Bialys are one of those foods that can be traced, if not to a specific inventor, to a particular place and time. They come from Bialystok, Poland, a city which up until World War II was one of Poland’s largest and which had a majority Jewish population. They didn’t call bialys “bialys” there, but rather Bialystoker kuchen. Jews from Bialystok were known as “kuchen eaters” (Bialystoker kuchen fressers in Yiddish) for indeed bialys were their staple bread. Bialys could be acquired on virtually every street in Bialystok, and we’re usually eaten hot, topped with butter or farmer’s cheese.
These original bialys were very large and typically served with lots of onions in the center. In my mind’s eye I picture them as almost pizza-like, with a puffy cornice around the rim. However you’d never cut or slice a bialy, just eat it like a big sweet roll. Only, you know, with onions. Bialys became truly popular in Bialystok around 1890, though it’s thought that the predecessor of the bialy was an Ashkenazi white flour flat bread called tzibele pletzl which originated in Europe in the early 1800’s, the time when advances in milling made high quality white flour commonly available.
The very sad thing about bialys is that by the end of World War II they had completely disappeared from Bialystok. But then so had virtually all of the Jews. Most were exterminated in death camps during the Holocaust. Not all, but while many surviving Jews returned to their home towns and cities around Europe once the war ended, they didn’t return to Bialystok, nor many other places in Poland. That’s because Poland remained a very, very dangerous place for Jews even after the fighting stopped and Europe was technically a peace. Returning Jews suffered pogroms, had their remaining property stolen and, all too frequently, were killed. For that reason some 200,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust fled Poland in the two years after the war, most to Germany where they could then emigrate either to Israel or the U.S., which welcomed them (as well as their “bialys” which they were then called).
Are there bialys in Bialystok today? From what I understand a bagel bakery there started making bialys again in the 1990’s. I have no idea if there’s been a real revival of the art, but I’d be interested to find out.