Barak Levi Olins of Zu Bakery, courtesy of The Bakery Diaries

Bread. It conjures up all sorts of things. Crusty, hot and fresh. Slang for money. A 70s rock band. But for baker Barak Levi Olins, it brings up something else altogether. The Holocaust.

Owner of Zu Bakery in South Freeport, Maine, Olins approaches breadmaking like an artist, as he should. After all, bread is his life’s work, and bread is the staff (and stuff) of life. Five years ago he had an art installation that was borne of an epiphany he had. Art history professor Rebecca Duclos discusses it here:

“Firing across associative junctions that link bread to the body, utensils to weapons, and his own baking oven to the crematoria of the Holocaust, Olins’ work is at once visceral, poetic and neuralgic,” she writes.

“His installation at Whitney Art Works consists of three separate pieces in diverse media. Together a video, sculpted tools, and Olins’ homage to a baking oven express aspects of the physical and mental space in which the artist-baker himself labors every day. Olins’ own bread oven has come to represent an inevitable and inextricable connection between himself and the Holocaust, an extraordinary link that at first took him by surprise:

“The realization came from when I was building my bread oven and realizing that if I ever had to repair that thing I would have to climb inside of it. And then I had this incredible reaction, almost like a sense of suffocation or something. I didn’t realize right away why I had that reaction. I’m not inherently claustrophobic. Then I started to put it together.”

Duclos continues: “Olins acknowledges the ‘poetically dangerous’ territory that his work circumscribes. His determination to make conscious and make tangible the unthinkable leap between bodies burning and bread baking is disturbing precisely because it is so raw, so purely possible. Barak Levi Olins lives with this possibility every day he bakes.”

My friend Amy Halloran, an urban homesteader in upstate New York, met Olins at The Kneading Conference in Maine a couple of weeks ago. She sent me a link to his bio and told me, “Barak has such a lovely presence, I liked him right away. And he mills Maine grains for his bread, so I loved that. Then I read is bio and I thought, ‘This guy is a charm! The bread bomb!'”

Olins doesn’t mention on his site whether or not he has a direct link to the Holocaust but as a Jew, it’s a visceral connection to make, that of working the ovens to cremate fellow Jews and other prisoners in Auschwitz and then here in the States 70 years later baking bread for fellow Jews and people in the community. It’s uncomfortable to think about and write about but I’m pleased Olins was compelled to put it out there. Only wishing he would bring the installation here to New York. I, for one, would make a point to see it.