#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews ALICE’S BOOK: HOW THE NAZIS STOLE MY GRANDMOTHER’S COOKBOOK by Karina Urbach

We know about the 1933 book burning by the Nazis, but we know little about the crime of the ‘Aryanisation of books’, that is, the intellectual property theft from Jewish authors and publishers by the Nazis. Alice’s Book investigates this crime by focusing on one book and one family, and takes a major step towards restoring moral justice.

Alice Urbach was born in Vienna in 1886 to a large, wealthy and influential Jewish family. Her father, Sigmund Mayer, had worked himself up and out of the extreme hardship of the Pressburg (now Bratislava) ghetto. Precocious but not academic as a child, she tried to please her distant father, a gourmet, by cooking for him. After an ill-matched marriage to a gambler, Max Urbach – who died young but left her with her two beloved sons, Karl and Otto – Alice’s career took off. It was the end of World War One and an era of poverty and inflation; cooking gave Alice ‘a feeling of security’. Vienna was already known for its great cafés, such as Demel and Sacher, and Alice too proved herself to be not only a great chef of traditional Viennese dishes and pastries, but a popular teacher, with her own cookery school, and author of several bestselling cookbooks. In 1935 she published her best-known, So kocht man in Wien! (‘Cooking the Viennese Way!’) which ‘contained everything she had learned about cookery and housekeeping since the age of five’. By 1938 she was famous and had written two more cookbooks on vegetarian food and cakes and pastries. So kocht man in Wien! is the main subject of this fascinating investigation into Nazi book theft. 

1938 was the year that Austria was annexed to Germany and the year that ‘Alice’s book acquired a new author’, a mysterious Aryan author named Rudolph Rösch. Even today his identity is not one hundred percent clear. This process of appropriating books was, we learn, common in the book trade under the Nazis, and is still concealed by some parts of the German publishing industry today. Jewish authors were forced to relinquish copyright and all publishing rights. Books were rewritten and purged of Jewish names or multicultural references – difficult if you are writing about Austrian food, enriched by six hundred years of many and varied Austro-Hungarian flavours.

After the Nazis took power, Vienna’s sizeable Jewish population was hunted down in a series of pogroms. Many died, many fled, if they could, or were deported to concentration camps, later to become the notorious Nazi death camps. Alice’s sons managed to emigrate to the USA, but three of her sisters were murdered. After a couple of attempts to leave, Alice was accepted as a refugee in Britain along with several other famous Austrian Jews, including Sigmund Freud. She became a domestic servant, several rungs below her social status in Austria, but she was proud of her skills, and the growing popularity of Viennese pastries in Britain meant she was in demand. She also worked as a matron and helped care for Britain’s Kindertransport children and for the Windemere Children – until 1946, when she emigrated to the USA to be with her sons. Alice took her own well-thumbed cookbooks with her everywhere, unaware of the crime of book theft.

One day in 1949, when Alice returned to Vienna for a visit, she was delighted to spot one of her cookbooks in a shop window, but horrified when she saw the name Rudolph Rösch on the cover. The awful truth dawned on her. Not only had the Nazis robbed her of her home, her profession and several family members, they had stolen her name and her fame. She set about trying to reclaim them, but it was a struggle for her. It was not until the 2020 publication in German of this outstanding history, Alice’s Book, researched and written by Alice’s historian grand-daughter, Karina Urbach, that the truth was revealed. Today in 2022, thanks to Jamie Bulloch’s wonderful translation – himself a specialist on Austrian history and an excellent chef – we can read this moving story in English. A portrait not only of one book and one family, but of many families and books; a story of the Jews of Austria, of Nazi crimes and cruelty and the continuing struggle for justice. 

Alice died in San Francisco in 1983, still cooking and teaching a few years short of her one hundredth birthday. Alice’s Book – and her cookbooks again bearing her name – are her legacy, and this is one of the most remarkable historical accounts I have ever read.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

ALICE’S BOOK: How the Nazis Stole my Grandmother’s Cookbook

By Karina Urbach

Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

Published by MacLehose Press (May 2022)

July 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is director and founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018-2020.

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