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Concentration camps and apfelstrudel

Mauthausen memorial in Austria WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Five years ago, Betsy and I took a cycling holiday along the Swiss Rhine. The memory of my late mother’s cakes, intensified by kilometres of cycling along beautiful vistas, made me search obsessively for apfelstrudel. The manager of our last hotel corrected my error. “This is Switzerland. Strudel is Austrian. For strudel, go to Austria.”

So this August, we took a cycling trip along the Austrian Danube, romantically combining sport and apfelstrudel.

Over the course of the 360 kilometres from Passau, Germany, to Vienna, 10 apfelstrudel found their last repose in my exultant belly.

One strudel was especially memorable.

Day 4 of our trip: examining the next day’s route, our eyes were drawn to the word “Mauthausen.” We decided to deviate slightly from our planned route and visit the memorial, on a hilltop just outside the town of Mauthausen, to the concentration camp of the same name, where the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands.

Pedalling uphill in the heat strained our muscles. Panting with effort, I thought about the forced labourers and prisoners who had to climb up to the camp while enduring blows and threats.

The view from the hilltop was breathtaking. It required a lot of imagination to see the great evil that erupted some seven decades earlier in such a beautiful place. This was my first visit to a death camp. Perhaps it was the combination of lack of emotional preparedness and the sudden transition from cycling alongside the pastoral waters of the Danube to viewing a death camp. Perhaps it was 50 years of education, books, movies and lectures about the Holocaust. And perhaps it was the prosaic banality with which the Austrian guide showed us around, as if directing us to the neighbourhood grocery store: “The corridor to the right leads to the crematorium… past that, on the left, is the mass grave.” After about an hour, I started to feel ill. I went to sit at the entrance to the site, in need of something sweet to recover physically and emotionally from the sights and impressions.

In the previous days, I’d learned some lessons about strudel, including: “When you find a good bakery, buy another piece for the road, in case you can’t find one later.” So I had a piece of strudel in my saddlebag. I unwrapped it carefully and prepared to sink my teeth into it.

“You’re eating strudel here? In a concentration camp? Sagi, that’s very inappropriate!” Betsy chided me.

I paused. I thought about my wife’s words, then responded, “This is actually the most appropriate place. Eating strudel outside a Nazi concentration camp is an appropriate Zionist response to their attempt to destroy us. A proud Israeli – his oldest in the IDF, his daughter about to enlist, his second son testing for an elite unit, his youngest at an international summer camp allowing her parents to go on a romantic vacation to Austria – is now enjoying apfelstrudel outside a concentration camp where, a mere three generations earlier, many thousands of Jews were starved and murdered. And in a few days, he will fly El Al to the independent, sovereign State of Israel. That is the very embodiment of the People of Israel’s victory over its enemies!”

I added: “I dedicate this strudel to my people, with a prayer to the Creator of the Universe that we will never again know hunger and thirst, oppression and hatred. May we be free and sovereign, proud and upright, and may our home and land always be blessed!”

If you separately bake apples, raisins, nuts, breadcrumbs and butter, you will always get something edible. But if you roll those ingredients lovingly within thin pastry and bake until golden, you have delicious apfelstrudel.

This is the People of Israel. Each stream, community and ethnic group is good by itself. But united and enveloped in the love of Israel and humanity, it becomes the Chosen People!

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Sagi Melamed is vice-president of external relations and development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and president of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of Son of My Land and Fundraising.