Photo Credit: Courtesy

The stories of survivors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe are tragically lost or overlooked in Jewish history. 2.7 million Jewish people outside of Poland, almost half of the Six Million survivors accounted for, were killed not in concentration camps, but massacred in mass shootings and starved to death. Their homes and villages were burned to the ground, and there is little to no evidence remaining of their belongings or photographs to display in Holocaust museums to tell their stories. Zane Buzby, director, actress, 2014 CNN Hero and founder of The Survivor Mitzvah Project (SMP), a nonprofit organization providing emergency aid to thousands of survivors in nine Eastern European countries, has been visiting and corresponding with these survivors for the last 22 years.

To this day, over 70 percent of Eastern European Holocaust survivors cannot afford enough food, and for survivors in war-torn Ukraine, times are especially perilous. Ukrainian survivor Anastasia K. recounted the post-WWII famine in a letter she sent to SMP: “In 1947, when I was ten, another famine took place. It is now recognized as a genocide…To survive we ate tree leaves and tree bark, beetles, picked rotten potatoes and beets – anything we could find… Anyone who dared take even five wheat ears was thrown into jail.”


Another Ukrainian survivor vividly recalled how sweet sugar tasted when she was starving. “One day my mother and I went out for a walk and met an old lady who gave me a rare treat. She brought a teaspoon of sugar out of her house, which she carried in the lid of a sugar bowl. It was so delicious, amazingly delightful! I licked the sugar and could not believe my good luck. I can still remember the taste of that sugar in my mouth, during the war years.”

After experiencing devastating periods of starvation, food is nostalgia and comfort. When these survivors cook recipes they remember by heart, it transports them to happier times spent with loved ones. Buzby told The Jewish Press, “These precious recipes reflect the nurturing souls of the women in their families who were taken away and killed, along with millions of others during the Nazi genocide. Passing these recipes down through the generations is a way for survivors to keep the memory of their mothers and grandmothers alive, and the familiar aroma of a family recipe can bring survivors immediately back to the one safe place they have ever known: home.”


The Story of High School Sweetheart Survivors
and a Recipe for Potato Mushroom Kugel

On New Year’s Eve, 2010, Buzby and her camera crew traveled from Los Angeles to the small snow-covered city of Korsun, in Ukraine, situated along the Ros River, to meet survivors who were childhood sweethearts. Buzby had been letter writing with Dora Ilyinichna and husband Tzal Nusymovych Groisman, a craftsman who repaired watches and musical instruments, for five years. When they opened the door to their tiny hut, Buzby said they felt “like home to me, like long lost relatives finally seeing each other again.” She added that when she walked in, they both couldn’t stop staring at her. “They turned to each other and said, ‘Zina.’ It turns out, I looked exactly like their relative who was killed in the Holocaust. From then on, they never called me ‘Zane,’ they called me ‘Zina.’”

Dora was born in 1924 in Tarashcha, a small predominantly Jewish town in Ukraine where everyone spoke Yiddish. Her father was known throughout the town for building beautiful chests, and her mother was a cook who worked at a café and a canteen. In a letter to Buzby, she wrote, “My childhood home was warm and cozy, a place one would always wish to return… Everyone was delighted with Mother’s cooking. She passed her recipes down to me: stuffed chicken neck, kugel, gefilte fish, matzo breikluski [dumplings and noodles], and other traditional Jewish dishes.”

Dora always remembered her mother and grandmother’s stories of horrific antisemitic cruelty. From 1917-1919, the “Denikin people” initiated pogroms where they would go to Jewish towns and wound every Jewish person they could find, leaving them with permanent scars. Dora’s grandmother loved to bake sweet buns that she sold at market. She had to knead the dough with crooked fingers because the brutal “Denikin people” had broken them. They also cut Dora’s mother’s braid off, taking a piece of her scalp with it, leaving her with a bald patch and severe headaches that she suffered from for the rest of her life. Despite pain and trauma, Dora’s mother never lost her spirit and her grandmother never stopped baking.

In 1941, Dora’s future husband Tzal was drafted. She wrote, “Our youth had only begun. We were just girls and boys who dreamed of our first kiss, our first love, and our weddings. It was the eve of the school prom when we heard about the beginning of war on the radio. All young men aged 18 and older were instructed to report to the military. At first nobody believed it. How come? A war? I remember the tears of mothers and girlfriends.” When Tzal came to say goodbye, he asked her for a photograph of herself, and she was still so young and childlike that she felt the need to ask her mother for permission before she gave one to him.

In July 1941, Dora and her family fled from their home as the Nazis approached. They endured a harrowing journey to Chelyabinsk, Russia where she worked 12 hours a day in a factory for a loaf of bread and her mother was employed as a cook, saving extra soup with bits of meat in it for her family.

Three years later, after the death of her beloved grandmother, Dora’s family moved back to Tarashcha, where she was reunited with Tzal, who had to crawl back home after being wounded in battle. She wrote, “We got together right away! It was the most wonderful moment! My dear Tzalik had returned! From that moment on, my most happy life had begun!”

In 2020, Dora passed away at the age of 97. Tzal died two years before. SMP supported them and helped provide transportation and medication for Dora’s granddaughter and her family when they recently evacuated from Kiev due to the bombings. “They will return when peace comes, like Dora and Tzal before them,” said Buzby.


Dora’s Passover Potato Mushroom Kugel: 


5-6 lbs potatoes
3 medium or large yellow onions
1 or 2 cups of mushrooms cooked in chicken fat
1 carrot
3 eggs
1⁄4 cup schmaltz
Some salt and pepper


  1. Put oven on high
  2. Chop potatoes, onion and carrot into very small chunks
    3. Squeeze or blot out any extra liquid. Put in large bowl.
    4. Beat eggs well. Add salt and pepper. Add beaten eggs to the bowl.
  3. Fry mushrooms in chicken fat. Add to bowl. Mix everything very well.
    6. Put schmaltz in baking dish and put in oven until it gets very hot. Fat should be hot enough to sizzle. Remove from oven.
    7. Pour mixture into baking dish. Pat down.
    8. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes on high, then reduce heat a little and bake for another 30 minutes (375-400) until the kugel is golden brown.
  4. Remove from oven. Top will be crispy. Let cool 10 minutes then cut into squares. Arrange on a platter and serve.


Visiting Bluima F. in Riga, Latvia and Receiving Her
Recipe for 
Imberlach, a Passover Ginger Candy

In the winter of 2011, Buzby traveled to Riga, Latvia with her camera crew to film Bluima F.’s Holocaust testimony. “She was this lovely, warm person who was so excited to have five people to cook for. She treated us like family and prepared a wonderful meal and for dessert, amazing strudel. We told her it was so delicious; she should make it every day! Bluima, who lived alone, replied, “But, I have no one to make it for”

When WWII began, Bluima was a fourteen-year-old living in Varakļāni, a small, mostly Jewish town in Latvia. From 1941-1944, about 70,000 Jews were murdered there, and the rest were deported to the Riga Ghetto. Bluima’s mother told her they had to run from Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing squads. They fled by foot and in horse driven carts with other Jewish families as the roads were bombed and tried to fall asleep in the woods while hearing the firing of gunshots. Finally, they got to safety and stayed with relatives who lived further away from the fighting.


After the war, they returned to Varakļāni and found out that their house had been burned down. Bluima’s two aunts had been killed, including one of their babies. Buzby filmed Bluima saying these chilling words, “When we searched for our playmates, those who did not run away, all we found was hair and teeth.” Blumia’s father came back from the war in 1945, but a year later he was sent to a Russian prison camp for 10 years. Her mother was sent to a Siberia for 7 years, but both survived. They had been arrested as “enemies of the people” in a false report made by local townspeople.

Bluima provided Buzby with her delicious recipe for Imberlach, a Passover ginger candy:

Carrots – 1 kg (2.2 pounds)
Sugar – 1 kg (1 pound)
Orange peels – 100 g (3.5 oz) cut in strips
Nuts – 200 g (just under ½ pound)
Ginger – to taste.

Imberlach are carrots cooked in sugar with orange zest.

Wash carrots well. Grate carrots on a fine grater, mix with sugar, and add orange zest [peels].

Add water, simmer on low heat, covered, until carrots absorb all the liquid.

Add crushed nuts and ginger.

Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly.

Place the entire mixture on a damp cutting board. Flatten with a spoon or wet roller and let stand for 10-12 hours, then cut the cooled carrot mixture into squares and turn them upside down.

Leave to dry for 2-3 days, turning over occasionally. When imberlach feel dry, they are ready to eat!

I think you can do it, bon appetite!

NOTE: for a modern twist – you can cover with semisweet chocolate.


Galina’s Story and Recipe for Stuffed Carp

SMP has been corresponding with Galina Adolphovna, another survivor in Ukraine. She is a 90-year-old widow and one of 10 children. She describes life during WW II as excruciating. Her two youngest sisters died during the war, and her brother fought in the frontlines and was injured. Galina has only one sibling left, her sister, Tamara, who lives in Haifa, Israel. Her husband passed away 21 years ago. She lives with her dogs and cats on a miniscule pension and feeds homeless animals. In a letter to Buzby she wrote, “They are my life; they keep me alive. I am very ill but every day I wake up for the animals to cook food, feed and walk them.”

Galina sent SMP a recipe for stuffed carp in one of her letters:

“Gefilte fish was the most popular dish among the Jews of Eastern Europe. Why? Because people were poor. They were shop keepers, bakers, tailors, horse-drawn carriage drivers and shoemakers, all with large families. My father, Adolf Arkadievich, was one of these people. No one could afford meat or fish for Shabbos, so they invented a ‘whole new’ fish, a stuffed one.

Carp was scaled and skinned, and the skin saved in one piece. The filet was cut into pieces and minced onion added. Another portion of minced onion and carrots was lightly fried. An egg was whisked with a pinch of salt and black pepper. The fish skin was stuffed with this mixture and small cutlets made from the leftovers. They used to make a lot of this stuffing — enough to feed everyone.

Carrots, onions and bay leaves were arranged in the bottom of the pan. The fish bones and fish head were placed atop this “pillow”, and then the gefilte fish was arranged. The pan was filled with water, or for best results, a hot meat broth and stewed for three hours. Then the fish was taken out and cutlets set aside. The broth was strained and poured over the fish. The skin was stuffed and the fish cut in 2” sections, arranged on a platter, with pickled tomatoes to garnish.”

SMP’s collection of 33,000 documents, including survivors’ recipes and stories, handwritten letters and video testimonials is part of the Zane Buzby Survivor Mitzvah Holocaust Educational Archive, which is in partnership with the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

To learn more about The Survivor Mitzvah Project, visit


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