Learning to eat roast turkey: A Jewish refugee remembers


Margot Karp, 88, came to the United States as a refugee during World War II. / Photo for AFR by Anne Noyes Saini

Margot Karp, 88, came to the United States as a refugee during World War II. / Photo courtesy of Margot Karp

These days in New York City’s Washington Heights, Dominican pastel de guayaba — guava cake — is far more common than German strudel.

But in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the New York neighborhood became a refuge for German and Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis. They brought with them strudel, spätzle (boiled dough bits), leberknödel (liver dumplings) in soup and other dishes from home.

Margot Karp was one of them. In 1939, at age 14, she and her family left Germany and settled among the 20,000 or more Jewish refugees who had flocked to that northwestern corner of Manhattan.

“Where we were living in Washington Heights, they had already been swamped by German refugees,” she notes. “Henry Kissinger was in the class ahead of me at George Washington High School.”

Back in Germany, Karp’s family had lived comfortably. Making apple strudel in her childhood home, for instance, was an elaborate undertaking that required the collaboration of several skilled bakers. When the family arrived in New York City as refugees, things were suddenly very different.

“We each came with 10 marks, which was then $4 each,” Karp recalls. “When they started working here, my parents each were making minimum wage. It was very tight … and I think our cooking was very much influenced by that.”

Karp, now 88 and still living in Manhattan, eagerly embraced American culture and food. One Thanksgiving soon after their arrival in New York, she proudly presented her parents with a huge turkey she and her sister had won in a raffle. But despite their poverty, Karp’s parents were more confounded than pleased by her windfall.

“I think my mother had to consult with a cousin about how you cook a turkey. She wasn’t even thrilled,” Karp recalls. “We had not had turkey; the celebratory bird [in Germany] was a goose.”


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5 Responses to Learning to eat roast turkey: A Jewish refugee remembers

  1. Joel Zeldin November 30, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Margo is my favorite aunt. Whenever my wife and I are in NY, we take her out for a fancy meal and are mesmerized by her stories. I had never heard about the turkey raffle or Henry Kissinger, but she was the valedictorian of her high school class after barely learning English as a second or third language. Joel Zeldin

    • Profile photo of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf December 10, 2013 at 6:15 am #

      Thank you for adding to the portrait of this impressive American.

  2. Renata Singer December 8, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Margo Karp is a wonderful raconteur. I would have liked to hear more about what she thought were “American” foods and which foods she misses, or remind her most, of her childhood.

  3. Elizabeth Schmid December 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    I’m fortunate to know Margot! The turkey story is really wonderful.

  4. Michael Simonson June 23, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    Margot Karp is a much-loved volunteer at the Leo Baeck Institute. We are always happy to see her and (though we should be working) visit!