Rye Bread, a Symbol of Hope
Did you know that black rye bread was one of the critical nutritional elements that helped people in WWII concentration camps survive? Moreover, we will tell you a fascinating story of a camp survivor and how this bread was closely linked to both the worst and best moments of his life. This January 27, we mark the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. It is also observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As we mark this day, let’s look at an inspiring tale that represented a glimmer of hope. Dive into the rye bread’s symbolism, discover how rye can be used creatively, whether in bread or in desserts, and find its close association with Jewish culture. Read on!
A bowl and wooden spoon given to those sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)
Life Hanging by a Bread
During the Second World War, the Nazi regime forcefully sent political prisoners, Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and mentally-disabled people to concentration camps. In these camps, people had extremely limited access to food. Typical daily meals consisted of soup, tiny slices of sausage and cheese, artificial coffee powder, and black rye bread. As the memorial Auschwitz-Birkenau website indicates, “the combination of insufficient nutrition with hard labor contributed to the destruction of the organism, which gradually used up its stores of fat, muscle mass, and the tissues of the internal organs. This led to emaciation and starvation sickness, the cause of a significant number of deaths in the camp. A prisoner suffering from starvation sickness was referred to as a ‘Musselman,’ and could easily fall victim to selection for the gas chambers.”
Although millions of people didn’t survive, this 300 grams of rye bread proved to be a life saver. In fact, rye bread has many health benefits that other bread counterparts don’t share. For example, rye bread has a large amount of fiber and healthy bioactive compounds. Also, compared to other types of bread, rye bread has a lower glycemic index (meaning it doesn’t increase blood sugar levels after consumption as quickly as other breads would). Thus, it is a great choice for anyone looking for a healthy alternative to white bread.
A Survivor’s Story
There is an incredible story of Sigmund Jucker, a young Polish-Jewish baker who was sent to Auschwitz, with all his siblings and parents during the war. Over there, his meals were so measly and erratic, that he would sometimes subsist on a single piece of bread a day. As a matter of fact, one of his brothers became so weak and famished that he nearly died in the camp. In a touching show of altruism and compassion, Jucker often gave his brother his own piece of bread to help him regain strength, while living on four small potatoes for the day and working in hard labour.
Their parents tragically did not survive, but after Auschwitz was liberated, the three brothers and their sister reunited, and moved to the US in 1949. In Houston, they founded a bakery, going back to what they did during their childhood in Poland. It is now a family-run business, now mostly operated by the new generation of the Jucker family. They bake their family’s traditional bread recipes, the old-fashioned way, including, of course, rye bread.
As you can see, bread is the connecting thread of this whole story, whether in tiny portions in the concentration camp or in large quantities in their family bakery, reminding them both of the worst and best times of their lives, yet always serving as a hopeful symbol.
Types of Rye Bread
A staple for thousands of years, rye grows primarily in Eastern and Northern Europe. This explains why it is particularly appreciated in Scandinavian, German, Baltic, Slavic and Jewish cuisines, both as breads and as desserts. Let’s take a look at how rye’s earthy, rich and dark taste can be used in delicious different type of bread creations:
- Straight Rye Bread: To begin with, pure rye bread (also called black bread) contains only rye flour, without any added wheat. It has a very long shelf-life, which can last entire months, meaning it’s a great companion for long hiking trips, boat rides and hunting expeditions. Because of its rich taste, it’s usually sliced very thin. You can use it as sandwich bread, and it goes particularly well with smoked fish and caviar. Its sub-varieties often depend on the country of origin. There is the German-style pumpernickel, which has an even darker colour, and the Danish rugbrød (rye bread), typically made with sourdough, with either 100% rye flour or mixed with whole and/or cracked rye kernels. By the way, for more information about sourdough bread, check out our previous blog post.
- Multigrain Rye: It is fairly common to combine rye with other grains and seeds, resulting in an even more rich and hearty loaf of bread. In southern Germany and Switzerland, for example, you can often find a local bread called Vollkornbrot, which translates to “brown bread”. It is a rye bread with added grains and sunflower seeds instead of the rye seeds. Some traditional recipes also substitute whole wheat grains for the rye grains.
- Flatbread: It is a type of bread made with flour, one kind of liquid (whether water, milk or yogourt), and salt. They are usually not leavened, or only slightly, which gives them their characteristic flatness once they’re baked. In the case of rye flatbread, the rye flour used can be either yeast-fermented or sourdough-fermented.
- Crispbread: This type is similar to flatbread, except it is only made with rye, not wheat, and has an extremely low water content (only 5-7%), which gives it a long shelf life. Most of the crispbread produced in Scandinavia is left to ferment for 3-4 hours, then baked. Afterwards, air is incorporated into the cooled dough, giving the dough the right texture and its final white colour. Sourdough crispbreads are popular in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and India.
- Quick Bread: These are store-bought boxes in which rye flour is added to a pre-made batter or dough. It’s all ready for you to whip up a great loaf of rye bread for your guests. You can even say you made it from scratch, and they will be none the wiser
- Jewish Rye Bread: As you may already know, rye bread is a staple in Jewish communities. Every smoked meat deli will always offer sandwiches in thin slices of this tasty bread. But did you know that this bread is different from the ones mentioned above? It is a special Jewish sort of bread. Actually, there is more than one kind of Jewish rye bread. They vary greatly depending on the Jewish diaspora country of origin.
- US: This bread is sometimes called Sissel bread, meaning caraway seed in Yiddish. Unlike pure rye bread, this one is a mix of wheat flour and rye, sometimes with an addition of sourdough. It is then seasoned with caraway fruits (the thin seeds you sometimes see on top of the loaves) and glazed with eggs. This recipe is influenced by Ashkenazi Jewish recipes from Russia, Poland and Latvia.
- Israel: Israeli rye bread is similar to its American counterpart, except that it is sometimes softer in texture, and is a bit more moist.
- Canada: There is a plethora of types of rye bread available in Canada, especially in cities with large Jewish populations, such as Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. For example, there is a Winnipeg-style bread made with wheat flour and rye meal, without caraway seeds.
Rye Based Desserts
- Layered Rye Bread (Rupjmaizes Kārtojums): To begin with, pure rye bread (also called black bread) contains only rye flour, without any added wheat. Moving onto desserts, this is a traditional Latvian dessert made from rye breadcrumbs, blackcurrant or lingonberry jam, and whipped cream. It is topped off with grated dark chocolate, sometimes with cinnamon, and often served with fresh berries and cottage cheese ice cream. Sounds amazing!
- Rye Bread Pudding (Maizes Zupa): Another Latvian tradition, this is a delicious way to use leftover rye bread. This sweet pudding enhances the bread’s tangy flavour with the addition of spices and dried fruits.
- Icelandic Rye Bread Ice Cream: Icelandic Rye Bread is also called Rúgbrauð. This bread is one of the traditional foods eaten in Iceland. It is dark, quite dense, and sweet, best enjoyed with melted butter poured on top! This dessert is made with crumbled rye bread, brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream.
- Ukrainian Kvasha: A cake made with kvass (fermented cereal-based low alcoholic beverage with a slightly cloudy appearance, light-brown colour and sweet-sour taste), dried fruits, rye bread and nuts.
As you can see, you can make desserts out of this bread or use it as sandwich bread. The possibilities are endless. With so many types available, you’ll definitely find the right loaf for your kitchen table. To search for a warm and freshly-baked rye bread from your local bakery, your best bet is to find it at Dessert Advisor.