‘But as many Jewish authors now discovered, even authorship could be stolen.’
ALICE’S BOOK – How The Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbook by Karina Urbach and translated from German by Jamie Bulloch is the moving tale of a Jewish chef, Alice Urbach, the author’s grandmother, in 1930s Vienna who had the rights to her cookbook stolen by the Nazis after the Anschluss. The book was reissued under a male Aryan pseudonym and Jewish heritage recipes were replaced. It took until 2021 for the rights to be returned posthumously.
The book was published by MacLeHose Press on 12th May 2022. We sat down with the author, Karina Urbach, translator Jamie Bulloch, and publisher Katharina Bielenberg to learn more about this flawlessly researched book.
Katharina, the book tells of a Jewish chef whose best-selling cook book is expropriated by the Nazi regime. Did you want to shine a light on these crimes against Jewish authors?
KB: This aspect of the fate of Jewish written works in the Third Reich was not familiar to me, nor, I suspect, to many. Commercial and educational books were adapted and quietly Aryanised just as many were being publicly burned, and this has not until now been widely explored or researched. It is astonishing that it could have taken more than 80 years for this particular publisher to acknowledge the theft of copyright from Alice Urbach and restore it, and very sad that it did not happen in her lifetime. The hope is that others will follow suit.
Karina, Alice’s Book is in many ways more personal than your previous books and writing. Did that make it harder to write? Did the stakes seem higher?
KU: Absolutely. I very much wanted to get the tone right. I am a historian first and a granddaughter second. That meant staying detached. I had to suppress a lot of anger about the way Alice was treated. My German editor made sure of that too. She was worried lest we were sued by the German publishing house that had not given Alice the rights to her book back. My editor therefore cut my angrier comments. In the end this turned out to be unnecessary. Alice’s former publishers apologized for their behaviour.
There is some remarkable historical detective work in the book, Karina. Can you tell us a little about your research process?
KU: I am lucky, I am married to a fellow historian, Jonathan Haslam. As a Russianist he knows about finding backdoors! And with his encouragement I found them in Vienna, Washington, London and Berlin. Lots of people gave me access to their private papers. And in the end, even Alice’s publishing house handed over some documents. At first, they had claimed the material had been lost in the war. But when the book was reviewed in Germany, they changed their mind and ‘suddenly’ found material.
The story of the individual, Alice Urbach, is unique, but it highlights the bravery and forbearance of many who were forced to give up everything and flee, and who lost family members in the Holocaust.Publisher Katharina Bielenberg
Jamie, congratulations on the translation. What do you relish about translating nonfiction? I imagine the chance to tell important stories to a wider audience holds an appeal?
JB: Non-fiction titles in translation can, indeed, appeal to a wider audience than translated fiction, which I think too many readers fear might be hard work. Non-fiction books also tend to have a longer shelf-life than novels; if the latter don’t fly in the first few weeks after publication they can disappear all too quickly, never to be seen again. As far as the actual translation is concerned, the process of working on a history book sees stylistic nuance pushed into the background in favour of greater accuracy. With certain novels I might take liberties with little details for the sake of lyricism and rhythm; with this book, any minor changes were to ensure the story is conveyed as clearly and unambiguously as possible. Having a PhD in history myself, I feel comfortable writing in this more objective style and am familiar with the language of the discipline.
What sort of challenges are there for a translator working with the many references and footnotes a nonfiction text can contain?
JB: Given my academic background in history, I didn’t have a problem working with the footnotes, and I was able to check the references for accuracy.
Jamie, are there any Viennese specialities you can cook?
Karina, do you have a favourite family recipe?
KU: The Nazis changed the name of Alice’s recipes that sounded Jewish. One of them was the Omlette Rothschild. I would therefore say that my favourite recipe is the Omlette Rothschild.
Jamie, during the translation process, did you liaise much with Karina and do a lot of reading around on the subject?
JB: Karina and I were in touch throughout the translation; indeed I don’t think I’ve ever had as much contact with an author before. A large part of this was down to the fact that I was working on a ‘live’ book: details were changing even as my translation was progressing. This is because quite a lot happened in the aftermath of the German publication that necessitated some rewriting for subsequent editions. As for research into the subject, my PhD happens to be on interwar Austria, so that part of the book, especially the political context, was already very familiar. But of course there are many other settings in Alice’s Book including Oregon and Shanghai, so there was some background reading to do elsewhere.
As an historian I very much hope that the book will incentivise more research on stolen authorship. That way we could return to Jewish authors – at least posthumously –their life’s work.Karina Urbach
Karina, how do you feel now that the story is available for readers in English? What do you hope readers will take away both from Alice’s own story, as well as the wider account of Nazi crimes against Jewish authors?
KU: Alice has been translated into six languages and each country is interested in different aspects of the book. But most readers are encouraged by the way Alice made herself a career during the depression. Unfortunately, the refugee aspect of the story is of course very topical at the moment.
As an historian I very much hope that the book will incentivise more research on stolen authorship. That way we could return to Jewish authors – at least posthumously –their life’s work.
Katharina, why did you want to publish this book? What is it about the book that will appeal to readers?
KB: I heard about this book a while before Karina had actually finished writing it, and was intrigued, of course, by the subtitle, which could not be said any more succinctly and encapsulates so much. The story of the individual, Alice Urbach, is unique, but it highlights the bravery and forbearance of many who were forced to give up everything and flee, and who lost family members in the Holocaust. That Karina is both a historian and Alice’s granddaughter is the perfect combination for an impeccably researched and entirely empathetic, and yet unsentimental account.
Karina Urbach is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge and has taken part in several BBC, PBS and ZDF documentaries. Her 2017 book Go-Betweens for Hitler (OUP) triggered a debate in the UK about the Royal Family’ links to Hitler. Her biography of Queen Victoria was published with great acclaim in Germany. For her historical novel Cambridge 5 she was shortlisted for three literary prizes and won the Crime Cologne Award in 2018. She lives in Cambridge, UK.
Jamie Bulloch is a German-English translator who lives in Lindon with his family. He holds a PhD in Austrian literature and has translated works by Robert Menasse, Birgit Vanderbeke and Timur Vermes, among others. He is a winner of the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize and a member of the UK jury for New Books in German.
Katharina Bielenberg is Publisher at MacLehose Press, an Imprint of Quercus (Hachette).