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A Decent Man Bakes Kifle

May 19, 2010

Milecova Pekáreň, Paul's bakery in Pivnice, 1930's

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl*

Paul had survived harsh imprisonment during the war (a POW camp in WWI), years of battle in Russia, a six month walk home across Siberia, expropriation at the hands of unprincipled bankers and the deaths of seven children. Paul realized that although he had endured and lost so much, he still had the love of his wife Maria, and his daughter Pauline, and the choice of how he was going to move forward.

100 year old bakery

And so shortly after the death of his eldest son Ludwig, and for the first time in over six years, Paul got up early one morning before sunrise and walked into town to the Milecova Pekáreň, his bakery in Soljani.   On the window of his bakery he hung a black piece of paper, a notice announcing the death of Ludwig from typhus (unfortunately the window was littered with such notices).  And then he picked up an apron, wrapped the ties around his waist, and began to do what he had been trained to do as a young apprentice in the 1890’s; he baked kifle.

Croissants Tyler and I made at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, 2009 (before we knew of our long kifle family history)

Kifle are small, crescent shaped little miracles made with but a few simple ingredients: flour, yeast, milk, eggs, salt and butter.  It takes skill to turn them out just right – the right flakiness, the right crumb, the right buttery smell, the right melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

People would line up at the bakery counter each morning for Paul’s kifle, and late in the afternoon the counter would be besieged by school children who craved the buttery sweetness of the little half moon rolls.  I recently met Julka Klucik Makish who as a school child had had his kifle every day nearly 90 years ago;  she swooned at the memory of his crescent rolls, and said she had never tasted one as good in all the years since.

Paul Milec's 1907 border crossing from Montreal into the US. Note that it says he's a baker from Soljani, Austria. Also lists his mother and father.

The kifle is the original croissant.  According to Larousse Gastronomique, legend has it that when the Turks invaded Vienna in 1683 (I have also seen Budapest mentioned, in 1686), bakers were up late that night and heard the invaders digging an underground passage to the center of town.  The bakers sounded the alarm, the invaders were caught, and the city saved.  To commemorate the event, the bakers shaped their dough into crescents, the shape of the emblem on the Ottoman flag.  They called these crescent rolls “kipfel”; in Slovak, they are called “kifle.”

Perhaps she really said, "Let them eat kifle."

Kifle were introduced to Parisians either by the Viennese born Marie Antoinette in the mid 1700’s or by August Zang, a Viennese baker, in the 1830s, depending on which legend you believe.  While the French version of these crescent shaped rolls, the larger croissant, is mentioned in some books earlier, no written recipe has been found for them dated before 1906.  I am quite sure that Paul was making kifle as far back as the 1880’s in his family’s Soljani bakery, which was just a couple of hours from Vienna.

Bakery, early 20th century

Paul’s famous kifle had helped him earn enough money to send himself and Maria from Europe to the United States in 1907 and 1908.  His perfect little crescent rolls had played a key role in the growth and popularity of his successful bakery in Akron, Ohio, which he turned into a small fortune that enabled them to go back to Europe and live for the next decade. During WWI, as an officer in the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, he had turned boxcars into rolling bakeries that baked bread and kifle to the delight of the Legionnaires.  And now, one roll at a time, kifle would help lift his spirits and carry him forward once again.

Czechoslovak Legion Boxcar Bakery, WWI

In the 1920’s Paul expanded his bakery operation to nearby Bjelina, Bosnia where close friends and relatives helped run the shop; Paul would surround himself only with the decent people who had stood by him through the difficult years, and whom he trusted. During the depression, he sold his two bakeries, moved the family to Pivnice a couple of hours away and opened up yet another bakery, which was again popular and known as the best bakery in town.  The advancement of Hitler’s army into Austria in 1938 was a warning sign to Paul and his family; they reluctantly closed their last bakery and fled to Canada on one of the last trains out of Yugoslavia before the borders were closed, marking the end of Paul’s professional career in kifle.

*About Viktor Frankl:

Viktor Frankl, 1940's

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905; he would later become a best selling author and well known Holocaust survivor.  He and his wife were sent to concentration camps during WWII; Viktor survived five such camps, including Auschwitz, and was finally liberated from a work camp affiliated with Dachau in 1945.  His wife did not survive her internment in Bergen-Belsen.

Viktor would often say that even within the concentration camps, he saw only two kinds of men: decent ones and unprincipled ones.  He found they existed across all classes, races and groups.

During his stay in the camps, he searched for meaning in life, and came to the realization that even in the most devastating circumstances, man can experience happiness and the will to live, and that love is the one thing that can fulfill man, even when one’s life has been stripped of everything else.

“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” Viktor Frankl

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth Stacey permalink
    May 19, 2010 1:28 pm

    Tonya, these little bits of family history are amazingly delightful. I had no idea that any of this had happened. I love you tons and I appreciate SO MUCH what you are doing. It has given me an entirely new light in which to see my grand parents. I really like the addition about Victor Frankl – it really puts things into perspective for all of our journeys. Love you! Aunt Ruth

    • May 19, 2010 1:38 pm

      Thank you – it’s so much fun. I am enjoying getting to know them better too. Lots of good stuff to come from the epic trip I am about to go on :). Stay tuned…

      • May 19, 2010 2:51 pm

        I just think, how and who keep all this photo in possession? In my family – near same things happen, grandpa brother left for Canada, some to Australia – and I’m in Israel – it is like virus! And more of it – I wish You to keep it (photo and all paperwork) intact – and hope that in near future we will be able to get printed version of Your book!

        best regards

      • May 20, 2010 1:17 am

        We were blessed with a few great traits in our family: the love of photography that has been passes on through 6 generations; the desire to preserve and share them; a closeknit family that has kept in touch across the generations, wars and travel to distant continents and countries; and the gift of family story telling.

        My father, grandfather, great grandmother and great great grandfather were especially intrumental in all this. My dad I the one who has shared all of this with me.

      • May 20, 2010 1:20 am

        We were blessed with a few great traits in our family: the love of photography that has been passes on through 6 generations; the desire to preserve and share them; a closeknit family that has kept in touch across the generations, wars and travel to distant continents and countries; and the gift of family story telling.

        My father, grandfather and great grandmother were especially instrumental in all of this. My dad is the one who has shared all of this with me throughout my life.
        I am working my way up to a book! I am on my way to Serbia and Slovakia now to gather more pictures and stories…

      • Stan permalink
        May 19, 2010 3:17 pm

        In his “Man’s search for meaning” there is a wonderful passage where he describes stumbling along in the dark and ice when he was in Auschwitz and thinking of his wife and how his love for her gave him the hope and meaning.I imagine that was how Paul survived his darkest moments on his long trip home, thinking about Maria and that love not only fulfilled man but gave him the strength to continue. Your story of his return is even more poignant in that context when he discovered that he was penniless. Thank you again for sharing such wonderful stories. I now fear that those mouth watering kifles will ruin my diet!!

      • May 20, 2010 1:11 am

        I love that passage, and I thought exactly the same thing. It was heart breakingly beautiful.

        Regarding kifle, I am sitting here in the Charles de Gaulle airport, and the croisssants are calling my name. I’m going on the Belgrade so I will have to test the kifle next. And then get a kifle making lesson so that I can post the recipe next.

  2. June 5, 2012 6:52 am

    Strange , this page turns up with a black color to it, what color is the primary color on your web-site?

  3. Noemi Galvan Bacik permalink
    October 18, 2012 3:44 pm

    Pailine, I would like to know how to find relatives, or city maps, and locate the house where my grandparents lived. My grandparents and my uncles lived on until 1936 Pivnice who came to America, Argentina. I wonder if in the registry or registration of citizens in the municipality or county, you can find the name and location where my grandparents lived. Thank you very much.

  4. January 3, 2015 12:40 pm

    I just subscribed to the blog & saw Pauks kifle. My husband had a grandmothers from Austra & Slovakia who took me under their wings & taught me how to make delicious traditional treats like kifle! I’m now passing the recipes on to my own grandchildren…

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