Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chapter Excerpt: The Smell of Fresh Bread -- Part II


Toward sunset the following evening, I stationed myself in front of the boarding house where my brother had his bed. I didn’t know whether he would come directly home or go to the synagogue, first, but I wanted to take no chance of missing him.

It was getting dark already when I noticed two ragged, human skeletons dragging themselves along the pavement. They moved on scrawny, tottering legs and seemed, every so often, barely to be able to keep each other from pitching face down into the mud, so paralyzed were they by lack of sleep. It took me some time to recognize one of the ghosts as my brother.

I threw my arms around him but he gave me a blank look and continued shuffling forward, as if afraid to lose his momentum.

I cried, “Mordechai, it’s me, your brother, Jacob.” But he and his companion kept on. No doubt if he’d had any strength left in his body he would have thrown me off him.

I followed closely behind, ready to catch my brother when he fell, but he somehow made it up to the attic and lurched into the dormitory. Before he could lie down, I grabbed his arm and once again tried to remind him who I was.

He peered at me with eyes no longer able to focus. Finally, he extended a limp hand covered with flour and dough and told his landlady, “Give him to eat.” Then he fell on his bed as though he’d been shot.

To tell the truth, I was beginning to feel a little unwelcome. Here it was Shabbos, the day of rest that Mordechai was enjoying, but also the one day in the week on which it is forbidden to fast. And while tonight I might have inherited Mordechai’s portion, my brother’s condition and that of the other bakery boys, combined with their snores that sounded like trains getting up steam at a railroad station, killed my appetite.
Nevertheless, my last wakeful thoughts before falling into my own stupor were of utter contentment. Now that I had found my brother, I knew he would take care of me.


The moment Shabbos was over, Mordechai, true to his word, took me back with him to his bakery and saw to it that I got a job.  By the time the night was over, I’d already begun to get a picture of what it meant, back in those simple, unspoiled days, to be a baker’s apprentice. Then I understood why, even among boys as hungry and homeless as myself, the kind of person who voluntarily became a baker was considered half-dead, no longer a human being.

My brother had come to Warsaw innocently, ready to take on any kind of honest work, but after hungering for several days, simply had been attracted by the smell of fresh bread. Almost at the moment he set foot in the store, half-hypnotized by the intoxicating odors, he found himself signed up for an apprenticeship of three years. That meant his work and time belonged totally to a master who, for the first two years, was under no obligation to teach him anything at all.

At the time, a good working day could run twenty-two or even twenty-four hours. To make up for this, however, you were free all Friday night and all day Shabbos until sundown. However, the moment after havdoloh separated day from night, and the sacred from the profane, the boys panted back to the bakery like condemned souls being lashed by demons and didn’t see sunlight again till the end of the week.

Unlike in New York (whose bakeries, several decades earlier, had already had steam driven machinery), all the kneading, mixing and baking in Warsaw at the turn of the century still was done by hand. In addition, wood had to be chopped for the ovens, barrels of water hauled from the well, and flour from two hundred-pound sacks dumped into huge vats and kneaded by hand by bakers asleep on their feet.

I remember the shock it gave me the first time I saw my brother and two other boys immersed in and struggling through a swamp of flour and water while the sweat ran freely off their brows and arms and into the dough. One of them, you’ll forgive me for mentioning it, had a runny nose adding its steady drip to the mixture. The quality of baked good produced under such conditions I leave to your imagination.

The following week, when my brother told me of a slightly better job available at another bakery, I thanked him kindly and decided to pass it up. In fact, hungry as I was, it took some time before I could once again sink my teeth heartily into a chunk of fresh bread.

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