Have you heard about a documentary called Oma & Bella? It's about two best friends, Regina and Bella, who live together in an apartment in Berlin and cook all the livelong day. Kreplach and borscht, cream cheese cookies and chicken soup. They shop at the same places I do. They don patterned cotton house dresses when they putter in the kitchen. The filmmaker is Regina's granddaughter. (Oma means grandmother in German).
The granddaughter films Regina and Bella as they cook together, as they tell her about their childhood, their German tinged with melodious Yiddish accents. Regina and Bella are Holocaust survivors. They were young girls during the war, when they went into the camps. Regina came from Poland, Bella from Lithuania. Their families were murdered. They were the only survivors.
I watched the film the other night perched at my desk, the apartment dark around me as Oma and Bella's kitchen glowed warmly from my computer screen. I watched and listened to the banal, everyday details of their life interspersed with the incomprehensible. It broke my heart.
After it was over, I sat near the radiator in the living room warming my feet and looking out into the night, little lights in the city twinkling on the horizon. I tried to imagine, as I have so often before, what it must have been like once upon a time in this city, this country, this whole region. For people to have been not just turned out of jobs or stripped of licenses, refused service or denied entrance somewhere, anywhere, but to have been hunted down like animals, eliminated, exterminated like pests. To have been turned out of their homes, stripped of their things and their identities, their names forcibly changed. Murdered in the street, in a gas chamber, on a train car, in a camp bed. Anywere. Everywhere.
And then I tried to imagine the gaping horror of being the only one of a family to survive such a thing. To have witnessed how, one by one, every person was picked off but you. To have the burden, the privilege - yes - but also the burden, of growing old without them. Suddenly I thought of Hugo sleeping in his little warm bedroom in the back of the apartment, all wrapped up and safe and quiet. It felt almost obscene to have those two thoughts in my head at once.
Due to high demand for Oma and Bella's recipes after the film was first released, Alexa Karolinski, the filmmaker, published a gorgeous little cookbook as a companion to the film. I'm so glad she did. When I watched Regina roll up blintzes or Bella nudge the browning onions in a pan, my stomach growled. In one scene, Bella made borscht and I thought, that's what I want for lunch tomorrow.
The next day, I went out to the bookstore and bought the book. It's a slim little thing, clothbound, with sweet illustrations and 36 meticulously written recipes in English and in German. Alexa got Oma and Bella to share their recipes with her and then spent years transforming the vague instructions they gave her into recipes that work, with ingredients that are available both here and in the US. Having had a little experience into the difficulty of this kind of work with my own book, I tip my hat to Alexa - she did a wonderful job.
I especially loved that reading the recipes made me think of my own grandmother, who's been gone for almost 14 years now. She would have loved this book, I think. The movie, too. My grandmother loved kreplach and borscht and she also thought that food was the best way to show how much you cared for someone. She would have adored the idea of a granddaughter filming her doting grandmother as she cooked in the kitchen.
Somewhere towards the end of the movie, we see a Sabbath dinner with Oma and Bella's children and grandchildren. The table is long, there are so many guests. Candles are lit, vodka is thrown back, there is happiness in the air. You, as the viewer, long to be there at that table, too. You wish you could sit next to Bella and ask her questions about her glamorous post-war life when she danced in Berlin's discos and owned a nice clothing shop, or what her secrets are to creating such a happy family. But a few scenes later, when she and Oma are at an outdoor café, sitting across from each other, you realize just how fleeting their happiness can ever be. You see how close to the surface the trauma lingers for them both. It is always there, their grief, inescapable.
To rent or purchase the film online, click here.
To purchase the cookbook online or to find a list of bookstores that stock it in Berlin, New York, Toronto, Vancouver or San Francisco, click here.