Arts & Culture

In Poland, Jews Made Bagels Along with History

Last autumn my department produced for BBC Radio 3 a 45-minute documentary about how Yiddish is being kept alive today in New York City. [The audio isn't up anymore but have a look/listen to the audio slide show.] One of … Read More

By / February 3, 2009

Last autumn my department produced for BBC Radio 3 a 45-minute documentary about how Yiddish is being kept alive today in New York City. [The audio isn't up anymore but have a look/listen to the audio slide show.] One of the comments that really struck me was from a member of a svive on the Upper West Side explaining his motivation for getting together on a regular basis with other people to talk Yiddish:

"…[T]here is so much memorialising about the Holocaust and yet so few people know anything about who those people were. You never learn five six [million] of them spoke Yiddish another good five ten per cent spoke Ladino in the Balkan countries. People mourn these people and yet they don’t know anything about their culture. And I realised you can’t mourn somebody without understanding them and to me it became a way of keeping something about them alive… I grew up in the eighties on Long Island, typical conservative Hebrew school and the Holocaust was a very, very large part of our curriculum and yet we learned absolutely nothing about the way that those people lived." 

The story of the bagel in prewar Poland is basically a story of what everyday life was like. For starters almost half of all the country’s bakeries were Jewish owned – in other words way out of proportion to the overall size of the Jewish population which made up about 10%. When you see those kinds of numbers you get a tangible feel for just how important those Jewish bakers were for the towns and cities of Poland. And because the bagel was such a popular food you find lots of observations about them – some more serious than others (in 1934 one sociologist did a survey of 129 of Warsaw’s 600 bagel peddlers) but all of them provide memorable pictures.  Like the rabbi in a medium sized town whose supper – reflecting his somewhat better off social status – was usually a glass of tea and ‘a day-old bagel.’ Or the hiding place for the socialist conspirators hollowed out under the bagel kettle. Or the the young woman bagel peddler in Warsaw who lost her leg running away from a policeman (who would have arrested her because she had no licence to peddle) but continued to hobble along on a wooden stump with her basket of bagels because there was nothing else she could make a living from.

I’d argue that this kind of history – this history of the everyday – is crucial to understanding the thorny subject of Polish-Jewish relations.

Within Poland there are a number of initiatives to make this kind of history available to a wider public. In the town of Lublin, for example, TNN a theatre group that started in 1992 on the site of the gate between the Jewish and gentile parts of the city has a growing archive of oral history about life in Lubin before World War II (there are many memories of buying bagels). And then there is Warsaw’s planned Jewish Museum which is going to have galleries which commemorate the culture and work of Poland’s Jewish community since the 10th century as well as a section on the Holocaust. Yes, it has attracted controversy in the world wide Jewish community – some New York friends of mine, for example, refused to donate any money, for them Poland is a cemetery best left alone. But to my mind those hundreds of years before the Holocaust were crucial to today’s Jewish community and to today’s Poland. They cannot be completely divorced. Not everyone will agree. Novelist Dara Horn, for example, takes issue with the argument I make in my book that Jews did not live in a world apart in Poland.

Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.