Obituary: Thelma Koorland Mitchell

Warsaw Ghetto orphan who created her own exclusive culinary empire


The caterer, Polish war orphan and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Thelma (Talmy) Koorland Mitchell,known professionally as Thelma Koorland, has died aged 82.

Countless Jewish lives and simchas were touched by her. She was Thelma Koorland Caterers in Cape Town; Thelma Koorland Exclusive Catering in London, and she facilitated and celebrated milestones with thousands of families over four decades. Hers was a dramatic and unusual life: smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, shipped to South Africa for adoption, she was a Polish Jewish orphaned survivor who became both a quintessential Capetownian and Londoner.

Her route to a career in catering arose out of the lavish birthday parties she made for her children. Word spread and soon she was teaching, cooking and catering for other children and their parents.  But the real genesis of her 45-year career was at boarding school where she transformed her schoolmates’ uneaten food into delicious egg mayonnaise and grated cheese sandwiches toasted between two clothes irons. The culinary transformation from ordinary meals to special events betrayed her own childhood deprivations.

Talmy was born in Łódz, Poland, the only child of paediatrician Dr Asia Rudzka Szymsonova, and Dr Salomon Szymson, a medical doctor who became an engineer.  Both perished in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Talmy was saved by her uncle Henryk Rudzki and was hidden in Poland until 1946 when he sent her to Paris to her uncle Bernard Simson, Aunt Riva and cousin Monique. 

Talmy knew little of her life before Paris.  A chance encounter 67 years later between Monique and an older Polish Jewish woman who had been hidden for three years with Talmy, revealed that the seven-year-old Talmy, had been transported in a cart, hidden under the coat of a labourer, emaciated and covered in lice and coal, on the day her mother was killed in the ghetto.  

In hiding, Talmy Szymson was called Zosia Szkatulska, the first of six name changes marking the trajectory of her life.  She’d known starvation and rickets, and with each displacement spoke less, or not at all. In her 18 months with the Simsons, even her Polish mother-tongue was forbidden.  Her cousin recalled that she came alive only in front of a plate of food, often throwing her arms around it for fear of it being taken away. Because they couldn’t keep her, Talmy was shipped by Oeuvre Secours aux Enfants, (O.S.E) who rescued Jewish children, to South Africa on May 1, 1948, to be adopted by her great-aunt Rachel Gilinsky in Cape Town.

Now Thelma Gilinsky, she was sent to the Huguenot Girls High School in Wellington, where she demonstrated her fabled energy, brilliance and resourcefulness, knitting for her schoolmates to supplement her meagre pocket money, tackling English and winning the History Prize each year. Not expected to matriculate in Afrikaans, she left at Standard 8, avoiding burdening her adoptive family. In 1955, she married Victor Koorland, an industrial chemist. By 1964, the now mother of three launched Thelma Koorland Caterers from premises in District Six.

Thelma Koorland was a household name in Cape Town and beyond. With Thelma Koorland Caterers monopolizing noted functions, Talmy created an empire.  But in 1977, her catering premises were surrounded by bulldozed rubble after the destruction of District Six by the Apartheid State. Undaunted, Talmy took Thelma Koorland Caterers to London.  She began by working weekly for The Rank Organisation from her North London home, which, for over 25 years, became command centre for Thelma Koorland Exclusive Catering. Along with her famed Danish herring and chopped liver, her Spanish chicken and her sweet-glazed-pineapple-cherry-and-clove hot brisket, came a person of intensity and talent, elegance and energy.

She and Victor divorced in 1981; he died in 1995. In 1985 Talmy married Alex Mitchell, a buyer in the East End rag trade and a devoted member of the Muswell Hill Synagogue. He died in September 2018.

Talmy was a charismatic general staffed with a boisterous but loyal array of waitresses and kitchen staff whom she cajoled, yelled at, praised and fed, but most of all laughed with and loved so that even collapsing after parties at dawn with sore feet and red hands, all felt the relief of a mission accomplished and the warm glow of a job well done.  The process exhausted most, but Talmy would be elated and glowing at the end of it, diamonds sparkling, gold chains clanking, rouged lips and beautiful eyes intact, basking in the admiration and achievement of the night.  

She threw into everything extraordinary commitment, love and creativity:  apart from her exemplary cuisine, she was also passionate about Victorian history and antiques, garnered at daybreak forays to fairs around the country, theatre, especially Shakespeare, swimming and her accomplished sewing.  She was a huge presence in our lives. Her joy was infectious, her capacity for friendship was enormous, her kindness and generosity, boundless. Although she experienced irreparable loss, having had everything taken from her as a child, she more than made up for what was stolen from her – a childhood, a family, a language, a home.  Her capacious warmth and luminous intensity made the world a better place.

Talmy is survived by her children, Vivienne, Neil and Yuri Koorland, her stepsons, John and Alan Mitchell, and her eight grandchildren.


Thelma Koorland Mitchell, born February 8,1936. Died October 16, 2018.

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