Where do bialys come from?

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.

14 thoughts on “Where do bialys come from?”

  1. Interesting, I never thought about the tzibele pletzel (onion board) as a predecessor to the bialy, but it makes sense. Onion boards, too, were not sliced in half. Whatever you were eating was spread out on top. My memory might be faulty, but I remember the onion boards as having a somewhat richer dough than the bialys. I haven’t had either in ages. I think an excursion to Borough Park might be in order.

  2. A good note for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
    I love bialys but the only place I know in the twins cities closed about 25 years ago when the owner retired. I clearly remember he had a number tattooed on his arm. That was so shocking to me, made history very real.

      1. around 40th and France, the neighborhood used to be known as “Morningside” but I think it is part of Edina now. I’m trying to remember the name of the place. It was a bakery but was not “jewish” bakery.

    1. LOVE that movie, Jim. I think I need to see that soon. Just thinking about the reaction shots from the crowd when the musical starts makes me laugh out loud.


      – Joe

  3. Bialy Eaters by Mimi Sheraton is very interesting to read. I use my sourdough starter to make bialys because one The Fresh Loaf member said that it is probably how bialys were made back then. So good. I saute the chopped onion in a little olive oil, but I like to add crumbled feta cheese and chopped bacon.

    1. I’ve come across that book in my research. I’ll have to pick it up!

      Thanks, Renee!

      – Joe

      1. It’s a great book. I have never eaten a bialy, but I randomly came across the book on a library shelf and really enjoyed reading it. She delves very deeply into the history of the bialy and tries to determine what an “authentic” one is really like.

  4. Renee, there’s something so sweetly American about (a) enriching your bialys and (b) specifically, enriching them with _bacon_.

    As a middle-aged native of the Upper West Side, I am fortunate to have grown up with bialys; I think they’ve always been in the bagel’s shadow, but I do like them, and onion boards as well. I have more recently been nonplussed to see them sliced equatorially. They are pretty bumpy, it’s true.

    1. So people are indeed trying to slice them sideways, eh? Very interesting. I don’t see that going anywhere, but it’s game to try!

      Cheers and thanks, nbm!

      – Joe

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