Denise Schorr; French chef trained many an American

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2010

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Denise Khaitman Schorr, a Holocaust survivor from Paris who taught French cooking to Boston area students for more than 30 years, died Friday at her home in Natick.

Mrs. Schorr, who married an American serviceman after the liberation of Paris and authored the cookbook “My French Kitchen’’ in 1981, suffered a heart attack, according to her son Louis.

“She had a hard-and-fast rule she would never tell her age,’’ said Louis, who is a chef. “She never understood why American women always wanted to know how old she was.’’

Friends said Mrs. Schorr was in her 90s.

“She had the most wonderful way about her,’’ said her friend Beth Gurney of Brookline. “She was a strong person and she lived through so much. She was a real giver.’’

Mrs. Schorr, a tiny woman whose voice reminded some of actress Lauren Bacall’s, gave talks at local libraries and schools about her experiences as a member of the French Resistance during World War II. She said she felt a duty to teach younger generations about the Holocaust.

“I have to pinch myself because I cannot believe that I am really here,’’ she told the Globe in 2001. “What did I do to escape and be so lucky not be sent to the death camps?’’

Her longtime friend Ethel Garelnick of Haverhill said, “She was so grateful to be an American, to be in this country and to be alive.’’

Mrs. Schorr grew up in Paris, where her father, a cobbler, owned two shoe stores. She studied at the prestigious Parisian culinary school Le Cordon Bleu.

When the Germans invaded Paris, Mrs. Schorr and her family fled to central France and hid in a friend’s barn. Denise was “young and foolish’’ and returned to Paris, she said. She joined the French Resistance in 1941 and her family also returned to the city. Her father assumed a new identity to continue working.

She helped Jews escape before police raided their neighborhoods, and she also helped operate a shelter for orphaned children, she said.

“When we left the apartment in the morning, we never knew if we would see each other again,’’ Mrs. Schorr said of her parents and younger sister in those days. “We were not living, we were existing.’’

In September 1944, just after the liberation of Paris, she met her future husband, Stanley, who was a US serviceman and Worcester native. He arrived late for Rosh Hashanah services at her synagogue. It was Denise’s birthday and she invited Stanley to her party that night.

“A friend of mine said, ‘That American will ask you to marry him,’ but I laughed and said, ‘I’ll never marry a short man,’’ Mrs. Schorr said in 1985, when 600 war brides gathered for a reunion.

Stanley was just over 5 feet. Mrs. Schorr was 4-foot-11. They were engaged after two dates and were married 41 years when Stanley died in 1986, according to their son.

Mrs. Schorr first came to the United States in 1946. She and her husband lived in Worcester and later in Fitchburg, where Stanley headed the Jewish Community Center until the mid 1960s.

“People would say to me, ‘How can you live in Fitchburg after Paris?’ but I led a very interesting life in that small town,’’ Mrs. Schorr told the Globe.

She helped found the Culinary Guild of New England and was close friends with Julia Child. “She was so tiny and Julia was so tall that it was funny to see them together at events,’’ said Gurney, a chef who first met Mrs. Schorr through the guild.

Mrs. Schorr and her husband adopted five children — including two sets of twins — from the Jewish orphanage in Boston in the 1950s.

“We laugh about it,’’ said her son, Louis, “because mum tells the story she looked at the social worker, and the social worker said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’ She saw no reason to separate the kids.’’

Students would come to Mrs. Schorr’s home to learn the secrets of boeuf bourguignon and duck confit.

Entering her kitchen in her small, ranch-style home was like walking onto a movie set, Gurney said. The American suburbs suddenly gave way to a French kitchen with copper pots and precisely organized whisks and wooden spoons.

“One of the things I loved so much about her was the way she would savor things,’’ Gurney said. “She would savor one cigarette, one tiny aperitif, a glass of good wine.’’

Her friends and students celebrated her 90th birthday with an elegant party at a Wellesley home. She remained forever devoted to the cooks she helped create and was happy to take their emergency calls.

“There was this sense, ‘If your duck isn’t caramelizing, I’m here for you,’ ’’ Gurney said.

In addition to her son, Louis, of Gardner, Mrs. Schorr leaves her sister, Jacqueline Kamioner of Paris; daughters Susan Schorr of Atlanta and Patricia St. Dennis of Kenneth City, Fla.; six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Perlman Funeral Home in Worcester. Burial will be in B’nai B’rith Cemetery in Worcester.