It’s rare that you get a chance to bite into history, but the bialys at Kossar’s Bialys in New York City allow you to do just that. In a way each Jewish-flatbread that comes out of Kossar’s bialy oven (which has burned almost continuously for the past 60 years) is a historic artifact providing a link to a world that in many ways no longer exists.
Just baked, not baked and boiled like a bagel, the bialy was the regional bread of Bialystok, Poland, a city which prior to World War II was a predominantly Jewish city. Around the turn of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century bialy bakers from Bialystok began immigrating to the U.S. bringing their bread to cities like New York and Chicago. In 1936 Kossar’s opened in lower Manhattan. At that time bialy making was a thriving industry in the city, but the Jewish-Polish bread was about to become a casualty of one of history’s darkest chapters—the Holocaust.
In 1939 the German army invaded Poland and occupied Bialystok in September of that year. By the end of the war tens of thousands of Bialystok’s Jewish residents had been exterminated. From a population of approximately 250,000 Jews before the war, only about 140 remained and bialy making in the city that gave the bread its name became a thing of the past.
Of course, bialys survived in cities like New York and for a time they even thrived, but over the years bialy shops became less and less common, this is likely because bialys are difficult to make and because there were no new bialy bakers coming over from Poland. Kossar’s, once one of many bailey bakeries, became one of the lone bearers of the bialy torch (though bialys can be found at many grocery stores, few mass-produced bialys are made with traditional bialy techniques or have a “true” bialy taste). As Kossar’s owner David Zablocki told me when I interviewed him for a Tablet Magazine story about bialys, “The bialy, which comes from Bialystok, Poland, is a lost bread of a lost world.”
A visit to Kossar’s provides a glimpse and taste of this “lost world.” In addition, with a little cream cheese the bialys themselves are pretty darn tasty.