• Grigory Semenovich Obershmukler

    I don’t make New Year Resolutions, but I start every year hoping to interview an Old Jewish Person®. Then I realize that I have no interviewing skills, or patience or determination to actually do it, and soon another year rolls around. So this is probably as close as it gets to having a narrative on this blog. This text is translated from an older gentleman’s blog I’ve been following for many years. He lives in Israel and seems to be retired after a long career as a physician. His stories are always fascinating, honest, and told from an old Jewish doctor point of view I find so relatable. If you read Russian you will find his blog to be a unique personal account of the long-gone era, mixed with tragic and funny stories he encountered in his latter years while working in Israel with ex-Soviet immigrants. And if you are Russian-impaired, you have to rely on my crude translating and editing skills. Translating takes a long time and there only so much of it I can do at work so this is only the first part. I also edited out an episode that cannot be possibly explained to a non-Russian reader without writing a small book. Part 2 that covers WWII and the years after is coming up sometime in the future.

    In the early sixties, after three years of working in a rural area, my family came back to Minsk. I got a job in a TB clinic; my wife was hired as an ambulance doctor.

    Soon I’ve met an interesting man in the clinic.

    It was our consulting thoracic surgeon Grigory Semenovich. He was a distinguished man, a veteran of WWII, a PhD. Actually, when he was born in the beginning of the 20th century he was named Hirsch, his father was Simha, so his full name was listed in the passport as Hirsch Simkhovich. Not willing to pronounce such a tongue twister, people at his Worker and then Medical school called him Grisha, and later Grigory Semenovich. His last name was Obershmukler, which is translated from Yiddish means “chief smuggler”. It’s hard to say how his ancestors got that name, but in the early 19th century by the order of Tsar Alexander I all the Jews in the Empire were required to produce last names. And then it all depended on the imagination of barely literate clerks and happy owners of new names.

    When I met him, he was an old man of sixty, small in stature around 160 cm (5’2’’), with a large bald spot surrounded by a narrow rim of gray hair. Thick black mustache streaked with gray, barely concealed a rough scar on his upper lip – a reminder of a childhood surgery. He had nasal and slightly hoarse voice. During surgeries he had to stand on a step-stool.
    All this combined – a tiny height, baldness, big mustache and a voice – made for somewhat of a strange impression , although he was a good surgeon , very well-read and educated .

    Grigory Semenovich had his habits.

    During surgeries, when complications and difficulties arose, he did not yell at nurses or scolded assistants; did not throw tools like many venerable surgeons I’ve observed in my many years of study and work. He calmly and quietly muttered some unintelligible words in his nasal voice, and if all went well, even tried to sing something totally unfamiliar. When asked what it meant, he replied –
    – Do not worry, I am commenting on the progress of the surgery to myself in Latin…
    Once at the front, after a complicated and successful surgery, a higher-ranking doctor who was there with an inspection, said in Yiddish after a modest dinner and a “front-line hundred grams” (*of vodka):

    – Hirsch, you need to be more cautious with your cursing , special agents (*of NKVD) may know what  “mome loshn” means but may not understand who it’s directed to …
    Colonel inspector also grew up in a shtetl , went to a heder and was able to understand  all the terrible curses on the heads of Germans , crappy instruments, war, dumb commanders , bleeding and this lousy life …

    Once when I was present with my electrocardiograph during a heavy thoracoplasty surgery performed by Gregory Semenovich, I was also able to make out the words of an indecent song that I heard as a child from my father .

    In my translation of an arbitrary and totally outrageous pronunciation (after all , the last time I heard this song seventy years ago !) One verse of this specimen of folk art translates roughly as follows:

    Jew has sex with a Jew , goy has a goy ,
    Rabbi has a rebbetzin and all enjoy …

    It is known that in the USSR from NKVD to kindergartens people disgruntled with someone or something wrote anonymous complaints on a variety of subject to different organizations. Grigory Semenovich didn’t escape his. Clinic received a directive from the regional party committee with the request to verify the facts, investigate the matter and report back to the regional committee. The attached anonymous letter stated that the operating surgeon Obershmukler writes off a lot of valuable medicinal alcohol, but in reality he drinks the alcohol with no zakuski, while getting drunk with other physicians and operating nurses but the junior staff is never invited, as if they are not human… and these drunken parties cause harm to the Soviet state in general and all of medicine in particular.
    Everyone knew that Gregory Semenovich cannot drink more than one shot during the evening. When they showed him the letter, he grinned into his mustache and said –
    – Tomorrow is my surgery, send the commission, they will see for themselves …
    The next day, Gregory Semenovich came to work with a large portfolio. Commission gathered soon – assistant director of the hospital Anna Artemovna, secretary of the local Communist Party organization, the chairman of the local union and chief nurse. Surgeon Obershmukler dumped a few thick monographs with bookmarks and a pile of printed instructions on the table.
    – Please verify that I am following the guidance. This is a monograph with existing hand sanitizing methods, and these – he pointed to the printed sheets – are the latest instructions of our ministry. Now I’m going to wash my hands, and you will observe … Nurse, are you ready? Begin!
    They began the long process of hand sanitizing while Gregory Semenovich explained.
    – We are using the Fyurbringer’s* method with modification by Alfeld*. Sometimes we use Spasokukotsky* – Kochergin* method (*all these names could be medical-sounding gibberish). In all three methods the last stage is rinsing of the hands with a 70 % alcohol solution for 2 to 5 minutes; we will use 2 minutes. Nurse, give me a sterile napkin, start the stopwatch and slowly pour the alcohol on my hands!
    Alcohol started trickling down on his palms, and then to the sink …
    What are you doing! – screamed the Chairman of the Union, retired paramedic and a no stranger to drinking.
    Last drops emerged from half-liter bottle.
    – Now have to leave, patient is waiting, – Gregory Semenovich raised his clean hands and looking like a surrendering prisoner, shuffled over to the operating room …

    Few more episodes.

    In those years, our clinic expanded, changed staffing and simultaneously recruited several young graduates of medical school. One of them, Valya, came the first time to work in a mini-skirt. Minis were just beginning to come into vogue and assistant director Anna Artemovna stated that the Soviet young people and members of Komsomol cannot appear at work dressed like this. Reprimands did not help, and Anna Artemovna used every possible way to find fault with a young girl.

    Anna Artemovna was a partisan nurse and after the war she married a former guerrilla commander, barely finished college and once admitted that after the college has not read a single book.
    Once she burst into the staffroom, where doctors spent their free time and in a raised voice began berating Valechka for her transgressions. Valya didn’t have to look for words and said loudly –
    Why are you attacking me like a Fury?
    Assistant director froze for a few seconds.
    – Girl! What did you say to me? I am an honest woman! I have a husband! It’s you who is shaking her tail, flashing your panties and bare hips to everyone, be ashamed! I would never put on skirt like this!
    -Of course, at your age you have nothing to flash and have nothing to show, and no one wants to see it anyway!
    From the far corner came a hoarse voice nasal voice of Gregory Semenovich –
    -Anna Artemovna why are you boiling so much? Fury is not a prostitute, as you though. In Greek it means an evil vindictive woman and it may not be too far from the truth.
    – You are and old man and on her side…
    Anna Artemovna left the room and slammed the door.

    Grigory Semenovich didn’t have a lot of work in our hospital. He dealt mainly with adhesions after the placement of artificial pneumothorax, occasionally performed therapeutic thoracoplasty and some others. For several days after a surgery, even on weekends, he visited his patients, punctured the pleural cavity, changed wound dressings and made new prescriptions.

    During those years he lived with his wife in a small two- story Khrushchev-style apartment building, she was often sick, and he felt lonely. I often picked up duty hours in the therapeutic ward to make extra money. Grigory S. came to me in the duty room and we had long conversations …

    Grigory S. was born in the early 20th century in a small shtetl near Minsk , and as all the local kids went to heder – elementary school at the synagogue. Since the childhood he started helping his father who was a cobbler, but always wanted to study and become a doctor.

    The boy was born with a small genetic defect – a slight cleft lip and had surgery in his childhood to repair it. For the rest of his life he remembered the majestic figure of the surgeon in a long white coat and mask with clean hands raised up in the air…

    After the revolution, Grisha went to Minsk and began working as a mechanic at the depot at the railroad station, while attending a night school. After 2 years local Communist cell, the trade union committee and the director gave him a referral to the technical school. Grisha successfully graduated and enrolled in medical school.

    Student years were difficult – Grisha worked nights as a nurse in a hospital, then as a surgeons’ assistant and studied hard.  He often participated in simple surgeries …
    Then graduation. He, a Jewish guy, son of a shoemaker – a medical doctor! Joy knew no bounds!
    But he was yet to become a surgeon …

    Initially he worked in Polesia, in a remote village in a forsaken district hospital with 10 beds. He worked alone, treating all diseases, delivering babies. Queues at the reception were huge, and after a day at work – night house calls …
    The following year they hired a midwife, and then came a paramedic – life became a little easier. Grisha set up an operating room, started performing minor surgeries. The village had no electricity so he arranged for a power generator near the hospital. When the old steam generator started huffing and puffing at night – the whole village knew that there was a patient or a birth.
    After three and a half years he was sent to a surgical residency.
    Gregory never came back to the village, he was sent to the district center to work as a general surgeon. At the age of almost 30 his lifelong dream came true!

    At the new job young surgeon met a charming female colleague, an obstetrician -gynecologist, who started working there a couple of years prior.
    Her name was Rachel. She was a tall, stout, pretty blonde. Her face had a disproportionately large nose that made her embarrassed …
    Her path to medicine she was easier than Grisha’s – her parents were able to get medical education during the Tsarist years and escape from the Pale of Settlement – her dad was a pharmacist and her mother a midwife , and they were allowed to live in big cities .
    Rachel was three years younger Grisha, 16 centimeters taller without heels and 15 kilos heavier …
    Grisha always liked big women. He realized that it was his destiny and started a proper siege.
    Fortress did not especially resist, Rachel liked miniature men and, in particular, Grisha. After a few months a simple wedding took place in the yard of a small house, where young people found an apartment – just a friendly dinner. Toward the end of the event happy and tired groom took a nap in the corner. Rachel took him in her arms like a baby, and carried him into the bedroom next to her powerful chest   to the applause of the remaining guests.

    Gregory S. and Rachel worked at the district hospital for a few more years, when they encountered the first trouble – they did not conceive. Pregnancies ended in miscarriages, doctors’ advice did not help, and to get the advice they had to go to the regional center or to Minsk. And the young family decided to move to Minsk, the capital.

    In the early 1930’s, doctors were needed in all hospitals. Without much difficulty and patronage Rachel and Grisha got jobs in their respective specialties, and moved into an apartment with Rachel’s aunt.
    Finally, nature took its course, Rachel became pregnant and in 1936 and delivered a healthy girl.
    In the fashion of those years she was named Svetlana.

    Time passed quickly, maternity leave has ended. Not so young mother-doctor knew that to send the infant to the nursery meant to put the long-awaited child in danger. A thought to leave work did not cross her mind. They had to find a nanny. One of the former patients suggested his distant relative – Alesya – a 16-year-old girl, an orphan from a distant village, almost illiterate , but familiar with young children , decent and clean .

    They took the girl took into the family and she raised Svetlana from the age of 8 months! They even looked similar, both were round-faced blondes, only  Svetlana had green eyes and Alesya’s were blue …
    When friends asked the Alesya where she works, she nonchalantly replied “I do not know, some surgeon” …

    Few more years passed. Svetochka started in kindergarten. Alesya helped around the house and attended night school. Grisha and Rachel worked hard and taught Alesya all they knew themselves – from cooking to nursing care. They took care of her future – Alain finished seven grades, passed the entrance exams and in the autumn of 1941 was supposed to go to nursing school.

    Grigory Semenovich didn’t have a lot of work in our hospital. He dealt mainly with adhesions after the imposition of artificial pneumothorax, occasionally performed therapeutic thoracoplasty and some others. For several days after a surgery, even on weekends, he visited his patients, punctured the pleural cavity, changed wound dressings and made new prescriptions.

    During those years he lived with his wife in a small two- story Khrushchev-style apartment building, she was often sick, and he felt lonely. I often picked up duty hours in the therapeutic ward to make extra money. Grigory S. came to me in the duty room and we had long conversations …

    Grigory S. was born in the early 20th century in a small shtetl near Minsk , and as all the local kids went to heder – elementary school at the synagogue. Since the childhood he started helping his father who was a cobbler, but he always wanted to study and become a doctor.

    The boy was born with a small genetic defect – a slight cleft lip and had surgery in his childhood to repair it. For the rest of his life he remembered the majestic figure of the surgeon in a long white coat and mask with clean hands raised up in the air…

    After the revolution, Grisha went to Minsk and began working as a mechanic at the depot at the railroad station, while attending a night school. After 2 years local Communist cell, the trade union committee and the director gave him a referral to the technical school. Grisha successfully graduated and enrolled in medical school.

    Student years were difficult – Grisha worked nights as a nurse in a hospital, then as a surgeons’ assistant and studied hard.  He often participated in simple surgeries …
    Then graduation. He, a Jewish guy, son of a shoemaker – a medical doctor! Joy knew no bounds!
    But he was yet to become a surgeon …

    Initially he worked in Polesia, in a remote village in a forsaken district hospital with 10 beds. He worked alone, treating all diseases, delivering babies. Queues at the reception were huge, and after a day at work – night house calls …
    The following year they hired a midwife, and then came a paramedic – life became a little easier. Grisha set up an operating room, started performing minor surgeries. The village had no electricity so he arranged for a power generator near the hospital. When the old steam generator started huffing and puffing at night – the whole village knew that there was a patient or a birth.
    After three and a half years he was sent to a surgical residency.
    Gregory never came back to the village, he was sent to the district center to work as a general surgeon. At the age of almost 30 his lifelong dream came true!

    At the new job young surgeon met a charming female colleague, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who started working there a couple of years prior.
    Her name was Rachel. She was a tall, stout, pretty blonde. Her face had a disproportionately large nose that made her embarrassed …
    Her path to medicine she was easier than Grisha’s – her parents were able to get medical education during the Tsarist years and escape from the Pale of Settlement – her dad was a pharmacist and her mother a midwife , and they were allowed to live in big cities .
    Rachel was three years younger Grisha, 16 centimeters taller without heels and 15 kilos heavier …
    Grisha always liked big women. He realized that it was his destiny and started a proper siege.
    Fortress did not especially resist, Rachel liked miniature men and, in particular, Grisha. After a few months a simple wedding took place in the yard of a small house, where young people found an apartment – just a friendly dinner. Toward the end of the event happy and tired groom took a nap in the corner. Rachel took him in her arms like a baby, and carried him into the bedroom next to her powerful chest   to the applause of the remaining guests.

    Gregory S. and Rachel worked at the district hospital for a few more years, when they encountered the first trouble – they did not conceive. Pregnancies ended in miscarriages, doctors’ advice did not help, and to get the advice they had to go to the regional center or to Minsk. And the young family decided to move to Minsk, the capital.

    In the early 1930’s, doctors were needed in all hospitals. Without much difficulty and patronage Rachel and Grisha got jobs in their respective specialties, and moved into an apartment with Rachel’s aunt.
    Finally, nature took its course, Rachel became pregnant and in 1936 and delivered a healthy girl.
    In the fashion of those years she was named Svetlana.

    Time passed quickly, maternity leave has ended. Not so young mother-doctor knew that to send the infant to the nursery meant to put the long-awaited child in danger. A thought to leave work did not cross her mind. They had to find a nanny. One of the former patients suggested his distant relative – Alesya – a 16-year-old girl, an orphan from a distant village, almost illiterate , but familiar with young children , decent and clean .

    They took the girl took into the family and she raised Svetlana from the age of 8 months! They even looked similar, both were round-faced blondes, only  Svetlana had green eyes and Alesya’s were blue …
    When friends asked the Alesya where she works, she nonchalantly replied “I do not know, some surgeon” …

    Few more years passed. Svetochka started in kindergarten. Alesya helped around the house and attended night school. Grisha and Rachel worked hard and taught Alesya all they knew themselves – from cooking to nursing care. They took care of her future – Alesya finished seven grades, passed the entrance exams and in the autumn of 1941 was supposed to go to nursing school.

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  • The West in The Soviet Caricature

    In the comments to my recent post about Khrushchev few people mentioned their memories of living under the “Soviet threat”, personified by the Soviet leaders like Khrushchev. I, on the other hand, don’t remember ever feeling threatened by the West. The news reports were always full of the stories about the Western aggressors running up their arsenals and meddling in the military conflicts around the world, but I don’t recall people around me ever being concerned about potential attacks. While the Americans were watching the “Red Dawn“, the Soviet people felt safe guarded by the Soviet Army directed by the ever-wise Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

    In addition the the news reports and the shows depicting the hardships of the Western life, the Soviet government loved to use the satire against the capitalist enemy. Uncle Sam in a top hat, British Lion, Israeli Military “Clique” and others frequently appeared on the pages of satirical magazines such as Krokodil (Crocodile). The caricatures below were published in Krokodil in 1977 and this may be the first time some of them are seen in the West (captions translated by me). I have several years worth of the digitized magazines, and will post more if there is any interest.

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  • Victory Day May 9th 1945

    Over the years this blog covered the Victory Day (or VE Day as it’s known here) more than once. This year I will just publish a compilation of links to my previous posts.

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  • Behind The Iron Curtain: Shortages

    In my recent post about shopping in the USSR the following photo and its caption raised some questions about the shortages:

    Cheese display with names and descriptions of various cheeses. In 1983 a display like this would’ve looked like an insulting joke.©Time, Carl Mydans

    I implied that by the time when I was growing up® no elaborate displays or advertisements were necessary, items appeared in stores sporadically and people swept them off the shelves. Even everyday groceries like bread and milk  frequently required standing in line. Any imported clothes, perfume, shoes, and even toys had the lines snaking out of the door and around the block. Supplies depended on the city; Moscow where the government was located and frequently visited by foreigners was known for its well stocked stores with items that were never seen elsewhere. People from surrounding areas were making long-distance shopping trips to Moscow to stock up on food and imported hard-to-find retail goods. Those who lived too far from Moscow had to either know someone in retail or pay black market prices.

    In the early 80’s standing in line was pretty much the norm of life. Once I was walking home from school in the 4th or 5th grade when I noticed a huge line to the kiosk selling mandarins. Mandarins were a rare find, available only in winter. I didn’t have any money with me so I got a spot in line and had a number scribbled on my hand to verify my place. Then I went home, got the money and was back before too long. By then the people were worried that the mandarins will run out and people in the back of the line would have to leave empty-handed. I showed my number and got back in line, although some people where not too happy that I came back. Even with me running home I still had to stand in line for several hours. Not sure if I wanted the mandarins so badly or just didn’t want to leave half-way to the end of the line. Somehow I remember this one night and tell this story often, and, of course, I am eating a mandarin as I type this.

    The reason I remember standing in line that night is that I wasn’t exposed to shopping very often. My parents did their share of waiting in lines or found other ways of getting stuff they needed like farmer’s market for foods which weren’t that cheap or black market for other things. Knowing someone in retail or grocery store was a goldmine. These people knew when the deliveries were scheduled and could hold on to an item for their friends, relatives and people who were willing to overpay. There was also barter going on, a retail employee would trade a favor with a doctor who could in turn try to find a rare medicine, or an auto mechanic who had access to hard-to-procure spare parts. Trading favors and black market led to some items never appearing in the front of the stores for general public, they were gone as soon as the delivery truck left the dock.

    And now for some photos. Unfortunately not too many people had a bright idea to photograph the lines and empty stores; in some cases it could be interpreted as some anti-Soviet activity. Many photos floating around the internet are taken from here and I found a few more elsewhere.

    Clothing store line.
    Stores usually closed for one hour lunch break. People are waiting for the store to open.
    Line in the produce store
    Line to buy shoes, probably imported. Soviet shoes were ugly, heavy and uncomfortable.
    Another line.
    People are looking at the meager selection at the meat store
    People in line always worried that the stuff will run out and the time will be wasted.
    People are forming a line in anticipation of delivery. Many times it never happened.
    If a delivery did occur, pushing and shoving was not uncommon. Sometimes there were fights but not very often.
    Another line
    Meat?
    Buy lingerie first then see if it fits.
    Not so fast food
    No comment
    Bread line
    Liquor store
    Empty shelves
    Liquor store inside view
    Unwanted items

    When people think socialism, they often have these images in mind, but in all truth this has nothing to do with socialism; this was the result of many years of corrupt power, terror, breeding out competition, trying to force rules and principles on people that were going against common sense and human nature. Labels applied to what was built in the USSR are irrelevant; was it communism, socialism or just a big lie – what difference does it make. The only thing that matters is learning something from this experience. Then the years the Soviet people spent standing in various lines would account for something.

    My kid gets annoyed when I walk out of a store or a restaurant when I see too many people waiting in line. I tell her that all the time in my life that was allocated for standing in lines has been used up already and I have little patience for waiting in one.

    And then I buy more mandarins.

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  • So Easy A Blogger Could Do It

    So you come home with 20 pounds of apples in a bag. No need to panic, I am here to tell you what to do. In about an hour or two you could be eating the best apple cake you have ever tried in your life. In fact, it so good that you will try to eat it all while declining tempting offers to exchange some of the cake for money and/or sexual favors. The cake is called “Sharlotka” and yes, there will be people who will tell you that this is not the right way to make it. Tell them to go f make their own Sharlotka, because this is the one and only way to make it and they don’t know what they are talking about. I would also like to warn “the creative types” not to post here with comments like “I added a pinch of salt to the recipe, some chicken, vegetables and a pie crust and now it’s a chicken pot pie”. I will ban you from this blog without regret.

    For this recipe you will need a baking dish with flat bottom, some apples, 6 eggs, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of flour. That’s it.

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    Peel, core and slice the apples. If you are a lady, cut the apples into uniform cubes of about 1/4 inches. If you are a gentleman, reach for your favorite (apple-peeling) tool-device.

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    This machine cores, peels and slices the apples in one smooth motion. There is no excuse for not having it. Women and small children love it. Hack processed apples into smaller pieces. Peeled apples may brown after sitting on the counter. If you care, you can sprinkle them with lemon juice; I personally don’t care – it’s a cake,not a painting.

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    Place the apples into your baking dish. Here I clearly went overboard, peeling them was so much fun (unless you are a lady) that I went through a few too many. Don’t worry, you can never over-apple the apple cake.

    Now proceed to separate the yolks from the whites. Whipping egg whites is easier if they are cold and no particles of yolks were accidentally mixed in. However, I did just that (not on purpose) and everything turned out OK. If you are an older person like me you would remember that back in the day we whipped egg whites with a whisk.  It was tedious, boring and exhausting process. Fancy households had mechanical egg beaters, still a hassle and lots of cranking. Then came electric mixers and only here my dream to own a stand mixer finally came true. If you have one, place egg whites in the bowl and slowly raise the speed to “high”. If you don’t have the right equipment you can use any of the lesser tools.

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    You will need to attain stiff peaks (not my stripper name) but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Slowly add sugar and continue whipping. The foam will become shiny and you will not be able to feel sugar crunch on your teeth. This may take 5 minutes or so. P1020193

    Add egg yolks and whip some more.

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    Add flour and get it to blend in, no one likes unbaked chunks of flour in the cake, you won’t get any points for a crappy product. Pour the mixture on top of the apples and spread it evenly.

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    In a 350F preheated oven it goes for an hour. Leave it alone.

    In the meantime you still have your apple peeler out and plenty more apples to use. Add a small amount of apple juice, Sprite, water of other tasty liquid to a sauce pan and place it on the medium-low heat. Peel and slice as many apples as will fit.

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    Pour some honey on top. Do not go crazy with it unless you like it too sweet.

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    Cover and cook on medium low until apples look and feel soft.

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    Use potato masher to make some apple sauce of the desired consistency.

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    Let it cool, it really burns when hot.
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    Now get the cake out of the oven. Test it by sticking a toothpick in the middle, if it comes out clean, you are done.

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    After the cake cools, get your favorite bottle of Homewood Hooch from the fridge and enjoy the cake.

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    And this (to quote John McCain), “my friends”, is how you bake “Sharlotka”.

    Update: My blogger friend Johnna made her own gluten-free version.

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