Karina Urbach grew up with two versions of a best-selling cookbook in her home. One had the author listed as her paternal grandmother, Alice Urbach, whom she knew was a great cook, and the other a man called Rudolf Rösch. But the cookbooks were virtually identical – except, mainly, for the introduction and some references to names that were dropped from Rösch’s version. Both included photographs of Alice’s hands while cooking.
It was much later, in 2014, when Karina’s cousin Katrina, who lives in the United States, sent her Alice’s old letters and tapes that she decided to investigate. She ended up writing about what happened – the intellectual theft and Aryanization of Jewish authors during the Nazi era. Unlike the subjects of art and looted property, this has not, she says, been really examined so far.
Karina’s recently published non-fiction work, Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbookbeautifully and painstakingly reconstructs the story of Alice, whose life went through great periods – briefly – then plunged into the depths of despair during the Nazi era and the Holocaust, in which three of her sisters were murdered .
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Born in Vienna in 1886, Alice Urbach was one of the youngest of six children. His father had established an extremely successful textile business and the family was prospering. Her older siblings were all finding ways to shine, but she didn’t get any school qualifications and felt neglected. It wasn’t until she entered the kitchen that she felt at home. Karina, who is married to a Russian historian and lives in Cambridge, meticulously reveals how Alice’s cooking skills ended up saving her life.
Alice’s husband (with whom she had an unhappy marriage) died in 1920, having squandered his money gambling. Alice, 34, found herself with two boys, Otto and Karl, and needed an income. She started cooking – first hosting parties for her wealthy sister, Hélène, then giving lessons before opening a cooking school and even delivering ready meals.
Alice published the bestseller So kocht man in Wien! (Cuisiner à la Viennese!) in 1935 and, in 1938, had submitted two other manuscripts to his publisher, Hermann Jungck, at Ernst Reinhardt.
But his self-taught success didn’t last long. After the annexation of Austria by Germany, the Jews lost their jobs and then risked disappearing and being murdered.
Katrina’s father, Karl, was sent to Dachau, but luckily, through the efforts of Karina’s father, Otto, was released. He fled to the United States to join Otto, who had gone there to study and later became an American intelligence agent, a role he played in post-war Germany.
Alice managed to leave for England in October 1938, getting a job as a cook in a castle owned by an eccentric woman. She was then approached to run, together with her best friend Paula Sieber, a shelter for 24 refugees from Kindertransport, who were evacuated to Windermere and were badly traumatised.
In the meantime, her publisher had removed all traces of her from her book – apart from the photos of her hands – and had reissued it under the name Rudolf Rösch. This was a common solution for publishers who wanted to continue printing lucrative books during the Nazi era.
After moving to the United States to be with her sons, Alice visited Vienna in 1949 and spotted her book with Rösch’s name (his identity remains a mystery) in a bookstore. Puzzled as to why this was still the case, she, along with other family members, wrote many polite letters asking for his paternity to be restored and a meeting with the editors – but to no avail.
For Alice, even though she was not bitter and had experienced so much heartbreak in her life, the loss of her cookbook – which she called her “third child” – was “momentous”, says Karina. “It ruined any chance she had of ever having a career as a cookbook author again. Had the book been published again under her name, she could have returned to Austria and continued her career but, instead, she had to do a low-paying job in the United States as a nutritionist.
What happened to Alice was part of a large-scale fraud that German publishers continued to practice after the war, Urbach argues. “None of [other] Jewish Nonfiction Authors I’ve Identified So Far [in the book] regained their paternity after the war,” she told me.
“The scoop of my book is that I discovered, for the first time, that German publishers are ‘Aryanizing’ Jewish non-fiction books. They didn’t just steal the physical books, they also stole the authorship, but they never returned it after the war – that’s the real crime.
Finally, in 2020, after Karina’s book was published in German and four other languages, media interviews raised the issue and the publisher “found” her archive relating to Alice – which she had previously said. that she no longer existed – and apologized.
He said his actions were “morally indefensible” and restored Alice’s rights to her book, 40 years after her death. “I thought it would never happen,” admits Karina.
Karina writes in her book that Alice wanted her adventures and actions to be remembered. She will certainly be remembered for her care of refugee girls, most of whom were left orphans. Now, thanks to Karina and Katrina, she will also be remembered for her legendary and much-loved recipes.
Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbook by Karina Urbach is published by MacLehose Press and is available now, RRP £20