Margit Kirsche, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, lost her sight 20 years ago and these days she relies on a wheelchair to get about. But that’s not preventing her from cooking up a storm, preparing delicacies for her large family – and cooking industrial quantities of food to sell to thousands of customers as well.

Cooking for others is part of Margit’s family history. “My grandfather used to make the charoset for our town every Passover,” Margit recalled in an exclusive interview. Born in 1923 in the small Hungarian town of Gergely, Margit grew up in an intensely spiritual Chassidic Jewish home. Her town had no rabbi, but Margit’s grandfather Yaakov Yehuda Hacohen Cheimovics was a learned man and he served as the town’s spiritual leader and shochet, or kosher butcher. Margit remembers villagers coming to him with questions. One day, when she was just five years old, Margit copied her grandfather and proffered advice to a visiting townsperson herself. Perhaps Margit inherited her grandfather’s wisdom because the visitor took Margit’s advice and “many years later she came back to thank me for that answer” Margit remembers with a warm smile.

Jewish holidays were special times in Margit’s family home. Her grandfather would slaughter meat for the Jewish villagers’ holiday feasts, and the day before Passover he would bake matzah to distribute to the entire community. He would also make charoset, using an old family recipe he’d learned from his own grandfather as a child. “Everybody in the town came and he’d give them a scoop,” Margit recalls of his rich cinnamon-infused charoset.

Life wasn’t easy in Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s. Margit’s parents realized there was little future for Jews there, and Margit’s father left for Cuba in 1923, hoping to be able to bring his family to America one day. When World War II broke out, conditions became dire. Hungary’s new pro-Nazi government banned Kosher slaughter. When it came to treatment of Hungary’s Jews, their cruelty knew no bounds. Local children attacked Margit’s brothers and beat them up. In 1941, Jews living in Hungary without Hungarian citizenship were deported. In 1942, all Hungarian Jewish men aged 24-33 were conscripted into forced labor. In 1943, Hungarian Jews were forced out of public jobs and schools and their land and property was confiscated. In 1944, the decree came: all of Hungary’s Jews were to be deported to concentration camps and murdered.

Margit with her three younger brothers who were murdered in Auschwitz

Margit’s last moments in her beloved family home came in the period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot in 1944. Food was scarce and most of the working-age men had been taken away, requisitioned to perform slave labor. Margit’s family held their usual Passover Seders, eating the matzah and charoset her grandfather made, even though their holiday was infused with sadness. In the morning, after going to the synagogue, Margit’s Uncle Hersh Meilech came rushing to their house. “I was happy to see him because I loved this uncle very much,” Margit explains. Then she saw that he was crying. “He said all the Jews had to leave their home” – news he had just heard from neighbors in synagogue. Soon, the entire family, including Margit’s three younger brothers, were in tears, wondering what the future held.

That night, as Passover concluded, Margit’s family and her Uncle Hersh Meilech’s family hired wagons to take them away, hoping to find safety in another region. They managed to flee about 30 kilometers before they were apprehended and brought back to town. The next day, the entire region’s Jews were imprisoned in the Beregszas Ghetto. Six weeks later, they were taken on a second transport to Auschwitz. On the cattle train to Auschwitz, Margit remembers her little brother Yitzchak Isaac crying out that he was hungry. Margit had a couple of walnut cookies her mother had made – a last remnant of the life they were leaving behind – and she gave them to him. That is her final memory of her brother; he was herded into a gas chamber as soon as the family arrived at Auschwitz.

In Auschwitz, Margit was assigned to slave labor and was later transferred to another concentration camp. Even in that hellish nightmare, she never lost her faith. “I always said Modeh Ani,” Margit recalls, referring to the traditional Jewish prayer thanking God for waking up each morning.

Asked what advice she has for the current generation, Margit stresses this gratitude for life: “Be thankful for every day.”

Margit was liberated on April 27, 1945. Out of her entire family, only she and her older brother Morton, who had been living in Budapest, survived.

Building a Life

Margit and Sandor in 1948

After the war, Margit made her way to Germany and met another Holocaust survivor, Sandor Kirsche. Like hers, Sandor’s family had also been intensely spiritual and giving – and was also wiped out in the Holocaust. His grandfather had been a rabbi in Czechoslovakia, and in an amazing coincidence, Sandor’s family had also baked the matzah that the Jews in his town used to rely on each Passover. In 1944, Sandor and his family baked matzah in secret, ensuring the Jews in his town that they could celebrate one last Passover. On the eve of Shavuot in 1944, Sandor and his entire family were deported to Auschwitz. Of his large family, only Sandor survived. When he was liberated the following year, he weighed just 70 pounds and never fully recovered his former strength.

Margit and Sandor Kirsche

These two broken survivors were determined to build a life together. Steeped in Judaism as children, it was crucial that they resurrect the Jewish life and hold on to the Jewish values that the Nazis had tried to erase. Even when it seemed virtually impossible to live an Orthodox life, Margit and Sandor persevered. When they married in Germany in 1947, kosher food was impossible to find. Determined that her wedding feast be strictly kosher, Margit cooked everything herself, serving her guests a meal that included delicious challah and kosher fish – Jewish delicacies that were difficult to come by in post-war German.

Hungarian Kosher Foods

Margit and Sandor moved to Chicago in 1948 and worked at a variety of jobs until they were able to save enough to open their own business. In 1973, they bought an old storefront on Devon Avenue in Chicago and opened something pioneering: an all-kosher supermarket they named Hungarian Kosher Foods. At the time, this was the only completely-kosher food emporium anywhere in the world outside of Israel. The idea was revolutionary, but Sandor and Margit were undeterred: they had always been committed to keeping kosher and wanted to help others do the same.

Margit, her daughter Lynne, with the author

An all-kosher supermarket where customers could buy everything they needed – from meat and cheese to canned goods and bakery products – in one convenient place promised to change the way Jewish shoppers bought food. Hungarian Kosher Foods had an enormous impact, first in Chicago, then across the United States as other kosher vendors emulated their business model.

Margit did much of the cooking and baking, sharing her beloved family recipes in the supermarket deli and bakery. Each holiday, that meant producing vast quantities of her family’s signature recipes. In addition to the thousands of orders for Shabbat and holiday meals and deli items, through the years Margit and Sandor donated countless meals to synagogues and to people in the community who couldn’t afford to buy food at Passover and other times of the year. For a time, they donated weekly kiddushes to a local synagogue that served Jews who fled from the former Soviet Union, ensuring that these refugees enjoyed a substantial meal each Shabbat.

Margit preparing charoset

When Hungarian Kosher Foods moved to a huge 25,000 square foot location in the nearby suburb of Skokie, Illinois in 1986, the amount of food Margit prepared each week increased. Each year, she found herself helping cook tens of thousands of meals, and preparing a hundred pounds or more of treasured family dishes like her signature cheese blintzes for Shavuot and her Chicken Paprikas with Dumplings for Shabbat. Even in their sixties, Sandor and Margit put in 14 hour days at the supermarket, six days each week.

In 2007, just before Passover, Sandor received dire news: he was gravely ill and had only a few more weeks to live. Undaunted, he left the hospital, not to go home, but to visit Hungarian Kosher Foods where he oversaw holiday preparations one last time.

Today, Sandor and Margit’s children run Hungarian Kosher Foods, and their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren help during busy holiday periods. Margit hasn’t been in the best health and she no longer cooks many of the foods in the supermarket’s vast deli. However, this year, as she has for the past 45 years, Margit helped prepare the 120 pounds of charoset the supermarket sells. On Shavuot, Hungarian Kosher Foods will once again serve thousands of delicious cheese blintzes, made according to Margit’s treasured family recipe. Once again, Margit, even at the age of 95, even in diminished health, is serving her community, as her family has for generations.

Margit’s Non-Dairy Dill Dip

Here is one of Margit Kirshe’s signature creations: a non-dairy dill dip that she invented decades ago when fancy hotels started calling Hungarian Kosher Foods asking for non-dairy dips to serve during kosher events. Margit recalled that instead of looking for a recipe, she envisioned the type of fresh, herb-infused dip she’d like to create – and then found a way to make that a reality. Through the years, this has become one of the supermarket’s most popular dips, selling out immediately each time Margit and the store’s other cooks make a batch.

Margit Kirsh’s Non-Dairy Dill Dip

  • 1 bunch fresh dill, about ½ pound
  • ¾ cup parve sour cream
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup salad dressing
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cut the roots, but not the stems, off the dill and discard. Soak the dill in a large bowl of cold water for 30 minutes, swishing often to remove sand a grit. Remove from water, place in colander and rinse well under cold water. Pat dry or spin in a salad spinner.

Place dill and remaining ingredients in the work bowl of a large-capacity food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse to process to a coarse puree.

Transfer to a medium bowl, add sour cream, mayonnaise and salad dressing and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 4 days.

Serve as a dip with raw vegetables, crackers, chips.

(This and other recipes can be found in the award-winning book Food, Family and Tradition: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances by Lynn Kirsche Shapiro. The Cherry Press, LLC, Skokie IL: 2013.)

Margit Kirsche hasn’t been feeling well lately and could use your prayers. Please pray for the complete recovery of Rivka Mirel bat Leah.

Click here to order the Kirsche family cookbook.