Before telling you the true story of how Lebkuchen saved my family, I might mention how Lebkuchen got started in the first place. That history goes back to 13th century in Nuremberg, Germany where Monks in their kitchens played around with mixing imported spices with other cookie ingredients. They placed the dough on top of wafers used in their church services. It turned out that this cookie was so delicious that, over centuries, it grew into an important industry. The Monks had hit on such a delicious product that for hundreds of years, the recipe became a jealously guarded secret, like Coca-Cola syrup, revealed only to a small number of persons in each generation.
Let's skip now some 700 years later, all the way to the 1930s, to a family named Freund. I'm talking about my mother Paula, my father Hugo, my sister Margot and myself. I am William. It was the time when the tyrant Hitler seized power and persecuted Jews, ultimately killing millions of them. My family was Jewish. The Nazis arrested my father in 1937 and beat him badly. He knew then that we could no longer stay in Germany where the family had lived for many generations. Fortunately, my father had a cousin in America willing to vouch for us and so we got permission to immigrate to this blessed country.
We were allowed to carry with us only seven dollars, collectively. My mother scratched her head to think of something she could carry with her that could not be confiscated at the border. On our street lived a pastry chef who had access to the secret recipe. My mother paid him, or should I say bribed him, to teach her in her own kitchen how to mix the ingredients and bake this rather complicated but heavenly cookie.
When we arrived in America, the depression was still on. There was no way my parents could begin baking Lebkuchen in the new country. They had no money. None of us could speak English. They knew nothing about American business practices. Nor could they compete with the large amount of Lebkuchen imported each year from Nuremberg. My father and mother were lucky enough to get menial jobs to support the family.
However, conditions changed drastically with the onset of World War II in Europe in 1939. Imports stopped arriving. My parents began to take the big leap by baking limited quantities of Lebkuchen in their rented apartment. A neighbor denounced them to the New York City Board of Health which declared it an illegal practice. Little did the neighbor know what a favor she had done us. For now, my parents rented a retail store and somehow managed to buy a commercial mixer and a baker’s oven to produce Lebkuchen in large quantities.
The rest is history. My parents were most successful in selling and producing Lebkuchen and distributing them through our own and other fine stores throughout the country, mostly at Christmas time. The Food Editor of the Herald Tribune newspaper sang our praises and told our story in a major article. My sister, now 15, worked in the bake shop; I, age 13, spent all my free time in the office. When my father died in 1950, we sold the business along with the recipe.
Years later, when I became the chief economist of the New York Stock Exchange, I remembered that it was Lebkuchen that taught me the basics of business. By then, I also had a PhD degree in economics from Columbia University.
- Bill Freund
Bill is the author of the children’s book: The Cookie that Saved My Family, available at Amazon. This book is lovingly dedicated to the memory of his dear parents.