Top photo: My mother, Ruth Schachter, in her NW London garden in 2014
Bottom photo: Mum in 2015, after her serious fall, with my daughters Ruthie (L) and Esther (R)
A couple of months ago, a woman called Barbara Scharf contacted me by email from her home in the U.S.
Apparently, she had found my mother Ruth Schachter online, likely in my multi-media project called “Mum and Me” – an audio podcast, video and written piece about my mum’s Holocaust history and my trans-generational trauma – and via a couple of blog posts about her on this site (link 1 link 2).
Barbara recognized my mother’s maiden name Ruth Nisse and clearly recalled her mother Henny Balson, who died five years ago, mentioning her as a school-mate during their childhoods in Riga, Latvia. Henny had fond memories of Mum and often wondered who had survived among their class at Ezra School shown below in a photo taken in 1935 when my mother, now 92, was 12 years old.
Ezra School 1935 Second row L to R: Mum’s friend Esja, Henny, Mum (age 12) Bottom row Mum’s friend Sonja
I was astounded and elated to receive this news, especially the vintage photo. I have a large collection of cherished family photos entrusted to me by my mother from days before she, her parents Agnes and Aaron Nisse along with her younger sister Dita escaped from Riga, Latvia in October, 1939. But I don’t have this one.
Henny, Barbara’s mother, was also a teenager when she and her mother left Latvia exactly a year earlier in 1938. Both our mothers arrived in North America by a circuitous route.
My mother’s family had a long trek of more than a year via Sweden, the Trans-Siberian Railway, a Japanese liner to cross the Pacific, then Seattle and New York. They were among the few Jewish refugees allowed entry to Canada when they arrived at their final destination: Montreal, this with the help of a heroic CP official called Mark Sorensen. The latter is cited in the important book “None is too Many” by Harold Troper and Irving Abella.
Henny ended up in California where her daughter Barbara now lives. She talked to her daughter about life before the Holocaust during which Latvia became what my oil tycoon grandfather accurately predicted would be “a mousetrap.” My mother is so traumatized, especially by her sister Mira’s suicide a month before their escape, that she rarely if ever mentioned the Nazi genocide that wiped out her entire extended family when I was growing up.
So fast-forward to November, 2015.
My mother is confined to her garden flat in Primrose Hill, London with 24-hour care. She fell down the concrete steps in September, 2014, breaking her arm and cutting her forehead above the eye. A combination of frontal lobe damage and a form of Parkinson’s disease has reduced her speech to a minimum and her motor ability to almost nil.
Once a high-school biology teacher and a brainy, beautiful woman, she still has bright blue eyes, a sweet nature and an interest in what’s going on around her. No longer a bookworm, she does not read. Nor does she talk much. However, she still speaks several languages fluently. She sits in her lazy-boy chair acknowledging a steady stream of visitors and enjoying her caregivers’ home-cooked meals.
So I walked into her small, sunny London flat unannounced – mum is not good on the phone these days – worried that she wouldn’t recognize me. She did – and it gets better.
I sat down next to her and, after some small talk, I couldn’t wait. I pulled out the sepia class photo, printed by my partner Ross from Barbara’s email, and showed it to my Mum. She was transfixed and immediately pointed to her lovely, blonde 12-year-old self seated at the front on the far right. Tears welled up in her eyes as I told her the story of Henny and how I got the photo – tears I had never seen before. “Did she perish?” came the question. “No,” I replied, “she survived just like you.”
Next, Mum pointed to a dark-haired boy in the back row. She mumbled a name I couldn’t understand. There was a lull, then she pointed to two girls, one with dark hair, the other blonde. They were Sonja and Esja, her two best childhood friends whom I recognized from a photo taken with my mother when all three girls were 16. This time it was my turn to get choked up. Both Sonya and Esja were murdered at the horrific Rumbula Massacre on the outskirts of Riga in the winter of 1941.
Sonja, Mum and Esja age 16 in 1939. My mother survived; her two friends perished.
In a happier nostalgic vein, I took to the kitchen of Mum’s flat for an activity that often soothes my troubled soul: cooking. I baked an Apple Galette Normande and served it to Mum the following day.
It was one of my mother’s trademark cakes. She was a terrific baker of European desserts and used to make this one for special occasions including dinner parties, birthdays and, until her health failed a year ago, to celebrate my arrival on regular visits from Canada at her London home.
She originally found the recipe for “Galette Normande” in a small soft-cover cookbook, by now besmirched with food stains and the pages loose, called “Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery” by Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downes. It is, of course, now in my possession and much cherished.
My slightly tweaked version of this recipe appears in the recent cookbook “share” that I co-authored with Adrienne De Francesco in aid of FoodShare, a non-profit group that advocates “good healthy food for all.”
Apple Galette Normande
It is crucial – and I can’t emphasize this enough – to use the most tart apples you can find. I even recall my mother using crab apples from her garden. When making this at Mum’s in her Primrose Hill, London home, I bought Bramleys at Marks & Spencer in nearby Camden Town. Bramleys are large green apples only suitable – and ideal – for use in pies, crumble etc. In Canada, I use Northern Spys available at some stores in late fall. The contrast of the tangy applesauce with the sweet cookie-like cake layers is imperative for this dessert. The same holds true, in my opinion, for crumble.
Make the dough for the galette layers while the apples are cooking. I sometimes sprinkle 1/4 cup of toasted sliced almonds on top of the icing. The original recipe suggests “marbling” the icing with some melted redcurrant jelly.
This is best made a day ahead of serving so the applesauce has time to soften the galette layers.
4 large tart apples (such as Northern Spy), cored, peeled, sliced
1 or 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 large egg yolks
1 tbsp ice-cold water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 to 2 tbsp lemon or orange juice
Preheat oven to 350F (180C).
For applesauce, place sliced apples and lemon juice in ovenproof dish with lid; toss to combine. Bake covered in oven about 1 hour or until apples are soft. Mash lightly with fork. Cool.
For galette layers, place flour, sugar and butter in food processor or electric mixer. Pulse on and off until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add egg yolks, water and vanilla; process just until dough begins to clump. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Shape into ball. Divide into 3 equal pieces; flatten into discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Roll each dough disc into an 8-inch circle. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake in oven about 15 to 18 minutes or until golden but not browned. Cool completely.
For icing, in small bowl, combine sugar and lemon juice.
To assemble, place a galette layer on cake plate. Spread with half of applesauce. Repeat layers. Top with third galette layer. Spread or drizzle with icing.
Makes about 8 servings.