For centuries, Jewish food traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. In kitchens around the world, parents and grandparents have guided youngsters as they roll their first matzo balls for soup, taste the batter for a sour cream coffeecake, or learn the sharp, malty scent of baking sourdough bread. But when a young person loses her whole family — as Regina Karolinski and Bella Katz each did during the Holocaust — those secrets of hearth and home get lost along with everything else.
In the new film “Oma & Bella” German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski (Regina’s granddaughter) tells the story of her oma (German for “grandmother”) and her best friend Bella — two elegant and charismatic women, both Holocaust survivors, who now live, kibbitz and cook together in their shared Berlin apartment. Fortified with slowly caramelized onions, generous pinches of sugar, and other ingredients associated with Jewish soul food, Oma and Bella’s cooking — their brisket-filled blintzes, their barley soup, and lusciously-soft baked apples — has become the stuff of family legend. But it was not always this way.
“Having lost both of their families in the Holocaust, [they] had to teach themselves, often from scratch, how to make the dishes their mothers and grandmothers made for them,” writes Karolinski in the introduction to the companion cookbook she self-published along with the film. “In doing so, they built a bridge from their past into the present, drawing on tastes and smells from a vanished world as a gift to their children and grandchildren.”