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Obituaries

Margit Kirsche dies; Holocaust survivor founded Skokie’s Hungarian Kosher Foods

Margit Kirsche, seen here in Germany in 1947.

Margit Kirsche, seen here in Germany in 1947, opened Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie with her husband and fellow Holocaust survivor in 1986. | Provided photo

Decades after being held in a Nazi concentration camp, a Minneapolis man named Hymie Kane was shopping at Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie and saw a customer he thought might be an old friend.

“He screams down the aisle, ‘Are you Shloime from Bergen-Belsen?’ ” said his son, Sheldon Kane.

The other man turned, shocked to recognize another survivor. And the store on Oakton Street at Crawford Avenue suddenly was filled with weeping and shouts of joy. Forty years and 4,300 miles from Bergen-Belsen, in the immaculate aisles of what the Times of Israel once called “America’s first all-kosher supermarket,” the two Holocaust survivors were reunited.

Caryn Bean, a longtime employee of the north suburban grocery, was there and will never forget that day. “It was a meeting place,” she said of Hungarian. “It really was.”

Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik said Hungarian “was more than a store. When you were there, you were, in a sense, part of the family.”

Margit Kirsche, who was born in Hungary, and her husband and fellow Holocaust survivor Sandor Kirsche opened the business in 1973 and helped create that heimish — cozy — atmosphere. Mrs. Kirsche was buried last month in Israel after she died at her North Side home at 96.

Their supermarket, sold last year, continues to operate under new owners.

Margit and Sandor Kirsche founded Hungarian Kosher Foods at 4020 S. Oakton St., said to be “America’s first all-kosher supermarket” and the largest kosher grocery in the Midwest. | Sun-Times files

“If people walked in to the store, they’d get a hug, a pat on the cheek,” said Mrs. Kirsche’s daughter Lynn Kirsche Shapiro, who used to work at Hungarian Kosher Foods.

She turned her mother’s recipes into the cookbook “Food, Family and Tradition, Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances.”

Mrs. Kirsche’s customers would trade advice about their jobs and their lives. The older generation shared “Have I got a girl for you” matchmaking leads about eligible young men and women. New immigrants found jobs at the store and stayed for decades.

Mrs. Kirsche’s grandchildren worked at the store, which Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky called the largest kosher grocer in the Midwest.

“We would have to make 2,000, 3,000 pieces of gefilte fish or matzoh balls for a particular holiday,” said her son Ira Kirsche, who continued running the business after his father died and his mother’s eyesight failed.

Beyond her delicious chopped liver, chicken soup, kugel and kreplach, Mrs. Kirsche represented something deeper, Soloveichik said: a link to ancestors. Though she was an American businesswoman who lived firmly in the present, Soloveichik said, she also “somehow made her parents and grandparents living beings. You felt as if you were in their presence, not just her presence.

“She was really a mother figure and a grandmother figure,” the rabbi said. “People would come to her Sabbath table to eat. She extended her family to include many others.”

A rabbi from Vancouver once stopped at her store on his way to Indianapolis, where he’d accepted a job, according to Lynn Kirsche Shapiro, who said he was trying to buy kosher food before sundown and the start of the Sabbath. He and his large family planned to eat the food at their hotel room. Instead, Margit and Sandor Kirsch had them come to their home.

A photo of Margit and Sandor Kirsche from the book “Food, Family and Tradition” by their daughter Lynn Kirsche Shapiro.

Mrs. Kirsche was born Margit Weisz. She grew up in the Hungarian village of Vasarosnameny. Her grandfather Yaakov Cheimovics was a rabbi. Yiddish was her first language.

Amid rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, her father Shmuel went to Cuba looking for work and a way to immigrate to the United States. But after five years in Cuba and still unable to get the papers needed to come to America, he returned to Hungary and rejoined his wife Leah and children.

In 1944, young Margit and her family were shipped to Auschwitz. She was pushed away from them during the Nazis’ infamous selections. Her mother was sent to the gas chambers with her brothers Isser Meir, 14, Yitzchak, 12, and Dov Beirish, 10, as well as Margit’s grandparents Yaakov and Chava. Later, Margit’s father was shot to death at another camp.

Margit Weisz and her three younger brothers in 1940. Four years later, the boys perished at Auschwitz: Isser Meir, 14, Yitzchak Isaac, 12, and Dov Beirish, 10. | Provided photo

Mrs. Kirsche was haunted that she never got to say goodbye.

“I didn’t look back because I was crying, and I didn’t want my mother to see my cry,” she said in a 1991 interview with the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “I always had [a] bad feeling about it. Why didn’t I look back? Why didn’t I look at my mother? But I didn’t want her to see me cry.”

She said prisoners were forced to give blood for German soldiers. “They were taking from people as much as they could take,” she said. “They didn’t care how [much], a pint, two pints, three pints.”

Mrs. Kirsche said in the interview that later, after she and other women were freed from the Torgau slave labor camp, nearby Russian soldiers began raping women. Another former Auschwitz inmate led the women to safety.

“There was a woman who was a doctor, and she made herself to be our leader, and she picked us up, and we walked 30 kilometers into the American zone,” Mrs. Kirsche told the museum interviewer from the Skokie museum.

After liberation, she went without meat for three months until she could set up a kosher kitchen, her daughter said.

She met her future husband in Freising, Germany. A native of Czechoslovakia, he had befriended her older brother Morton in Buchenwald. There were other suitors, including an American soldier, but she always said she’d marry for love, according to her daughter, who said that once Sandor saw her in a tailor shop and walked her home, there was no one else.

Holocaust survivors Margit and Sandor Kirsche met in Freising, Germany, and got married in 1947 before immigrating to Chicago. | Provided photo

They were married in 1947. She cooked the food for their wedding.

In 1948, the couple moved to Chicago, where Sandor Kirsche had an uncle. They bought a meat market in 1973 at Devon and Rockwell.

In 1986, the Kirsches opened Hungarian Kosher Foods in a former Dominick’s Finer Foods store, eventually expanding to include produce, cheese, fresh fish, kosher wine, a bakery and a deli.

“Every item in the store,” Lynn Kirsche Shapiro said, “was under kosher supervision.”

Hotels as far as San Francisco ordered catering supplies from them, their son said. Local hotels bought their smoked salmon canapes, chicken skewers and dill dip for kosher weddings and other events. The grocery had specialty items, too, like mascarpone cheese and tamarind sauce, all kosher.

Customers sometimes came from Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin, some of them buying thousands of dollars of meat they’d take home in coolers, Ira Kirsche said.

Margit and Sandor Kirsche. | Facebook

At 75, Mrs. Kirsch lost her eyesight.

“My fiercely independent mother, who cooked without recipes, sewed without patterns, drove anywhere. . .became blind in the split of a second,” her daughter said in a eulogy.

Yet she continued to cook by feel and taste. At 95, she was still making charoset, the mix of fruit and nuts and wine eaten at the Passover seder, adding a little wine or sugar so it would taste just right.

“I have a video of her making cheese kreplach a year ago,” her daughter said of the Jewish dumplings. “Blind, she made them better than anybody else.”

Mrs. Kirsche, whose husband died in 2007, always held tight to her sense of humor. When someone would ask how she was doing, she’d say, with a Yiddish inflection, “How should I be doing?”

She traveled to Israel many times, most recently at 92.

“I don’t know where her strength came from,” her daughter said. “But I would say everybody derived their strength from her.”

Margit and Sandor Kirsche. | Facebook

Mrs. Kirsch is also survived by six grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

In her 1991 oral history interview with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, she warned that the horrors of the Holocaust could happen again.

“People aren’t any better today than they were then,” she said.

Margit Kirsche’s Famous Chicken Soup

Her soup was so popular at Hungarian Kosher Foods, “We could never keep it on the shelf,” said her daughter Lynn Kirsche Shapiro. Longtime store staffer Caryn Bean calls it “Jewish penicillin” she’d serve her kids when a cold was coming on.

Ingredients


• 1 3-lb. skinless chicken, quartered
• 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
• 2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
• 1 onion, coarsely chopped
• 1 leek, light green and white parts, thoroughly cleaned, coarsely chopped
• 1 turnip, coarsely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, whole
• 1 turkey neck, optional, tied in cheesecloth
• 12 cups water
• 2 tsp. salt, or to taste
• ¼ tsp. fresh ground pepper
• Seasoned salt, to taste
• 1 bunch fresh dill, optional
• 8 oz. dry egg noodles, cooked

Directions

In 8-quart pot, add chicken and vegetables. Add turkey neck, if desired, for a richer soup. Add water and seasonings, and, if you are using it, dill. Bring to boil over high heat, then decrease heat to low and simmer until chicken is tender and soup stock is rich, 1 ½ to 2 hours. (For richer soup, Mrs. Kirsche cooked hers for 3 hours.) Taste and adjust seasonings, and remove and discard turkey neck. Ladle broth into preheated bowls. Add chicken meat and vegetables, along with cooked noodles.


The recipe for Margit Kirsche’s Famous Chicken Soup is among those collected in “Food, Family and Traditions: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances.”

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