A recipe for survival in Weimar Germany

By Amanda Hopkinson, May 2, 2008

Weimar has always had a strong cultural, as well as political resonance. A period as much as a place, it combined the frenetic pace of things falling apart with the slow, smoky seduction of cabaret. Its evocative power is particularly felt now, with the current vogue for the burlesque.

Penny Simpson, the latest novelist to draw inspiration from Weimar, works, appropriately enough, with the Welsh National Opera and as a theatre critic and journalist. The 6ft-plus heroine of Simpson’s book The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum (Alcemi, £9.99) contrasts strikingly with familiar, fact-or-fiction cabaret personalities like Sally Bowles or Marlene Dietrich, and indeed with a supporting cast of both infamous Nazis and famous cultural icons, including Bertold Brecht.

The plot strings together a series of anecdotes flowing from the Great War. It starts with a bang, as the ghetto explodes, and Esther is cursed both for the pogrom itself and for the deaths even of her own parents. In a tragic irony, Esther is at the time engaged in painting scenery for a Purimspiel.

Forced to flee and fend for herself through icy winters and horrific poverty, Esther’s creativity breaks new bounds, as she adds first tailoring and then cookery to her repertoire. Working for the most famous chefs and bakers of her day, she expresses both political and personal yearnings through her increasingly preposterous recipes, served to Jews and Gestapo alike in Schorn’s Restaurant in Berlin.

Esther’s survival depends partly on her brilliant culinary skills, but also on her ability “to pass” as non-Jewish. It is not a natural ability: she adopts a man’s greatcoat and top hat, beneath which she becomes increasingly emaciated. Simpson vividly conveys how the optimistic creator of “Kiss-of-Hope biscuits” hides, denies, and finally regains her larger-than-life identity.

Last updated: 3:31pm, May 13 2008