Christmas time always makes us think a little more about our family, our more remote family members or maybe even about our ancestors.
But what do we actually know about our ancestors? How did they live? What did they eat? Was Christmas the same for them? Many people don’t even know where their ancestors came from, which is a pity because they would have many interesting stories to tell. Stories about their lives, lives led at another time, filled with different customs, habits and of course foods.
In the short series “From Agata’s diary” I’m going to share some of my ancestor’s experiences with you and I hope that you will enjoy these life stories written almost a hundred years ago. I will also include some recipes from my great-grandmother’s cookbook and their more modern versions.
Agata was born in 1924, in what is now eastern Slovakia, to a Sudeten German mother and a Siberian father. She grew up there and attended the German school before she went to Vienna for work at the age of fifteen. When the Second World War broke out, she first stayed in Vienna (with occasional travels to her hometown,which was occupied by Russia) because it was safer, but when Vienna started to get bombed she returned to her family’s farm. Shortly after battles between Germans and Russians had started in that area, the family lost the farm due to the fact that they were part of a minority group. They were deported to various places belonging to the German-speaking area, before finally settling near Munich in 1946. After the war, Agata married Hungarian-born Friedrich and together they moved back to Vienna in order to live there. – Oh hol(e)y goose..!
“ Dear Diary,
today was my last day at work before the Christmas holidays and after closing the shop I went to see Mizzi (a friend of the family) to pick up the goose that had been promised us for Christmas. She wrapped it up and I hurried to catch my train back home. Luckily (or not) I got it and I deposited my goose under the seats. (…)
We were in the middle of nowhere, close to the Czechoslovakian border, when suddenly the train stopped. At first nobody really noticed it,because we thought there were just ordinary border controls but after a while one of the other passengers in my compartment started yelling “Look, the conductors are running into the woods!!” and we got very nervous and started looking around. What was happening? This question was answered almost immediately when we suddenly heard the sound of engines coming closer and closer and a woman opened the window to lean out and look around. She turned pale and gasped “planes!… planes!!..” before falling back into the seat. Suddenly everybody was alarmed. A panic broke out; people were screaming, leaving nothing but confusion and chaos. Everybody started suggesting something different: getting off the train and following the conductors (which would have been ridiculous in case it were German planes), staying on the train (which might have been very dangerous, as Russian planes were waiting just across the border) and many more crazy ideas were uttered. It was a sheer mess! Nobody knew what to do!
And then it happened. Just like that they started shooting. Russian planes; they had crossed the border. Everybody panicked and started shoving in order to get off the train. Some people recklessly crossed the fields, trying to reach the woods and were struck down by the machine gun fire immediately. Everyone was screaming and I was pushed off the train. I fell hard and I heard someone yell: “Under the train! Get under the train!”. When I got up everyone was already under the train and there was simply no room anymore – I tried to squeeze into the little space left between the stairs of the train and a man, but he yelled something at me and pushed me away. Stumbling I saw the planes coming closer and I just started to run. I was running along the train to find a spot where I could squeeze in, but there was absolutely nothing. I had just decided to turn around and run towards the woods, when suddenly I noticed that one of the planes was turning around and then started approaching me directly.
At that point I darted off. I had no idea where to go, I only knew that I had to run. In the field next to the train I noticed an old bathtub and I was just about to crawl under it when I suddenly turned around and saw the plane flying right behind me, so low I could actually see the pilot’s face. I was terrified! I could see the steel-blue eyes and the dead look on the Russian’s face. He stared at me as he was coming closer, then – out of the blue – he turned around and the planes started to speed downwards. When they were so low that I thought they were going to collide, they turned sidewards and started shooting right under the train.
I closed my eyes, covered my ears and stayed under the bathtub. It felt like forever (..)
Then it went quiet and I got out of my hiding place. The planes were gone. I tried not to look around, and while I was thinking about what to do, my goose came to my mind. I quickly entered the train to get it (Father would have killed me if I had arrived without it) and then I ran through the forest as fast as I could, crossing the border and at the next station – and hours later – I took a Czechoslovakian train home.
We have just prepared the goose, but before we could do so me and mum had to remove all the machine gun bullets. It was completely holey! There was just bullet after bullet … but I’m sure it will still be good and I’m glad I got on the train once again to get it; at least we have something to eat on Christmas Eve. Mum said we’d just have to make the filling a little firmer and then it would be just fine. We stuffed it with bread, onions and some chestnuts that we had found and stitched up the bigger holes.
While picking out bullets I thought about the pilot’s face again .. so close to me! I’m never going to forget that face.
See you next time, Diary!”
(Christmas eve 1943, eastern Slovakia)
Another very common Christmas treat are Vanilla biscuits, which have always been known in the German-speaking area and – when possible – they were never missing at a Christmas dinner. The recipes have varied a little throughout time and depending on the respective region they were from. My great-grandmother’s recipe was developed in the eastern Slovakian area, at around 1920:
“U-shaped vanilla biscuits”
260g flour, 200g fat (use butter if available), 100g sugar, 100g shredded nuts or dried bread crumbs
Mix all to a firm paste, then shape little U’s and bake them. When ready and while still hot sprinkle them with powdered sugar.
There is no information regarding temperatures because they were baked in a wood or carbon-heated oven. I tried these cookies once and honestly speaking, I cannot recommend them. They simply had different ingredients back then and were used to make the best of what they had. Using a modern oven, for example, they will turn out rather crunchy and dry when they should actually be soft and melt in your mouth. But fortunately I have a modern version of this awesome Christmas classic, which – I promise – will be great and a highlight on your Christmas table!
Modern “Vanilla biscuits”
300g flour, 200g cold butter, 100g shredded walnuts, 100g sugar and 1 egg yolk
Mix all to a firm dough and be careful not to work it too much, otherwise the butter will melt. Professional cooks wet their hands with ice-water before starting to work the dough, but don’t worry you don’t need to do that – just be careful not to overdo it. Form little U’s and bake at 175°C for about 15 minutes (depending on your oven – you should just see a light hint of brown) and when you take them out dust them with powdered, vanilla scented, sugar.
Have fun baking! 🙂 (Irene)