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How the Nazis stole a cookbook

Rayna Breuer
November 2, 2020

Alice Urbach's cookbook was a bestseller in the 1930s in German-speaking countries. A Jew, she fled her home under the Nazis, who republished the book under a different name without giving her credit.

Das Buch Alice von Karin Urbach
Image: Propyläen Verlag

Recipes for Kaiserschmarrn,  a kind of sweet scrambled pancake, apple strudel and special donuts for the Carnival season are just some of the dishes in Alice Urbach's more than 500-page cookbook, So kocht man in Wien! (This Is How We Cook in Vienna!). In the 1930s, almost every Viennese household owned a copy of the book, and Alice Urbach found herself the author of a bestseller. The fame did not last long, however.

Alice Urbach and her son Otto, in 1948/1949
Alice Urbach and her son Otto, in 1948/1949Image: Propyläen Verlag

Who was Alice Urbach?

Born in Vienna in 1886 to Jewish parents, Alice Urbach had blue eyes and fair hair. The parents had big plans for their children, hoping for them to become doctors or lawyers in Vienna's upper classes.

Alice, however, had a love for cooking that she discovered at an early age. She unsuccessfully tried to win over her strict father with petit four pastries.

She married a doctor, but he was more interested in gambling than in her. He died eight years after their wedding, leaving Alice behind with two young children, completely destitute.

The widow rolled up her sleeves, founded a cooking school, gave lectures on modern Viennese cuisine, with titles like "Quick Recipes for the Working Woman," organized culinary art exhibitions and invented the first delivery service for hot food in Vienna. She made a living for her family, and pursued her passion for cooking.

Alice Urbach (left) and Paula Sieber
Alice Urbach (left) and Paula Sieber took care of orphans in EnglandImage: Propyläen Verlag

Karina Urbach tells her grandmother's story

Alice was a small, sweet, chubby woman with a 'dumpling figure,'" her granddaughter Karina Urbach told DW. The historian just published The Book Alice: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother's Cookbook. She remembers her grandmother as amusing and funny, loving and generous and always well dressed. Unlike her grandmother, Karina Urbach said she is not much of a cook. "That's why I was never interested in the fact that two cookbooks titled This Is How We Cook in Vienna! were on our shelves at home," she said.

The text and also the color photographs are identical in the books, only the names of the authors on the covers were different: "On the 1938 edition, Alice Urbach was named as the author, while on the 1939 edition it was a man named Rudolf Rösch," Karina Urbach reveals in the first pages of her book. What she discovered in the course of her research is a surprise.

Alice Urbach: Escape with a cookbook

A black-and-white group photo of young girls smiling
The Jewish orphans in England under Alice's careImage: Propyläen Verlag

On March 12, 1938, the German Army marched into Austria, and three days later, the country was annexed to the German Reich. Endangered as a Jew, Alice Urbach escaped, and took her cookbook with her. She first settled in England, where she worked as a cook and maintained a shelter for Jewish orphans in Britain with the Refugee Children's Movement.

After the war, Alice joined her sons in the US. She was 60 years old at the time. Retirement did not suit her, and she went on to become a celebrity overseas, still cooking on TV shows at the age of 90. She was considered the oldest cook in America, spoiling the rapt audiences with her Austrian recipes and her charming accent.

The Nazis stole her copyright

But Alice, who died in 1983, never got back the rights to her cookbook. Once when visiting a bookstore, she happened to see her book published under a different name. The Nazis had "Aryanized" it and published it in 1938 as a work by Rudolf Rösch.

Karin Urbach
While researching about her grandmother's story, Karina Urbach also looked into how the Nazis Aryanized other booksImage: Dan Komoda

"To this day, we have no term to describe what happened to Alice and other Jewish non-fiction authors," said Karina Urbach. "In academia, book Aryanization  refers to books that came from Jewish libraries, were stolen and are now being restituted. There has been no research about the fact that intellectual property was stolen, too." Her research showed that her grandmother was not the only victim.

Only few other cases have come to light so far, including Ludwig Reiners, who copied off Jewish writer Eduard Engel for his bestseller Stilkunst (Art of Style).

It is however a fact that non-fiction publishers used the method more than once, said Karina Urbach. In Alice's case, the preface was rewritten and some chapters were paraphrased, but most of the text remained untouched. The photos that show her hands at work in the kitchen were kept in the reprinted version, too. "It shows this madness of the racial theory," Karina Urbach said, adding that the Nazis propagated Jewish books as inferior, "but the publisher went ahead and printed her Jewish hands."

Cover of 'The Book Alice: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother's Cookbook' by Karin Urbach
Cover of 'The Book Alice: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother's Cookbook'

The Aryanization of books is a chapter of German history that has not yet been looked into. Aryanization files were long held back by the archives. Publishers are also reluctant to look at their past.

Now the publisher original Alice Urbach cookbook, the Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, has at least offered to sell it as an e-book, said Karina Urbach. She also said that 85 years after the book came out, the publisher will rehabilitate her grandmother's copyright — a great success for Karina Urbach and perhaps the beginning of a closer look at this unknown chapter of German history.


This article has been adapted by Dagmar Breitenbach.