Tales From the Kosher Kitchen

"The 'Splendid' Restaurant of Czernowitz"
by Gerhard Schreiber

    We used to have our meals, i.e. lunch and dinner at my grandparents' restaurant. This place is worth a more detailed description. My maternal grandfather, after his release from the Austro-Hungarian army at the end of WW I, returned to Czernowitz. Some time in the early twenties, he, together with a partner, a certain Mr. Beutel, decided to open a kosher restaurant. They found a suitable location in the cellar of a hotel situated in the very center of the city, the Hotel Gottlieb.

    This location was to be the place where my parents met. My mother in order to help her parents, used to come there every morning to write the restaurant's menu in German and Romanian. In those pre-freezer days, the menu was determined by what my grandfather had found at the market, and of course it changed daily. Apparently she did attract the interest of the hotel owner's son, my father. I don't know the exact duration of this courtship; they were married in October 1926.

photo, l. to r.: Duzi and Mizzi Schreiber (Gerhard's parents), with Fanny (nee Schreiber) ahd her husband Kubi Klein, cir 1920s. All met their future spouses at the 'Splendid' Restaurant.

      The restaurant became a gathering place for many locals as well as visitors. My grandfather proudly recalled among famous people, musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, George Enescu and many others such as the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.

     My earliest recollections go back to the years 1932-1933, when my grandfather was the sole owner.  I remember being allowed there only for lunch. At night I was usually carted off to bed by my nursemaid. It was probably around the fall of 1934, when I was entering primary school that I was allowed to sit through dinner. By that time, my paternal grandfather, who in the 1929-1930 financial downturn had lost most of his properties, had also lost the ownership of the hotel.  The new owner, whether it was because of the fact that my grandfathers were now sort of related, or for purely commercial reasons, I don’t recall, forced the relocation of the restaurant to a place across the street. Our table was in a corner; my father seldom ate with us. It had only 4-5 places and the regulars, aside from my mother and myself, were, an elderly gentleman a certain Karl Gold who ate his lunch and dinner there, and a businessman whom everyone called Captain Geiger (he had been a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army), and the other place, when my father was not around, was occupied by various other regulars.  This Captain Geiger had an interesting story. Apparently, he was in charge of the military unit that escorted the train carrying Lenin from Switzerland to Russia through Austrian territory. He was deported to Siberia in 1941, survived, and got back to Vienna, sometimes in 1947. Having met our American relatives in 1934, he remembered their address, and wrote to them, and through them got our address in Bucharest.        

      But I'm jumping ahead; I was talking about the restaurant. Each of the regulars had his or her specific likes or dislikes. My grandfather, whom the regulars accepted to be served only by him and not by one of the two waiters, remembered everything. For example Karl Gold, who had some sort of stomach ailment, did not eat regular bread. He would only have some type of wheat crackers, imported from Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic). He also insisted that he could only eat chicken broth, claiming that beef would make him sick. Others would have nothing but hearty beef soup. Little did they know! In the kitchen, in a very big pot chunks of beef and a few plump chickens were simmering happily together. My grandmother, who was in the kitchen, knew how to skim the soup, to make them look different.

      There were two waiters, the older one a certain Zimmerman was quite a character. He was a little man, with salt and pepper hair and moustache, with a prominent bump on his forehead. He was an expert in world affairs, and of course, knew what needed to be done to right the world, and get rid of Hitler. In the old tradition of Jewish waiters, he knew what was good for you, and would not take no for an answer. A story that made the rounds was the following: A customer asks him what kind of appetizers he proposed, he lists them and specifies for example that an order of, let’s say, meatballs contains two, and a half an order contains one. When the customer asks for one, he admonishes him that half orders are not available.  In the morning, just before the first customers arrived, he would study the papers. I remember his face vividly, his glasses sliding down his nose while he gesticulated wildly just to make a point.   Then during lunch, he would tell whoever was willing to listen, how that or the other politician should have acted. He had a large family to feed, tips were not that lavish; his was quite a difficult life, yet he always had a funny story on hand. Behind his apparent rudeness, there was a heart of gold as they say. The others in our family ate at a table next to ours, and there was always banter and constant moving between tables. I was happy to be among grownups, and I listened eagerly trying to understand and remember everything.           

     I remember when one of my classmates, a certain Fredi Gruen, decided to have lunch at the restaurant; I had to switch tables to sit with him. I was of course proud that I had "my" table, but I missed the conversation that went on among the grownups.   

     As I said before, ours was a kosher restaurant; this meant no dairy products at all. Only my mother, who had a serious gallbladder condition, would sometimes sneak in some butter or a few slices of lean ham. My grandfather was a tolerant person and pretended not to see. Many, many years later, in Israel, that same grandfather, who as a former restaurant owner knew what was what, would pretend not to know that the "veal" cutlets my father bought were actually pork.

     Among the restaurant's attractions was the summer grill. Aside from the usual delicacies of traditional Jewish cooking, albeit with a rather pronounced Polish influence (both my maternal grandparents came from Galicia, formerly in Austria, which for a while belonged to Poland, and now Ukraine), in the warm season, a special grill cook, a Romanian by the name Popescu was in charge. His mastery in preparing "mititei", the Romanian equivalent of little hamburger-type sausages, was unequaled. His deliciously grilled steaks, and various other delicacies like brains and calf's liver are fond memories. In those days, the grill could operate only during the warm season, since it had to be outdoors, in the courtyard.

     The customers in my grandparents' restaurant included all kind of odd types, some of them that struck me of being outrageously funny. I remember a part time journalist, and perennial complainer by the name of Fred Gerbl. He used to make a living by selling his self-published poetry. People used to buy, it, since he was alluding that he might otherwise publish all kind of embarrassing stories, which nobody wanted in the public domain. He was funny, he did some very good imitations of various notables, and I enjoyed his theatrics.

      Among the most pleasant memories I keep, are the two first nights of Passover. The restaurant was closed to the public, and a big table was set for the Seder. We were normally sixteen to twenty people, many relatives and also at times close friends of the family.  Since I was the only child around, and since none of my three uncles had any children, it was my duty to ask the four questions, which made me, for a short period at least, the star of the whole affair. The ritual was observed according to tradition, and we sang late into the night. Of course, this being a kosher restaurant, all dishes for the duration of the Passover holiday, were brought from storage, and the cleaning took quite some time. I always wondered why my grandparents didn't take a shortcut with this, but the law is the law, or at least at that time I believed it to be true. Another time when the restaurant was very lively was during the Purim holiday. It was the local custom that itinerant bands of masked people would come and perform some short skit vaguely related to Esther and Mordekhai, and at the end they would wish us well and ask for money. Most of these performers were Hutzuls, (a local Ukrainian group). I remember their final greeting in Ukrainian: “May God grant you good guests, proprietor” (Daj vam Boh dobre hosty, panie hospodar.)         
      During the High Holidays, the restaurant closed, and my grandfather took his usual place in the temple. As a kid I was very impressed by his top hat and morning coat with striped trousers. The other members of our family who went to services dressed normally, and my paternal grandfather, an agnostic, never set foot in the temple.
      Financially, the restaurant was a disaster. True the whole family, some eight or more people ate there for free, but I know that my father kept subsidizing the operation.  Of course there were taxes to be paid each year. My grandfather kept no books whatsoever and had no inkling whether his business was profitable or not. He knew only that there was never enough money around. When the taxman came, he first ate a good meal, and then after some bargaining, settled for whatever he could squeeze out for himself.  Sometime in late 1938 or early 1939, reality forced my grandparents to close the place. It was sad, so many memories, little did anyone know what was to follow!




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