Taking Refuge

A Tenuous Escape from Death

August 11, 2015

You might remember my very first [food-related] post from January 2015. I wrote about my Nana and Jewish cooking, sharing her noodle kugel recipe - which, by the way, I'm still convinced is the best kugel recipe out there.

That was my grandmother on my mom's side. Today, I'd like to share my other Nana's story.

My paternal grandmother - "Nana Allen" as we called her - was about twelve years old when she got off the boat on New York City's West Side. It was the mid 1930s and she and her mother - my great grandmother - were coming over from Europe.

America had quotas on the number of Jews who could enter the country at that time. And, you could forget about even being considered if you didn't already have a job lined-up for yourself in America. It's hard enough finding a job abroad today. Imagine doing it without computers!

But, they were lucky: my great grandmother's brother had already made it to America years earlier. He owned a fur hat factory and promised my great grandmother a job there. It was largely because of him that the United States permitted my Nana and her mom to enter this country as refugees.

A Jewish family living in Europe in the 1930s, it's not much of a surprise why they had to flee: anti-Semitism increasingly permeated Europe, a harbinger of the Holocaust.

What is more surprising is how fortunate they were to have escaped Europe alive.

Nana Allen was born in a shtetl (a small town populated by Jews in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust) called Tuchov. Located along a railroad line in Poland, her shtetl was just one stop before "Oswiecim," or Auschwitz.

Her mother and her mother's thirteen brothers and sisters had already fled the shtetl once before. The area was the scene of a huge battle between the Russians and the Germans during World War I. Escaping not just war, but also persecution by the Russians, they fled to Munich, Germany, a common route for Jews.

The family returned to Tuchov when World War I ended. My great grandmother married my great grandfather. She became pregnant, gave birth to my Nana, and raised my Nana as a single mother; my great grandfather had died of pneumonia days before the birth.

When my Nana was still young, she and her mother left Poland for Holland in the 1920s to escape the rising anti-Semitism in their home country. Little did they know at the time, their shtetl was to become the trial run for Auschwitz. When Auschwitz opened, the Nazis rounded up the Jews in their village and shipped them to the concentration camp to see just how well the gas chambers would work.

About a decade later, they were on the move again, this time coming to New York. Not only did they evade war by coming to America, but almost certainly their own deaths. Just a few years after they left Holland, the building next door to their home became Gestapo (German secret police) headquarters.

My Nana and great grandmother were lucky. Always a few steps ahead of the Nazis, they made it out alive. My Nana is no longer here to share her own story, but she had a good life in America, living into her eighties. I'm glad I can keep her story alive.

When I asked my Dad which recipe of hers he thought I should share, he certainly had a few suggestions: "Well, there's gribenes - you know, the crisp little balls of chicken skin leftover from rendered schmaltz [chicken fat]. Or ptcha - jellied calves' feet. That one is pure protein." Thanks, Dad. While gribenes or ptcha would certainly be reminiscent of Jewish Eastern European cuisine, I've decided to go a different route with this recipe.

Below you'll find the recipe for challah, a Jewish egg bread that is eaten every Sabbath and on most Jewish holidays. It symbolizes the manna that fell from the heavens during the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It is easy to make (albeit time consuming) and absolutely delicious. You can make it plain or you can incorporate chocolate chips, raisins, or cinnamon sugar (among other variations) into the dough before baking it. I hope you enjoy it!

When you first start kneading, the dough might be a bit sticky like this.

Continue kneading until it's completely smooth and elastic

These are my braided challahs just before going into the oven (looks aren't always everything!)

Fresh out of the oven!

And there you go - freshly baked challah!


Although I don't have my Nana's challah recipe, this recipe comes from the Chabad House at Tufts University, where I was graciously welcomed on many Shabbat evenings. Chanie and Rabbi Tzvi have kindly permitted me to share their challah recipe here.

Note: This recipe makes copious amounts of delicious challah. Be prepared to freeze some loaves, give some to friends, or consider halving the recipe.

  • 4 packages of dry yeast (3 tablespoons dry yeast)
  • 4 cups very warm water
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 13-14 cups flour (just over 5 pounds)
  • 1 egg beaten, for the glaze
  • Optional add-ins: poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cinnamon/sugar mixture, chocolate chips, and/or raisins

  1. In a bowl, dissolve yeast in very warm water.
  2. Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and let stand for 2 minutes until you see that the yeast is active.
  3. Add remaining sugar, oil, and eggs. Mix well.
  4. Add 2 cups of flour and the salt. Mix well.
  5. Gradually add the remaining flour, 2 cups at a time, mixing after each addition. As mixture becomes stiff, use floured hands and begin kneading. Knead for 7-8 minutes.
  6. Let dough rise in greased bowl until doubled in size -- about 2 hours.
  7. Punch down the dough. Then divide it into equal pieces to make loaves. At this point, if you choose to use any of the optional add-ins, incorporate the desired amount into the dough.
  8. Now you're ready to shape your dough. There are various ways to braid a challah, but I usually go for the simple 3 strand braid.
  9. Place the braided dough on baking sheets and let rise again for about 15 minutes.
  10. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  11. Brush the glaze over each loaf and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if desired.
  12. Place the loaves in the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes until golden-brown.