In the long inventory of loot amassed by the Nazis during the second world war, the recipe for a Viennese omelette might seem an insignificant item. It is not in the same league as, say, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, known as “The Woman in Gold”, which was eventually returned to the sitter’s heirs in 2006 and later sold at Christie’s for $135mn. Yet Alice Urbach’s “Rothschild Omelette” — its Jewishness was largely in name only — provides a flavour of the ever-shifting landscape of restitution.
Alice’s omelette was one of some 1,600 dishes in her bestselling 1935 cookbook So kocht man in Wien! (Cooking the Viennese Way!). The book’s fate has only recently come to light, thanks to the detective work of her granddaughter Karina Urbach, who uncovered an outrageous theft of intellectual property, along with a curious literary afterlife.
Alice was born in 1886 to a prominent Jewish textile manufacturing family. Photographs of her taken in the early 20th century show a young woman in traditional Austrian dress, hair tied up. Her father, Sigmund Mayer, was a chilly character. She recalled that it was a pleasure “to win a smile from his stern face, with some dish of his liking.” She always found solace in the kitchen.
An ill-fated marriage to Max Urbach, a womanising gambler who died aged 44, left Alice with two sons, Otto and Karl, and the need to make a living. She returned to the stove, opening a culinary school near Vienna’s Belvedere Palace in 1932. Her pupils ranged from housewives to duchesses, “with a few men sprinkled in for company”, she recalled in a short memoir written for her family. Alice proved to be as imaginative as she was entrepreneurial: one of her innovations was the “bridge bite”, a kind of open sandwich that could be eaten while holding cards. This all fed into her cookbook.
So kocht man in Wien! was a huge, handsome volume: 500 pages long, with colour plates of dishes — jellies, fish platters, sweets and roasts — and tableaux of table settings. Accompanying the recipes was an exhaustive section on maintaining a finely tuned kitchen, with subjects ranging from catering children’s parties to nutritional values and dealing with burnt fingers. Its intended readership was the Austrian and German bourgeoisie, families whose kitchens were buttressed by staff and walk-in larders.
By the mid-1930s, Vienna was in the Nazis’ crosshairs and, following the annexation of Austria in the spring of 1938, the city’s Jewish community became marbled with fear. On November 9 that year, Kristallnacht shattered any hopes that the threat would dissipate. And so in order to expedite her escape to Britain, Alice signed over her literary rights to her German publisher, Ernst Reinhardt Verlag. Such contracts, made under duress following the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, are no longer deemed legal.
Alice’s publisher subsequently Aryanised the book’s content and republished it in 1939 under the name of Rudolf Rösch, a shadowy, possibly fabricated character. Rösch’s cuckoo volume was subtle in its alterations. The Jewish-sounding “Rothschild Omelette” and “Jaffe torte” disappeared while “Beef Wellington”, thought to be too English, became “Beef in Blankets”. Editions of the Rösch volume continued to appear until the mid-1960s.
The Urbach family experienced mixed fortunes during the war. By the summer of 1939, Alice and her brother were in England, but their three sisters all died in the Holocaust. Otto moved to America in 1935; Karl joined him there, but only after enduring a hellish period in Dachau.
Alice’s salvation in Britain was a gift she repaid. After a period as a domestic cook in a grand house, she spent the rest of the war running a home for refugee children in Windermere, where she would welcome new arrivals with homemade biscuits. After the war, Alice emigrated to America. It was only on a visit to Vienna in 1949, when she saw the Rösch version of her book in a shop window, that she discovered what had happened to it.
I meet Alice’s granddaughter Karina Urbach, a historian at the University of London, at her home in Cambridge. As we sit down to coffee, she produces a box of Sachertorte from a recent trip to Vienna. “Unlike Alice, I’m useless at cooking,” she says.
Karina is Otto’s daughter. She came to England as a student, having grown up in Munich knowing little of her grandmother’s story. “I knew her like a granddaughter who sees her grandmother once a year,” she says. “She was this very cuddly, funny and loving old lady. But I’d no idea about her background at all.”
In researching her memoir Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole my Grandmother’s Cookbook, Karina pored over letters and audio recordings of Alice, who died in 1983. As a historian, Karina was wary of tackling such a personal story. “There was this idea that it is not professional to do this. That you have to distance yourself. So, I started off with boring diplomatic 19th-century history. I did the Nazis later.”
During her lifetime, Alice tried repeatedly to get the rights to her book back, but was rebuffed by Hermann Jungck, head of Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, often with a slight on her abilities. Her daughter-in-law Wera tried again in the 1980s, with the same response. “They were always saying: we haven’t got material, bye-bye,” Karina says.
“The misappropriation of the rights to Alice’s book is the very first example of its kind that I have ever come across,” says Richard Aronowitz, head of restitution at Christie’s, who for two decades has been unpicking the provenance of artworks and objects. Since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998, a system for dealing with looted property has coalesced out of an array of organisations, both private and state-run.
Aronowitz is keen to stress that the imperatives are broader than legal obligations and financial motives. The term “restitution industry”, he says, “does nothing but undermine” the efforts of families and organisations, adding that nowadays the process has a “very strong ethical, moral and emotional component”. And modest objects receive the same scrutiny as million-dollar Monets.
Aronowitz’s interest is as personal as it is professional. His mother was saved by the Kindertransport and he uses items she brought with her from Germany — a necklace, some cutlery — when giving talks on restitution. In 2006, he fictionalised his family history in a novel, Five Amber Beads.
While Alice Urbach’s experience was unusual, it was symptomatic of a larger exploitation of Jewish cultural capital. In 2004, a valuable collection of autograph scores was returned to the heirs of Henri Hinriksen, a Jewish music publisher, six decades after his murder in Auschwitz. The Jewish writer and doctor Josef Löbel had his popular medical encyclopedia Aryanised and his name removed from the cover. (Löbel fled Austria to Prague where, in 1942, he committed suicide.) The Jewish journalist Egon Kisch even had a short story appropriated. “It was turned from a Czech short story into a Hamburg short story by some Nazi,” Karina says.
Walter Schübler, an Austrian cookbook historian who has analysed the two versions of So kocht man in Wien!, concluded that some 75 per cent of Alice’s original was copied verbatim, while Nazi ideology was threaded into a new introduction. Gone was Alice’s preface, which celebrated how Viennese cuisine had benefited from a “rich seam” provided by a “colourful mix of people”. Rösch’s foreword promoted culinary colonisation rather than assimilation: the book would go “out into all the German districts and perhaps even further into the world”. Schübler reads between the lines: “You can almost hear that unspeakable refrain in the background: ‘Today Germany belongs to us, and tomorrow the whole world.’”
Even the book’s cover was changed, with the original sun-yellow Pantone and modern sans serif font replaced with dun cloth-bound boards embossed with a jagged neo-gothic typeface. The Rösch version is a cookbook that looks like an armaments manual.
The subterfuge extended, obliquely, to the photographs in the book. Shots of hands pulling out strudel, piping, rolling and filling pastry cases, which in the original were often Alice’s hands, were credited as being those of kitchen assistants to account for them not looking like the (male) hands of Rösch. “The whole thing becomes a little spooky. It takes on an oppressive quality,” Schübler notes.
When starting her research in 2018, Karina wrote to Ernst Reinhardt Verlag requesting information on Alice and her book. “I got this email fobbing me off, saying they don’t have archives,” she says. When her book about her grandmother was first published in Germany in 2020, Ernst Reinhardt Verlag had still not returned Alice’s rights. It finally buckled after the magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Karina. But there were still critics. “We wanted to show that this was not about money,” she tells me. “It was interesting, when Der Spiegel published their interview, people obviously didn’t read it carefully and there were all these horrible comments underneath. One was: ‘Oh my god, here we go again, Jews want money.”
Ernst Reinhardt Verlag subsequently issued a public apology. In addition to the return of the rights, a token print run of the book was undertaken for the Urbach family, with Alice’s name back on the cover. The publisher also returned letters written by Alice from the archives it had claimed did not exist.
But Karina believes “they’re still protecting somebody”. Questions remain about Rudolf Rösch, of whom there is little trace. Schübler, the cookbook historian, suggests the possibility that Rösch was a cover for an “editorial collective”. If that was the case, the publisher would have received author royalties spanning almost three decades. Karina is not seeking financial compensation, but says “they finally should tell me whether he was real or not. That is the one riddle. They must know.”
The wartime theft of authorships is just one of several new areas of restitution research. “Confiscations from private collectors in communist Cuba is a field attracting increasing interest, and righting the wrongs of colonial appropriations are on government agendas today,” says Aronowitz. There are also researchers specifically focusing on Nazi-looted cars and musical instruments.
Reading Alice’s Book, parallels between those fleeing the Anschluss and the recent exodus from Ukraine are striking. In particular, how the swift disintegration of parts of Ukraine echoes the speed with which Alice’s cultured city went “from a normal civil society to nothing”. Like Alice, those exiled Ukrainians have left things behind.
For the displaced, there is something particularly emotive about food. “For immigrants and refugees who went to America, they really valued these cookbooks,” Karina says. Traditional dishes remained “a connection with the past”. They certainly were for Alice. As a nonagenarian living in San Francisco in the late 1970s, she was still teaching students the art of Viennese cuisine.
A 1938 edition of So kocht man in Wien! reveals an impressive but dated book. “Our tastes have really changed,” Karina says, flicking through a section on how to deal with maids. I ask her whether she has tried making any of Alice’s recipes. “Sort of,” she says with a smile. “[My cousin] had this idea that we should do a bake-along thing with all the other Urbachs on Zoom during lockdown. I had to do these Kipferl cookies. Mine looked horrible. The others were perfect, of course.”
‘Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole my Grandmother’s Cookbook’ is published by MacLehose Press
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