Interview with Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Fellow Julie Fitzpatrick

Headshot of Julie Fitzpatrick.


Interview conducted by Charlotte Gibbs (PhD student in History, University of Southern California, and Center Graduate Assistant)
October 25, 2023

In mid-October, Julie Fitzpatrick, a PhD candidate in History at Royal Holloway, University of London, arrived at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research for her monthlong residency. As the 2023-2024 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow, she will be conducting research for her dissertation, which is currently entitled “‘Light the Candles and Lay the Table’: A Study on German-Jewish Women’s Relationship with Food During the Prewar, Wartime and Postwar Eras.” She plans to engage with the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and the USC Libraries Special Collections. Julie spoke with us about her research trajectory, her research about food in the Łódź ghetto and in German concentration camps, and what she hopes to discover while at USC.

What brought you to the field of Holocaust Studies? And how did you arrive at your current topic?

I began studying the Holocaust in secondary school. In the UK, you can elect to write an EPQ, which is an extended research paper. I wrote my EPQ on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust and I came to that subject because I was part of the Holocaust Educational Trust where British students are given the opportunity to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on a Lessons from Auschwitz trip. Then, during the third year of my undergraduate degree at University of Bristol, I took Professor Tim Cole’s module on Holocaust Landscapes where we mapped the Holocaust in different landscapes, and I wrote my dissertation on how art produced during the Holocaust was a form of resistance.

I did my MA in History at Royal Holloway because I knew after my undergraduate degree that I wanted to pursue the Holocaust intellectually. I worked with Professor Dan Stone and my MA thesis focused on the navigation of hunger. Hunger is such a dominant theme in testimonies and starvation is such a dominant theme, but it had not yet been considered in a more theoretical way nor been brought into larger conversations in the field, whereas fields such as anthropology have already been discussing the role of food and hunger in society.

This challenged me to begin thinking about how food was a significant part of people’s experiences during the Holocaust. It became clear that as a topic, food during the Holocaust demands more attention than it’s received already. Gender and class are also very key aspects of how food and hunger operated in foodscapes during the Holocaust, which is what I am now studying for my PhD dissertation, which is German-Jewish women’s relationships with food in prewar, wartime, and postwar periods.

How did the foodways of German-Jewish women adapt to rising antisemitic policies before the war?

I’ve recently written about the prewar period for my thesis. This chapter looks at how food was imbedded in Nazism’s racial policy and how this impacted German-Jewish women’s relationship with food cultures. For instance, I look at how the ban on kosher butchering, the loss of purchasing power at grocery stores, the loss of non-Jewish house-staff and the curtailment of social and cultural rights to visit cafés and restaurants impacted German-Jewish women’s daily lives. One thing I will say about the challenges of keeping kosher in an environment non-conducive to practicing Judaism is that there were different levels of religious observance. For Jews in Germany, assimilation, acculturation and religious ambivalence was high thus, observing the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut and keeping a kosher kitchen were not necessarily always part of German-Jewish foodways. Of course, some more traditional families did remain kosher, and this is definitely still part of the story, but many middle-class Jews in Germany perhaps were not as strict with their dietary laws as one would assume. In the ghettos and concentration camps of Eastern Europe I have found more instances where German-Jewish women were perhaps keener to forgo laws of kashrut (if practicing). Men who were more religious were sometimes less keen to forgo these laws.

In fact, one of the first anti-Jewish decrees in 1933 was a ban on kosher butchering, and it did not actually have that much of an impact on the German Jews I study. Symbolically it’s important, and in response to the ban, Jews set up clandestine butcheries and imported kosher meats from, say, the Netherlands, but the infrequency of the topic in testimonies suggests that it didn’t actually impact German Jews as much as maybe it is perceived to have. This might have been a different story if these anti-kosher laws happened in a part of Europe where Orthodoxy was more prevalent.

As well, the Jüdischer Frauenbund (JFB), an organization of Jewish women in Germany, published pamphlets that promoted vegetarian diets in response to the unavailability of kosher meat. These pamphlets went through multiple editions, which speaks to their popularity. There were obviously German-Jewish women who were keen to cook vegetarian meals, either for kosher or accessibility reasons. This is happening at the same time that the German Nazis were promoting a vegetarian diet through the promulgation of Eintopf (one pot) meals. Simultaneously, in the prewar period we see how vegetarianism is a form of German nationalism and how it becomes a survival technique for German Jews.

Earlier this year, you presented at the “Body and Borders” conference in Łódź, Poland (Sep 2023). How does the story of German-Jewish women’s foodways cross borders as the Nazis began ghettoization throughout Europe?

The conference paper I presented examines the German-Jewish families who were sent to the Łódź ghetto. Many German Jews were sent to Łódź, so it is quite an important landscape in my research. I presented on how German-Jewish women navigated foodways in the ghetto, particularly through the lens of class. Class greatly impacted women’s experiences in the ghetto. German Jews arrived in the ghetto after it had been consolidated, so the Polish Jews already in the ghetto not only had local connections outside the ghetto, but had already learned the nuances of ghetto survival. Of course death was so prevalent there, but Polish Jews were better adept at acquiring food compared to German Jews. Many German Jews struggled to integrate into the ghetto environment. Their arrival appears in The Chronicle of Łódź; German Jews are described as arriving as ‘Lords’, but their ‘riches evaporated’ soon after they arrived.

The shopping habits of German Jews also reveals the ways in which class behavior influenced ghetto life. German-Jewish women were reported to have brought alligator purses and silk blouses, only to end up bartering these items for scraps of food down the line. From The Chronicle of Łódź there are some descriptions of newly arrived German Jews buying all the good food from bistros in the ghetto and causing a period of inflation, as they were determined to live like the middle-class Jews they were in Germany, but the ghetto environment did not allow for the maintenance of that lifestyle. In the short term, they consumed and continued to spend like middle-class citizens, but in the long term they ended up being more impoverished. They became one of the poorest populations in the Łódź ghetto.

How does your research follow these German-Jewish women into concentration camps and killing sites? How does the lens of food and food production make visible new aspects of German-Jewish women’s lives in these spaces?

There were only a few ghettos that German-Jewish women were sent to: Riga, Łódź, Minsk, Theresienstadt, and there are instances of a few other ghettos. Many of the Łódź ghetto inhabitants ended up in the Auschwitz camp complex. German-Jewish women were in Neuengamme, Sasel, Ravensbrück, among other concentration camps. Whereas in the ghettos families could stay together, in the camps this social unit was disrupted.

In the case where women and children were imprisoned together, there was tension between a mother’s desire to supply for her children and the camp being the providers of food. Mothers would often go to the extent of sacrificing their own rations, which was very much part of their camp experience.

To return to class analysis, women who were part of the middle classes weren’t necessarily strong cooks in the pre-war period. A lot of these bourgeois German-Jewish women actually employed house staff. Whilst references to mothers as competent and devoted housewives is prevalent in testimonies, the kitchen, whilst an important cog in the housewife’s domestic machine, was not always a space they conquered. After 1935, German-Jewish households could no longer employ non-Jewish staff, which meant that mothers had to take on new roles in the home. Sometimes in testimonies, survivors even mention their mothers being bad cooks once they no longer had a staff to do this task. Of course, not all German-Jewish households had staff, and in many cases women were indeed good cooks. In the ghettos and camps, children did not always associate their mothers with the cooking, so in these spaces, testimonies often shift to focus on the different ways in which mothers acquired provisions for their families (standing in rations lines, giving up their own rations). That being said, there are a number of descriptions of the meals mothers managed to invent meals from unpalatable and/or inedible foodstuffs. For the women in ghettos and camps, they had to take on new responsibilities as the foodscapes shifted.

Westerbork transit camp (Netherlands) became a significant landscape in my study of German-Jewish women since so many German Jews emigrated to the Netherlands and were arrested mainly in Amsterdam. I have one testimony of a woman who describes her mother as a good cook. When describing their experience in Westerbork, she actually quite liked the food in Westerbork and had the thought that she would have to ask her mother to make it for her afterwards. Of course, the food quality in camps varied between the spaces, but also at different times as the war proceeded.

In your time at the Center, you have mentioned that you would like to visit the USC Libraries Special Collections. What would you like to find in these collections?

I am particularly interested in the collection of Marta Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish woman. She was imprisoned in internment camps in southern France and made her way to America via Lisbon. She landed in California so she and her husband Lion Feuchtwanger’s collections are located at USC. I’m interested to see how food will be part of her postwar life. I’m not quite sure what I will find, but I am hoping there will be some dinner party menus as she went to dinner parties where Charlie Chaplin was in attendance. Also in her husband’s papers, there is a recipe for Marta’s apple strudel that I am interested in getting my hands on.

Learn more about Julie Fitzpatrick here

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