Alice Urbach’s Stolen Cookbook

The bestseller by a society caterer and celebrity chef in interwar Vienna was aryanized, her name erased from history. Now, a century later, her granddaughter reveals her story.

In the summer of 1949, eleven years after she had been forced to flee Vienna, Alice Urbach returned to her hometown. Wandering the streets, she stopped in front of a bookstore, where a book in the window caught her eye.  She flipped through the pages. No doubt.: This was her book, So kocht man in Wien. On the cover, though, was a different name.

In her family’s kitchen growing up, there had always been two versions of this cookbook, recalls Karina Urbach, granddaughter of Alice Urbach. It wasn’t until the historian came across old letters from her grandmother that she did what many of her colleagues regard as a “serious criminal offense”: She researched her own family history.

In Das Buch Alice: Wie die Nazis das Buch meiner Großmutter raubten, she tells the story of her grandmother, a Viennese culinary celebrity of the interwar period and owner of the town’s most renowned cooking school. In 1935, she published “So kocht man in Wien”, an “excellent cooking and housekeeping book,” its “recipes taking account of genuine Viennese taste,” according to an enthusiastic critic or the day.

It was an instant bestseller. And for her publisher, it was too precious to give up – even after the Nazis had forbidden the sale of Jewish authors. Alice Urbach made way for Rudolf Rösch, described as a Viennese “master chef and member of the Reich’s Nutrition Council.”  

Her granddaughter shows some understanding for the publishers: They had to think economically, after all. She is infuriated, however, with their post-war behavior. After she had uncovered the theft of her book, Alice Urbach confronted her publisher. Hermann Jungck, manager since 1937, turned a deaf ear to her claims.  She no longer had “a right to her book,” he said, having received a “one-time honorarium” – a subterfuge, ignoring the persisting copyright. In a commemorative publication from 1974, Jungck claimed that Rösch had “revised and modernized” the book in 1938. 

That was an “outright lie,” writes historian Urbach. The book had been published only three years earlier. Also, her grandmother was a forward-thinking woman, obviating the need for any “modernization,” a reality that a comparison of the two editions makes clear

What she wanted now, the historian made clear, was to set the record straight.  “I don’t want financial compensation,” she told German magazine Der Spiegel in October.“ I want the publishing company to admit what they’ve done to Alice.” 

(C) Privatarchiv

Necessity, the Mother of Invention

After the death of her gambler-husband in 1920, Alice Urbach found herself broke and on her own with two little boys. Forced to make her own living, she chose what she loved most. “Her dream was to become a second Anna Sacher, or at least open a small restaurant,” writes her granddaughter. With the economic recovery in the early 1920s, sumptuous dinner parties were back and a new stratum of house wives and working-women needed to up their cooking skills. Alice Urbach saw her chance. 

Her innovative catering style – one of her inventions being “bridge-bites”, nibbles that could be eaten single-handed while playing cards – led to cookery classes, where she taught all kinds, including “actresses, noblewomen and even a few men,” as she wrote in her memoirs. She also gave lectures on modern housekeeping and wholesome diets and started Vienna’s first food delivery service. 

With the publication of “So kocht man in Wien” in 1935, she was at the height of her career.

At least 60% of the Nazi version is plagiarized, reckons her granddaughter,. Unwelcome passages not in line with the Nazi ideology were erased or replaced. While Urbach spoke of the Viennese cuisine as a “colorful mix of nationalities,” Rösch’s preface praised the “culinary mastery” that one performs in the “second largest city of the Reich.” Most chapters as well as all the photos, however, were simply lifted whole.

Alice was far from alone. “There are myriad cases like my grandmother’s,” writes historian Karina Urbach. The intellectual property of Jews was depicted as “inferior” and yet the Nazis happily stole it, just like other Jewish possessions. To this day, there has never been any scholarly investigation. “The topic simply doesn’t exist in research,” she writes. Still in 2019, Die Presse wrote about the once famous “bridge-bites,” falsely attributing them to Rösch. The story of Alice Urbach, culinary pioneer and entrepreneur, had disappeared from history.

Her grandmother grieved deeply the loss of her book, writes Urbach. Growing up in a Jewish family, accustomed to deprivation and animosity, it was her pride and joy, her “third baby”, she used to call it, something she thought couldn’t be taken away from her.

“The only thing we’re still hoping for is that after more than 80 years, Alice will be named sole author of her work,” writes Karina Urbach at the end of her book.

Shortly after Das Buch Alice was released in September, the heirs of her grandmother’s publisher succumbed and reassigned the rights to her family. They now intend to publish the book in an open-access-version: „So kocht man in Wien“ – by Alice Urbach. 

Her „third baby“ belongs to her again.

Verena Mayer
After falling in love with the city on an Interrail trip over 10 years ago, Verena is finally living in Vienna. She’s an editorial intern at Metropole and about to finish her master's degree in journalism at Deutsche Journalistenschule in Munich. Her favorite topics include food, culture & people.

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