He bakes, there­fore he lives

Ernie Feld’s strudels, still his liveli­hood, helped him sur­vive the Nazis

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - john.glionna@la­times.com with John M. Glionna

Of all the guilty culi­nary plea­sures that Ernie Feld whips up at his tiny pas­try shop in the for­est, one is par­tic­u­larly bit­ter­sweet: the popular poppy-seed strudels.

That’s the del­i­cacy Feld made for the Nazi SS of­fi­cers who held him cap­tive as their per­sonal baker dur­ing the fi­nal years of World War II, a time when Feld lit­er­ally cooked for his life, us­ing empty cham­pagne bot­tles to spread his dough be­cause rolling pins were in short sup­ply.

At 90, he still runs Ernie’s In­ter­na­tional Pastries on the North Shore of Lake Ta­hoe, art­fully pre­par­ing the treats he has made for seven decades — his sig­na­ture strudels, Aus­trian Sacher torte and lemon Napoleons.

He’s a wartime sur­vivor who has kept his sweet, grand­fa­therly sense of hu­mor, whether he’s serv­ing up one-lin­ers to cus­tomers or re­call­ing his painful past. While Feld was held at a makeshift Ger­man-run air­port in Bu­dapest, three dozen of his fam­ily mem­bers — in­clud­ing his beloved mother, Sara — went to the gas cham­bers at Auschwitz.

“Most men want a woman who is good in the kitchen, but the Ger­man SS needed me be­cause I could cook,” he joked, not long be­fore Thurs­day’s Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, his voice car­ry­ing an Eastern Euro­pean lilt, with a prankster’s play­ful­ness. Then he turned se­ri­ous: “Bak­ing saved my life. If I wasn’t a baker, I’d prob­a­bly be dead.”

Nowa­days, Feld is slow­ing down, ex­cept when it comes to fend­ing off the an­i­mal in­vaders. In 2010, he and his wife, Marika, en­coun­tered four bears that had bro­ken into the shop in just one sea­son, in­clud­ing a large male Feld met face-to­face in his kitchen. He scared off the bear, and later helped of­fi­cials catch two oth­ers by bait­ing a trap with his poppy-seed strudel.

“Those bears must be Jewish,” he said. “One came in for a meal and went home to tell his fam­ily, ‘There’s very good strudel there.’ ”

For decades, while Feld baked in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, so many cus­tomers asked about his orig­i­nal last name — Ehren­feld — that he went to court for a new one. “I told the judge I wanted to cut it in half,” he said. “By the time I fin­ished telling peo­ple about my name, my pastries got burned.”

That name sig­ni­fies a past life that took all of Feld’s pluck to sur­vive.

He was born in Lucenec, Cze­choslo­vakia, in 1925 and grew up as Europe edged to­ward its sec­ond con­ti­nen­tal war of the cen­tury. Af­ter his fa­ther died in an ac­ci­dent, the boy ev­ery­one called Ernie watched his mother bake in the restau­rant she ran in town. “When I was 14, I was al­ways lick­ing this and lick­ing that, and mother would say, ‘Are you eat­ing again? I’m go­ing to send you to baker’s school.’ ”

For three years, he worked as an in­tern baker at­tend­ing cooking classes at night. As war broiled and prices soared, his bosses sent him into the coun­try­side atop his bi­cy­cle to test the black mar­ket for eggs and flour, which were hard to come by.

The episodes were pre­cur­sors to more sin­is­ter shop­ping trips to come.

In 1942, three years af­ter the Nazis in­vaded Cze­choslo­vakia, Feld was just 17 as Jews were rounded up. As he stood on the train plat­form, wait­ing to board with other men bound for a work camp, his mother saw him off: “She was wor­ried that I had nice strong shoes.” He never saw her again. Feld was taken to Hun­gary, where he first worked as a cook at a farm camp. Then a Nazi SS leader heard about the Jewish baker-turned-prisoner. He needed a good chef for a Ger­man of­fi­cer’s club at an air­port the Third Re­ich was build­ing near Bu­dapest: “He asked me, ‘What can you cook?’ He needed some­one to make ap­pe­tiz­ers for the of­fi­cers to eat with their cham­pagne and beer.”

Feld wrote up a list of the in­gre­di­ents, and the Nazis sent him into Bu­dapest to shop — with his yel­low arm-band sig­ni­fy­ing he was a Jew and a body­guard to pre­vent his es­cape.

Over the months, he made his poppy-seed strudels — a fa­vorite among the of­fi­cers — as well as pasta with poppy seeds and pastries with frank­furters. The Nazis said Feld cooked can­noli like an Ital­ian.

Em­bold­ened, Feld en­listed other Jewish pris­on­ers as kitchen helpers as a way to save them from hard la­bor build­ing the air­port. He re­calls how they stood around a huge ta­ble, rolling out their dough, feel­ing lucky to be alive.

Once, he saw an el­derly in­mate — who turned out to be his un­cle, Rot­ter — beaten by a Ger­man SS of­fi­cer be­cause he was slow to dodge an on­com­ing tank. That’s when a Hungarian SS of­fi­cer stopped the attack, say­ing, “If Jews are go­ing to be killed in Hun­gary, a Hungarian will do it.” The old man was spared.

In 1945, with the Ger­mans on the run, Feld es­caped, fi­nally saved by ad­vanc­ing Rus­sian troops. Back home, friends who’d sur­vived Auschwitz told him of his mother’s death and that of his younger brother, Alex. Cousins, aunts and un­cles per­ished too in the Holo­caust.

Neigh­bors re­turned keep­sakes given away by the Nazis, in­clud­ing a pho­to­graph of his mother.

He trav­eled to pre-state Is­rael and Cyprus be­fore land­ing in San Fran­cisco in 1957, when the man who spoke six lan­guages could not ut­ter a word of English. Two years later, when then-Soviet Pre­mier Nikita S. Khrushchev vis­ited San Fran­cisco, Feld was asked to bake a Rus­sian cream cake. When FBI agents vis­ited his shop to vet his back­ground, he said he re­spected Rus­sians; they’d saved him from the Nazis.

Now Feld sits at a ta­ble near the glass dis­play case as Marika bakes, fol­low­ing recipes her hus­band has taught her over their 22-year mar­riage. Af­ter break­ing his leg in a fall five months ago, he of­ten uses a walker and wheel­chair. “I used to give her in­struc­tions,” he said. “Now she or­ders me around.”

It’s Feld’s job to shake and bake with cus­tomers. Some doc­u­mented their en­coun­ters on­line.

“Did you make th­ese pastries by your­self?” one poster asked.

“Of course. You weren’t here to help me make them.”

The vis­i­tor per­sisted: “Are the cook­ies soft?”

“You won’t break your teeth on them.”

As Feld opened a box of me­men­tos to dis­play faded images of his past, Marika whis­pered some­thing in Hungarian: “She wants me to say that those Nazis are prob­a­bly dead, but Ernie is still mak­ing his poppy-seed strudels.”

Yes, he is. And with that, the baker served up a smile that was any­thing but bit­ter­sweet.

John M. Glionna Los An­ge­les Times

ERNIE FELD, who per­se­vered dur­ing World War II by be­com­ing the per­sonal baker for Nazi SS of­fi­cers, shows a wartime photo of him­self and other pris­on­ers.

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