Trigger Warning: This piece contains discussions and graphic retellings of the Jewish Holocaust.
The fall season is a time of renewal for the Jewish people, starting with Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, in September and the High Holy Days until Hanukkah, which, this year, runs Dec. 18-26, coinciding with Christmas. This restorative and celebratory time of year is especially important to Dr. Edith Eva Eger — also known by close friends and family as Edie — who is a Holocaust survivor, renowned author, and psychologist. The Hungarian-born New York Times bestseller is known for her book The Choice and her latest work, The Gift: 14 Lessons to Save Your Life. The latest edition of the book features 17 family recipes — from everyday favorites to holiday specialties — by Eger and her daughter, child psychologist Dr. Marianne Engle, given their shared belief in the healing power of food.
In honor of the Jewish holiday season, Eger, who just turned 95 years old on Sept. 29, shares her story of strength and survival with TZR, which includes navigating multiple concentration camps including Auschwitz during the Holocaust alongside her sister, Magda. She also shares a couple of recipes loved by her family (including her famous chicken paprikash, which she learned post-WWII from Hungarian immigrants in the United States and is a staple for major holidays and special dinners with dignitaries and guests of honor).
What were your Jewish holiday traditions for the High Holy Days and Hanukkah for you and your family when you were growing up before the war?
My mother was a brilliant cook and we always had wonderful geese. She actually raised her own geese and we had goose liver [for the High Holy Days]. My mother, as I am, was a very proud Jew, and I’ll tell you why. The Jewish people were slaves, and then they were liberated, and then they found this guy called Moses, and then they went to the desert and were walking and walking — more than 40 years — and they never stopped. I think that’s a very good role model for me, not to ever stop or retire. I never tell people I got over [the Holocaust]. I don’t forget anything, but I come to terms with it.
What were your Hanukkah traditions then and what about now?
America makes a big fuss over Hanukkah compared to Hungarians. Gifts are not usually part of it but delicious food certainly is. In our family, in Hungary, my mother would make delicious stuffed garlic and parsley chicken with tarhonya (egg-based farfel noodles) with butter and chicken sauce from the roasted chicken. It was fabulous. For another night of Hanukkah, we’d have my father’s favorite onions paprika steak dish served with double baked potatoes. Of course we had wonderful palacsinta crepes with homemade jams, sugar cherry sauces, crunchy potato latkes, and the best nut rolls.
We always love lighting the candles and the songs and prayers of the holiday. My husband would also sing them in Hebrew with our children. And, being now American, we have presents, too.
Tell me about the recipes in your book The Gift. For your chicken paprikash, it says that generals, diplomats, and dignitaries still ask for this famous dish of yours.
My daughter [Marianne] was actually responsible for most of the recipes. Her bittersweet walnut cream torte is an old Hungarian recipe that she still makes for every Hanukkah. The chicken paprikash is my recipe and it depends on how much you measure, how much onion and what color pink they are, and it’s very important to use the Hungarian paprika. My mom didn’t have any measuring cups. I got my recipes [following WWII] from Hungarian people who moved to America and that’s how I began to cook in America.
Why is it important to celebrate Jewish holidays and pass down those traditions?
No matter what your religion, holidays with special prayers, songs, and foods keep families connected and close. Love is made of these qualities and it can last a whole year.
You just started an online course where you are teaching students virtually. You’re also still seeing patients at your private practice — you don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, even upon your 95th birthday.
I think if you use it, it’s good. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it… and I want to be used up!
You have so much to share. Can you speak to your experience at Auschwitz concentration camp?
We were in a cattle car and we didn’t know where we were going. My mother hugged me and said the following: She said, ‘We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen… just remember, no one can take away from you what you put in your mind.’ And this is the first thing I [tell students] when I go to schools and talk to young people: to think about your thinking, because your thinking can change your whole body chemistry.
The hope and courage that kept you and your sister alive. Where did that come from?
Let me take you on that road, from my home to the cattle car, from the cattle car to Auschwitz. When you arrive, there’s a sign that reads ‘work makes you free’ in German, and my father saw that and said, it’s not so bad, we’re just going to work and go home, but that’s not what happened. We were right away separated — anybody over 40, anybody with young children, anybody under 14, were taken away and led into the gas chamber. The people they thought could work would be in a line. I was in a line with my sister and Dr. Mengele asked me, pointing at my mother, ‘Is this your mother or is this your sister?’ Stupidly enough — I never forgave myself — I said, ‘Mother,’ and unfortunately, she went to the gas chamber. When I went to the other side, I asked a couple, ‘When will I see my mother?’ And they said, pointing at the chimney, ‘She’s burning there, you better talk about her in past tense.’ See, I’m going to cry now, even, but my sister hugged me and said the spirit never dies.
What is the key to your strength?
I think [it’s] the way you look at things, it’s about your attitude. And I consider Auschwitz an opportunity, an opportunity to discover my inner strength and nothing came from the outside. That’s why I say dependency can breed depression, so be a whole person who thinks before you say anything, and ask yourself the following: Is it necessary? Is it important? And, most of all, is it kind? And if it’s not kind, do not say it.
After the war, you got married and moved to the United States. How did your view of holidays and celebrations change in a new country and after surviving such trauma?
I like to celebrate life every day. To me, the whole life is just one day ... and I live in the present. In Auschwitz, I learned how to find a way [to live], as I could have been taken to the gas chamber any minute. I didn’t know what would happen [at any given time]. When I took a shower, I did not know whether water or gas was going to come out, so I have to learn to think that ‘yes and’ is better than ‘yes, but.’ So, I gave up ‘yes, but’ for ‘yes and I’m here’ and ‘yes, and I can stay in the present.’
Edie’s Chicken Paprikash
Five-star generals, artists, doctors, and friends of my children from far and wide have been known to fly in for my chick paprikash.
Note: You can also make this recipe with veal, a Hungarian favorite.
1 whole chicken, cut into serving pieces, or 8 chicken bone-in, skin-on thighs
Olive oil or corn oil, as needed
2 white onions, finely diced
4 tbsp Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tbsp paprika paste, plus more to taste
1 green or red bell pepper, diced
4 tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ cup sour cream
2 tbsp heavy cream, plus more to taste
Egg dumplings or pasta, for serving
- In an oval Dutch oven, brown the chicken in its own fat (add olive oil as needed to help with the browning) over medium-high heat. Be careful: If the heat is too hot, the chicken will burn. Remove the chicken from the pan when crispy and set aside.
- In the fat left in the Dutch oven, cook the onions over medium heat very slowly until softened and lightly golden (but not browned), about 25 minutes. Add a little olive oil if needed.
- Remove the pan from heat and stir in the paprika, the paprika paste, the bell pepper, and the tomatoes. Return to the heat and cook slowly to soften the vegetables. Taste to see if the paprika is right. Add more if necessary.
- Return the chicken to the pan with the onions and vegetables. Cover and cook gently until the chicken is almost tender, about 20 minutes, adding a little water if necessary. Try not to add too much water. Uncover and finish cooking. Remove the chicken to a plate and cover loosely to keep warm.
- Add the flour to the pan and stir to combine. Add the sour cream and heavy cream and cook over medium heat until blended. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Add more cream and paprika pasta to intensify the flavor as desired (I love paprika paste!). Cook over low heat until it tastes perfect!
- Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Serve with egg dumplings or pasta.
Bittersweet Walnut Cream Torte
Makes one 9-inch torte
This is a lovely old Hungarian recipe that is still being made in the best pastry shops. My mom was a master of yummy desserts.
1 (16 oz) loaf of white bread
Softened butter and flour for the pans
6 large eggs, separated
1 stick (4 oz) butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
1 cup finely ground walnuts
4 oz semisweet chocolate
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
½ cup brewed coffee
6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tbsp Cognac
6 tbsp butter, cut into large pieces
Filling and garnish:
1 cup heavy cream
⅔ cup sugar
1 cup finely ground walnuts
1 tbsp Cognac
½ cup whole walnuts, toasted and cooled, for garnish
- Make the torte layers: Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Slice off the crusts from the loaf of bread and place the bread in a blender or food processor. Grind into small pieces. Spread on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until the bread crumbs are completely dry, about 10 minutes. Remove. Leave the oven on.
- Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper rounds.
- In a large bowl, whisk (either by hand or with a hand mixer) together the egg yolks, butter, and sugar until the mixture is thick and golden.
- Use a large spoon to stir in the bread crumbs and ground walnuts.
- In a separate large bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites gently but thoroughly into the egg yolk mixture.
- Divide the batter between the two cake pans. Bake for 16 minutes. Remove the pans and place on wire racks to cool.
- Make the glaze: In a small heavy saucepan, melt both chocolates and the coffee, stirring constantly. When smooth, remove from the heat. Add the powdered sugar and whisk to remove any lumps. Add the Cognac and butter and keep stirring until the glaze is smooth. Set aside.
- Make the filling: In a large bowl, with a hand electric mixer, beat the cream to stiff peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you go. Stir in the ground walnuts and Cognac.
- To assemble the torte, smooth a layer of filling over each cooled cake layer. Stack the layers. (Note: You made have extra filling. Enjoy with ice cream!). Cover the top and sides with the chocolate glaze. Work quickly with as few strokes as possible.
- Garnish with walnut halves placed decoratively in the center of the torte. Keep in a cool place.