wasn’t enough to eat.
Another World War and several dictatorships later, my grandmother died in the democratic Czech Republic, and we held her funeral in the same Catholic church in Rýmařov where she had once been baptized. Although the world around her had changed, food was always a tether to her past and her place. Memories of hunger became lifelong lessons in thrift that she passed down through generations, and she dedicated her cooking to the Central and Eastern European foods she knew. These foods, still ubiquitous across the region, remind us of what hostile neighbours hold in common — regardless of whether they call themselves Czech or German, Russian or Ukrainian.
Omi’s life was dogged by a silent fear of scarcity and the compulsion to squirrel away food. What had once been survival strategies necessitated by war eventually became baked-in habits that she clutched onto until her last days. In restaurants, it was normal to see her wrapping a leftover sausage in a paper napkin and surreptitiously slipping it into her handbag “für später” [“for later”].
Anyone who gave Omi fancy foods as gifts eventually realized that she would never actually eat them. On a summer visit when we were kids, my brother and I had a chocolate craving and asked whether she had anything sweet in the cupboards. She rummaged around in the pantry and dug out a dusty box of Thorntons chocolates, a popular British brand. “How did she get a hold of these?” I wondered, before realizing that we had brought her the chocolates from Glasgow many years before. Unfortunately, tiny ants had got their teeth into them before we did.
Her kitchen was a time capsule. She held onto the chipped crockery and old, tarnished silver cutlery that she had inherited from her own mother, so I got a hint of oxidized metal with every spoonful of Omi’s chicken soup. Even after modern appliances had become readily available she only reluctantly agreed to get a small fridge. She stubbornly refused to make her life easier with a proper kitchen sink and tap, preferring to use a wooden “washing table” from the 1920s instead. The table had a pull-out drawer with two large holes cut out of it. These were sized perfectly to hold two enamel basins that she filled with dishwater. Without a proper sink in the kitchen, the basins had to be laboriously filled and emptied in the bathroom.
Long before anyone was talking about the microbiome, antioxidants, or dietary probiotics, Omi was diligently pickling and fermenting her own vegetables, storing everything in glass jars in the pantry. Committed to frugality, sometimes at the expense of flavour, she eschewed small luxuries, using margarine instead of butter, and oats instead of ground almonds.
Upon entering her kitchen, I was struck, if not disgusted, by the lingering odour of stale garlic and the farty smell of fermenting cabbage. No doubt, her “delicacies”— designed to keep food on the shelf and meat on your bones — would have been extremely useful in the event of food shortages. They may have even ensured her longevity. But as a little girl visiting from the West, her stinky cheeses and dishes fortified with goose fat were enough to make me gag.
Only two generations later, my life has been radically different from Omi’s. She only got a basic education and spent her youth working as a domestic servant and seamstress to support the family. Born and raised in Glasgow, I’ve lived an urban, geographically mobile life, benefiting from my graduate education and work in the knowledge economy. I sew my own clothes for pleasure rather than necessity, and I spend silly money on unpasteurized sauerkraut from the organic supermarkets in Berlin, where I now live, aware of the irony in Western capitalism’s commodification of poverty foods.
But Omi’s fear of hunger has always reminded me that things can still go horribly wrong. I’ve long felt compelled to cut off a little bit of mould to save an otherwise perfectly fine piece of bread or ask for a doggy bag at the restaurant because I feel guilty if my leftovers go to waste. The older I get, the more I see that her practices — which predated the modern mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” — have become relevant for my generation.
The horrific conflict in Ukraine has put the impetus for Omi’s habits of thrift into stark relief. Not only has the war created a desperate humanitarian crisis and food shortages for people in Ukraine, but it has also exacerbated global food insecurity, especially for the vulnerable populations that depend on Russian and Ukrainian exports to put food on the table. We’d become amnesic about food shortages in Western Europe, but now even Germans are panic-buying basic foodstuffs such as flour and cooking oil.
I wonder what Omi would be doing now if she were around to see this conflict unfolding. Having lived through several invasions and in the shadow of the USSR, she was no stranger to Russian aggression. Even in peacetime, conflict continued to exist in her head, if not in the outside world. Omi would probably react to the current crisis in the same stoic way that she always did: by shrugging her shoulders and hunkering down in the pantry with her jars of pickles.
What we eat or drink — an everyday decision that, on the surface, hardly seems to warrant much reflection beyond our taste preferences or nutritional needs — is closely tied to where we started from.
Growing up in the young, multi-ethnic Czechoslovak Republic, Omi and her sister Anna self-identified as “Sudeten Germans”, a term which referred to the German-speaking people of the Sudety mountain range, in what is now part of the Czech Republic. The history books tell us that the first “ethnic Germans” arrived in Bohemia and Moravia in the eleventh century, and throughout the Middle Ages and until the Second World War, the Czech lands were a cultural melting pot home to a multitude of peoples, including Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Poles, and Jews. As such, the distinctions between my grandmother’s family and her Czech neighbours were blurry.
This multi-ethnicism came under threat during the Nazi occupation and was completely rejected by the end of the war, as the Communist Czechoslovak government set about erasing most traces of German culture from public life. The Czechs had suffered through six years of Nazi terror and condemned both their Sudeten German neighbours and the official Nazi regime for the atrocities they experienced. In an orgy of retribution, and copying a Nazi tactic used during the Holocaust, they forced the Sudeten Germans to wear white armbands with the letter “N” (the “N” stood for Němec, meaning “German”).
Between 1945 and 1950, up to 90 percent of the German-speaking population was expelled from Czechoslovakia. Those who could prove their credentials as “good Germans”, meaning they had not cooperated with the Nazis, were allowed to stay. Towns and villages were renamed to sound more Czech; German language instruction gradually dwindled in schools, and most families — regardless of any German ties they had before the war — assimilated into the majority Czech-speaking culture and stopped raising bilingual children. After years of co-existence, intermarriage, and multiculturalism — Franz Kafka, one of the most influential Czech writers, wrote all his manuscripts in German, after all — the post-war narrative insisted that the Czechs and Germans were separate and different.
Anna’s pre-war marriage to a Czech man had not been unusual. But by the time Omi met my (Czech) grandfather Josef in 1945, marriage between Czechs and Germans wasn’t just taboo but actually banned. When my mother and her twin brother were born the next year, Josef’s identity was concealed from the authorities. My grandparents had to wait until 1948 (when the ban was lifted) to get married.
By the 1950s, my grandmother was uncomfortably aware that raising German-speaking kids had become a subversive act in the eyes of the local Czech community. Like most of the small minority of Sudeten Germans who had remained in Czechoslovakia, Omi kept a low profile and tried to blend in, speaking enough Czech to be able to get by. German was reserved for the home.
“Shhh! Don’t let anyone hear you speaking German!” she would whisper to my mother, a confused little girl, as they crossed the cobblestones of Rýmařov town square.
As time passed, Rýmařov changed shape. Socialist ideology ushered in concrete, high-rise apartment buildings, state surveillance and the Art Deco walnut furniture that suddenly every single family had in their living room. Adjusting to a life without her family and many of her German friends, Omi tightened her grip on the kitchen — the one domain where she could exercise a modicum of control. Trying to feel at home in a place deeply traumatized by conflict, she cooked the meals her ancestors had made: vinegary cucumber salads, crispy potato fritters, dumplings that could put you to sleep for an afternoon, schnitzels, beef roulades, chicken broth poured over pancakes that were cut into ribbons, and of course, the goulash (although her version had more fat than beef).
Ever guarded, Omi never opened up to us about whether she regretted her determination to stay in her ancestral home. But the impacts of her choice were all around me. Growing up, instead of the beef mince and mashed potatoes (“mince and tatties”) typically eaten by Scottish families, my Czech mother Eva would cook Omi’s goulash. The rich, beefy stew that was ladled onto my plate as a child was the result of countless small decisions and big geopolitical events, among them Eva’s first-ever encounter with Coca-Cola in 1968 and the Soviet tanks that crushed the Prague Spring that year, prompting her to buy a one-way plane ticket to the UK.
Goulash, and these other meat-heavy dishes, survived the rupture of war and lived on in kitchens across Central and Eastern Europe and the diaspora throughout the twentieth century. On a visit to Jerusalem a few years ago, I even found similar dishes at a restaurant in the Haredi neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. Such dishes have different names depending on whom you ask, but the similarities point toward common roots — roots that pay no heed to new divisions sown along ethnic, linguistic, religious or national lines.
Just like the horrors of eighty years ago, the current conflict in Ukraine has driven a wedge between two peoples with overlapping identities, shared languages, family histories — and food traditions. And history tells us the brutal attempt of one neighbour to drive home a narrative of sameness usually strengthens the other neighbour’s national identity based on difference. In the long term, the rupture between these neighbours will surely take years to heal, if it ever does. Maybe we will see Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens distancing themselves from the Russian language and reaffirming their Ukrainian identity. But regardless of the language that comes out of their mouths, I suspect that it will be more difficult to change the food that they put into them. Omi’s goulash is a reminder of that.
Lisa Gow is a project manager and occasional writer and editor in Berlin. Along with her strong interests in work and labour policy, she is usually doing a deep dive into one health topic or another.
Listen to Lisa’s reflections on this piece in our WAR BTS here.
D. Rock and S. Wolff (eds) (2002). Coming Home to Germany? The Integration of Ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe in the Federal Republic. Berghahn Books.
R. Tait (2016). “The Czechs and Germans trying to deal with ghosts of the past”. The Guardian.