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Bringing Decent Bagels, and a Sense of Jewish Culinary History, to Berlin

An American expat opened her bakery in the German capital because what locals were doing to bagels was ‘bad for the Jews’

Steven Blum
June 25, 2013
Fine Bagels, inside Berlin's Shakespeare and Company bookstore.(Eyal Amitzur)
Fine Bagels, inside Berlin's Shakespeare and Company bookstore.(Eyal Amitzur)

“What Berliners are doing to the bagel is bad for the Jews,” Laurel Kratochvila told me. “You walk into a store that advertises bagels, but there’s something off about them. They’re pale, puffy, slathered in either butter or mayonnaise with a dried out tomato, a piece of lettuce, and maybe some ham or cheese. They’re Brötchen”—a traditional German roll—“in drag.”

The bagels in Berlin are indeed a sorry lot, a flimsy imitation of what one might find in New York, Paris, or even Seattle. If they were served in Brooklyn, I can imagine them being kicked into the East River in disgust. “Is this what they think we eat for breakfast every morning?” she asked.

After she saw “how bagels are treated in this country,” Kratochvila, a native of Boston who’s been living in Germany for two and a half years, decided to open a bagel store in Berlin. She began boiling bagels in the kitchen of Shakespeare and Sons—a cozy, neighborhood bookstore she owns with her husband, Roman. In the beginning, Kratochvila sold the standard poppy, plain, and sesame-seed bagels from the cashier counter in the bookstore but, as her ambition grew, she branched out to such less-humble offerings as marble rye, za’atar, plum and red onion, cranberry, potato, and double sesame. Then, in June, Kratochvila—whose mother’s maiden name is Fine—“staged a coup” of the sales counter and transformed the front room of the bookstore, located on Raumerstrasse in Prenzlauerberg, into Fine Bagels.

They may be the best bagels in town—and I say this having tried multitudes from Barcomi’s, Salomon Bagels, and the Bagel Company. Biting down on an onion bagel with a schmear, lox, and capers, your teeth sink through the cream cheese and warm bread, and there’s just enough of a chewy, crispy exterior to give your jaw a workout.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a mix of nostalgic American expats and intrigued locals sat and munched, kvelling over schmears like beet horseradish and Povidla, a Czech plum stew. “It’s unfair that other bagels in Berlin get to call themselves bagels,” said Dave Wingrave, a customer from Cyprus. “These are chewy, plump, come with the right amount of cream cheese—too much—and are a genuinely different proposition to the city’s other offerings.”

At first, Kratochvila didn’t consider the ramifications of opening a Jewish business in Berlin. “Baking has always been more about connecting with my family,” she said, and bagels bring back specific familial memories. Her grandmother, an avid scuba diver, used to fly to the Caribbean with two suitcases packed with nine dozen bagels; Kratochvila and her mother would fly down from Boston with extra bagels when supplies ran low.

It wasn’t until customers began to trickle into the Berlin shop that she realized something: Most of them didn’t know bagels had a specifically Jewish, as well as German, history. “I’ve had customers who’ve tried to convince me that bagels were an American invention,” she said.

Others told Kratochvila how to make a bagel the German way: “Some told me they shouldn’t be toasted, others told me they shouldn’t be cut in half. Someone went so far as to tell me that putting cream cheese on them is wrong. Now, I do a lot of things wrong,” she admitted. “I put ketchup on a lot of things that shouldn’t have ketchup on them. But telling me cream cheese doesn’t belong on a bagel?”

Kratochvila, who is Jewish, began talking back. A local might say she grew a Berliner Schnauze, or “Berlin Nose”—a colloquial way of describing the city’s take-no-prisoners mode of interaction. Once, when a customer demanded a whole-wheat bagel, a standard variety of bagel found in German health-food stores, she responded with a curt “Diese Bagels sind falsche”—These bagels are false. That put an end to it.

She also keeps a small stack of Maria Balinska’s book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread just below the counter as scholarly ammunition. If customers were to open it, they’d learn that, by some accounts, the bagel is a German Jewish invention. The seldom-told tale is that the first bagels were brought to Poland by Jewish immigrants from an “out of the way corner of Prussia” in the ninth century. At the time, Jews were barred from baking any bread, given its use in Christian rituals, but a local ruler allowed Jews to prepare wheat, so long as it wasn’t baked. Boiling instead of baking allowed Prussian Jews to prepare the first batch of bagels ever made. Over time, the method morphed into the one bagel purists abide by today, which involves both boiling and baking.

Tracking down the history of the bagel in Germany, however, is a tricky endeavor. One would think that the Eastern European Jews who fled pogroms and came to Berlin in the 1920s would have set up bagel shops here, but the Jewish Museum’s recent exhibit about this era contained no mention of beygels, as they were known in Yiddish. Historian Christoph Kreutzmüller, who is currently a researcher and educator at the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, created a database of Jewish businesses in Berlin before World War II. He thinks bagels in Berlin are a recent fad: “Some Polish-Jewish bakeries might have offered them in the past, but that is difficult to ascertain,” he said via email.

Even without the Polish bakeries still around, it’s hard not to see echoes from Berlin’s Jewish past everywhere, including grocery stores. Wandering down the bread aisle on a recent Friday at Kaiser’s, a German supermarket chain, I thought I hallucinated a challah. Turns out it was something called Zopfbrot, but it tastes just the same. Seeing matzo in the health-food aisle is equally disorienting. Neither item is labeled Jewish, but it feels tribalistic to point that out to a harried grocer.

Given the history attached, it could become a burden to sell bagels in Berlin. But Kratochvila, whose humor is as dark as the rye with which she bakes, laughs off the “serious stares” she receives if pressed to discuss the Jewish origins of her baked goods. (“It’s OK,” she’ll say, “you can still eat it, it’s food.”)

The only time she hesitated was over her store sign, spending a week debating whether to add the words “Authentic Jewish Baking” after a friend suggested it.

“People seem to respond to the word ‘Jewish’ in a way that’s affected and a little unnatural,” she said. She does an impression of the standard response by raising her eyebrows, nodding her head, and saying, “Ohhhhhhh.” She looks like a hippie mom who’s trying to be supportive after her son just came out of the closet. Kratochvila, naturally, wants to take the piss out of the exchange, but it’s hard to counteract the significance of making Jewish food in Germany.

Kratochvila also wants her culinary achievements to stand on their own and feels ambivalent about guilt-motivated purchases. “The times I mentioned the knishes on the menu were a kind of ‘Jewish dumpling,’ the sell-rate was near 100 percent,” she said. “Though the Jewishness is, of course, irrelevant to the taste.”

Steven Blum has written for The Stranger, Blackbook Magazine, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.