A Warsaw Bakery Seeks to Preserve Jewish Food Where It Was Nearly Lost

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A Warsaw Bakery Seeks to Preserve Jewish Food Where It Was Nearly Lost


WARSAW — In this city, where more than 350,000 Jews once lived, the past reverberates.

Justyna Kosmala, an owner of the Charlotte chain of bakeries, remembers her parents and grandparents telling of the complicated history between Polish Jews and non-Jews, ties that stretch back to the Middle Ages and include the death of three million Polish Jews and 1.9 million non-Jews in the Holocaust.

“The memory of what happened is around us our whole life,” she said.

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Ms. Kosmala, 41, is part of a generation of Poles who grew up under the shadow of that dark history. For her, a way to move forward is in preserving Jewish culture — particularly Jewish food, whose influence runs deep in Polish cuisine — and offering a space for dialogue.

“Maybe common, everyday life things, like food that we had in common, will draw us together,” she said.

Raised Catholic, Ms. Kosmala studied political science in Aix-en-Provence, France, before taking an internship with the office of the Polish representative to the European Union in Brussels, where she spent time at coffee shops, like Le Pain Quotidien. The experience inspired her to open something similar in Warsaw: a space where ideas could be shared at a communal table, over a cup of coffee.

Years later, in 2011, a friend approached her to start a French bistro, bakery and coffee shop. They chose the name Charlotte — soothing and welcoming, evoking a French influence.

One Charlotte soon became two (now there are six), and an opportunity came along in 2016 to collaborate with the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

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The museum offered Ms. Kosmala and her partners a space for a new coffee shop and bakery bistro, and encouraged them to include Jewish items on the menu. Soon after, a branch of Charlotte, called Charlotte Menora, a French bakery bistro with a Polish-Ashkenazic twist, opened in Polin’s adjoining space on Grzybowski Square. The positioning is symbolic: It is in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto, which was established in 1940, before the Jewish population was decimated. (There are only a few thousand Jews in Warsaw today.)

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Before opening Charlotte Menora, Ms. Kosmala sought counsel from Michael Schudrich, the rabbi at the nearby Nozyk Synagogue and the chief rabbi of Poland. She and her partners also traveled to Tel Aviv in search of the Jewish food that existed in Poland before World War II. But, to their surprise, they could not find it. Instead, they found only Israeli food — and an idea: selling traditional French favorites side by side with beloved Jewish pastries. (Thierry Marx, a French Jewish chef whose family comes from Poland, is also doing this in his chic Parisian bakeries.)

For Charlotte Menora, Ms. Kosmala, who serves as the Charlotte chain’s culinary adviser, found inspiration in the Polin’s collection of books and recipes. She piles slices of pastrami on a half bagel with sweet onions and sour pickles, loads her rugelach dough with local farmer cheese instead of cream cheese and pairs latkes with crème fraîche and trout caviar. Also on the menu is her family’s bread pudding, made with challah or babka and flavored with Polish poppy seeds and chocolate. (The use of challah — chalka in Polish — is especially notable, illustrating a shared culinary history: Served on the Sabbath and at Jewish holidays, it’s an everyday bread in Poland, widely found in supermarkets.)

Since opening, Charlotte Menora moved around the corner from its original location, and a second location is opening soon in Krakow, serving the more-inflated American style of bagels of today, rather than slimmer, similar-looking Krakow pretzels.

And partnering with the Polin, Charlotte Menora celebrates Hanukkah with paczki (pronounced ponchki and ponchkes in Yiddish), doughnuts filled with strawberry jam like the Hanukkah favorite sufganiyot; potato latkes; and lit Hanukkah candles in the window, a Jewish custom for centuries in Poland. American-style bagels, rugelach and chocolate-raspberry babka are starting to appear in the other Charlottes and in bakeries across Warsaw.

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“Jewish history is part of our history,” Ms. Kosmala said. “I can just say to remember, it is our place to change — for us, for our children.”

Recipe: Challah Bread Pudding



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