Of all the guilty culinary pleasures that Ernie Feld whips up at his tiny pastry shop in the forest, one is particularly bittersweet: the popular poppy-seed strudels.
That's the delicacy Feld made for the Nazi SS officers who held him captive as their personal baker during the final years of World War II, a time when Feld literally cooked for his life, using empty champagne bottles to spread his dough because rolling pins were in short supply.
At 90, he still runs Ernie's International Pastries on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, artfully preparing the treats he has made for seven decades — his signature strudels, Austrian Sacher torte and lemon Napoleons.
He's a wartime survivor who has kept his sweet, grandfatherly sense of humor, whether he's serving up one-liners to customers or recalling his painful past. While Feld was held at a makeshift German-run airport in Budapest, three dozen of his family members — including his beloved mother, Sara — went to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
"Most men want a woman who is good in the kitchen, but the German SS needed me because I could cook," he joked, not long before Thursday's Holocaust Remembrance Day, his voice carrying an Eastern European lilt, with a prankster's playfulness. Then he turned serious: "Baking saved my life. If I wasn't a baker, I'd probably be dead."
Nowadays, Feld is slowing down, except when it comes to fending off the animal invaders. In 2010, he and his wife, Marika, encountered four bears that had broken into the shop in just one season, including a large male Feld met face-to-face in his kitchen. He scared off the bear, and later helped officials catch two others by baiting a trap with his poppy-seed strudel.
"Those bears must be Jewish," he said. "One came in for a meal and went home to tell his family, 'There's very good strudel there.'"
For decades, while Feld baked in the San Francisco Bay Area, so many customers asked about his original last name — Ehrenfeld — that he went to court for a new one. "I told the judge I wanted to cut it in half," he said. "By the time I finished telling people about my name, my pastries got burned."
That name signifies a past life that took all of Feld's pluck to survive.
He was born in Lucenec, Czechoslovakia, in 1925 and grew up as Europe edged toward its second continental war of the century. After his father died in an accident, the boy everyone called Ernie watched his mother bake in the restaurant she ran in town. "When I was 14, I was always licking this and licking that, and mother would say, 'Are you eating again? I'm going to send you to baker's school.'"
For three years, he worked as an intern baker attending cooking classes at night. As war broiled and prices soared, his bosses sent him into the countryside atop his bicycle to test the black market for eggs and flour, which were hard to come by.
The episodes were precursors to more sinister shopping trips to come.
In 1942, three years after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Feld was just 17 as Jews were rounded up. As he stood on the train platform, waiting to board with other men bound for a work camp, his mother saw him off: "She was worried that I had nice strong shoes."
He never saw her again.
Feld was taken to Hungary, where he first worked as a cook at a farm camp. Then a Nazi SS leader heard about the Jewish baker-turned-prisoner. He needed a good chef for a German officer's club at an airport the Third Reich was building near Budapest: "He asked me, 'What can you cook?' He needed someone to make appetizers for the officers to eat with their champagne and beer."
Feld wrote up a list of the ingredients, and the Nazis sent him into Budapest to shop — with his yellow arm-band signifying he was a Jew and a bodyguard to prevent his escape.
Over the months, he made his poppy-seed strudels — a favorite among the officers — as well as pasta with poppy seeds and pastries with frankfurters. The Nazis said Feld cooked cannoli like an Italian.
Emboldened, Feld enlisted other Jewish prisoners as kitchen helpers as a way to save them from hard labor building the airport. He recalls how they stood around a huge table, rolling out their dough, feeling lucky to be alive.
Once, he saw an elderly inmate — who turned out to be his uncle, Rotter — beaten by a German SS officer because he was slow to dodge an oncoming tank. That's when a Hungarian SS officer stopped the attack, saying, "If Jews are going to be killed in Hungary, a Hungarian will do it." The old man was spared.
In 1945, with the Germans on the run, Feld escaped, finally saved by advancing Russian troops. Back home, friends who'd survived Auschwitz told him of his mother's death and that of his younger brother, Alex. Cousins, aunts and uncles perished too in the Holocaust.
Neighbors returned keepsakes given away by the Nazis, including a photograph of his mother.
He traveled to pre-state Israel and Cyprus before landing in San Francisco in 1957, when the man who spoke six languages could not utter a word of English. Two years later, when then-Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev visited San Francisco, Feld was asked to bake a Russian cream cake (with whipped cream and vodka). When FBI agents visited his shop to vet his background, he said he respected Russians; they'd saved him from the Nazis.
Now Feld sits at a table near the glass display case as Marika bakes, following recipes her husband has taught her over their 22-year marriage. After breaking his leg in a fall five months ago, he often uses a walker and wheelchair. "I used to give her instructions," he said. "Now she orders me around."
It's Feld's job to shake and bake with customers. Some documented their encounters online.
"Did you make these pastries by yourself?" one poster asked.
"Of course. You weren't here to help me make them."
The visitor persisted: "Are the cookies soft?"
"You won't break your teeth on them."
As Feld opened a box of mementos to display faded images of his past, Marika whispered something in Hungarian: "She wants me to say that those Nazis are probably dead, but Ernie is still making his poppy-seed strudels."
Yes, he is. And with that, the baker served up a smile that was anything but bittersweet.