Mieczko the Baker
Zbigniew Mzlateslavski and the Abbot of Konstantin stepped out of the rectory into the bright morning sunlight. Mzlateslavski’s carriage stood ready, the horses pawing impatiently at the dust of the courtyard. The driver leaped down from his bench atop the carriage and opened the door for his passenger.
Across the courtyard the boys were enjoying the fresh air under the watchful eyes of the monks. One group was running races, while another stood off to the side casting furtive glances at the carriage that would soon be venturing out into the fabled world beyond the massive monastery walls. The two priests stopped to bid each other farewell beyond the earshot of the driver.
“I wish you a safe and speedy journey, Father Zbigniew,” said the abbot.
“Thank you, Father Kleofas. My prayers are with you. Farewell.”
The two men shook hands.
“Farewell and good luck,” said the abbot.
Mzlateslavski stopped at the open door of the carriage to take one last look at the boys. His eyes searched out the ones he had helped bring here, although none of them knew of the role he had played in their lives.
They were fine boys, chosen carefully and well, thought Mzlateslavski as he waved to the abbot and pulled the door shut behind him. The carriage rolled out into the countryside, and the gates of the monastery swung shut.
Krzystoff Papka stood staring at the closed gates long after the carriage had departed. After a while, Gregor Tal came over and suggested he join in the boys’ games, but Krzystoff just shook his head and walked off.
Over the next few weeks, Krzystoff became more and more withdrawn. His unruly behavior disappeared, but so did his high spirits. His appetite also seemed to have disappeared. He no longer ate anything but fruit, vegetables and some of the warm fresh bread that was delivered daily to the monastery. He began to lose weight, and his face became hollow-eyed and gaunt. In his spare time he would sit on his bed, staring at the stone walls and speaking to no one, lost in thoughts known only to himself. The monks took all this as an encouraging sign that Krzystoff had finally come to his senses; silence and fasting were probably his own way of repenting for his sins and transgressions. Only Gregor Tal made any attempt to draw his troubled friend into conversation but with no response.
Early one morning, as the predawn light pushed against the starlit sky, Gregor Tal was awakened by a thudding sound. Through half-closed eyes he saw Krzystoff Papka, fully dressed, bending over a chair he had apparently knocked over in the dark. Noiselessly, Krzystoff returned the chair to its place and looked anxiously about the room. Apparently satisfied that no one had heard him, he slipped out of the room and closed the door gently behind him.
Gregor Tal lay fully awake, wondering where his friend had gone. The dawn spread into the darkened room and still Krzystoff had not returned. Gregor Tal nodded to sleep. When he awakened to the sound of the morning bell Krzystoff was back in his bed fast asleep.
That evening Gregor Tal went to bed early, determined to waken at the slightest sound. Tired because of his disturbed sleep of the night before, he fell asleep immediately. Several times during the night he awoke with a start and looked over at Krzystoff, but the dark form of his friend lay motionless on the bed. However, when he awoke again with the predawn light, he could see Krzystoff stirring. Feigning sleep, Gregor Tal watched his friend get out of his bed, dress stealthily and slip from the room. This time Gregor Tal was determined to wait up for his friend to return.
Drowsiness tugged at Gregor Tal’s eyelids, but he refused to let himself fall asleep. He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed in an effort to keep himself awake. Several times, he was on the verge of giving up and going back to sleep, but each time his curiosity prevailed.
After more than an hour Krzystoff returned, tiptoeing into the room so as not to disturb the others. The old spirit and animation were written all over his face, only more so. He cast a furtive glance around the room to reassure himself that no one had noticed his departure and return. Then he quickly got into his bed and was instantly asleep.
Gregor Tal looked at the peaceful features of his sleeping friend in total perplexity. What was the meaning of this? Where was he going and what was he doing on these early morning excursions?
The next day, Krzystoff was once again withdrawn and remote. Without admitting what he had seen the night before, Gregor Tal tried to draw some information out of Krzystoff but with no success.
When Krzystoff once again slipped out of the room during the predawn hours of the following morning, Gregor Tal was ready. He had gone to bed in his clothes, and as soon as the door closed behind Krzystoff, he jumped out of his bed and set off after his friend.
Krzystoff was just going down the stairs when Gregor Tal stepped into the hallway. The monastery was totally silent, and Gregor Tal took off his shoes to muffle the sounds of his footsteps as he followed Krzystoff. When he came to the bottom of the stairs he thought for a moment he had lost sight of Krzystoff, but then he saw him sneaking along the shadowy walls of the broad candlelit corridor leading to the kitchen. Gregor Tal smiled to himself as he saw that Krzystoff was also carrying his shoes in his hands and tiptoeing down the corridor.
Suddenly there was the sound of laughter, and two monks emerged from the kitchen and started down the corridor. Krzystoff Papka immediately vanished into one of the many archways along the corridor, as if he were accustomed to doing this. At the other end of the corridor, Gregor Tal followed suit. He pressed himself into an archway, heart pounding violently and hardly daring to breath, until the monks had passed by and gone up the stairs.
When Gregor Tal stepped back into the corridor he could see that is friend, Krzystoff, had stopped a few paces before the kitchen and seemed to be listening intently to the sounds of activity that emanated from there. Then he saw Krzystoff slip through the last door on the right side of the corridor and disappear from sight.
The last two doors on the right side of the corridor, as well as one of the kitchen doors, opened into a small courtyard, surrounded by hedges, between the back of the monastery and the high walls. Deliveries to the kitchen came though the gates to the main courtyard and then around to the small courtyard behind the building. Gregor Tal slipped through the second to the last door and peeked out. An open cart stood by the kitchen door, the old gray mare hitched to it almost blending into the gray morning light. The cart was filled with long loaves of bread.
Presently, the kitchen door opened. A monk emerged along with a strange looking man. The man was middle-aged, with a straggly black beard thickly flecked with silver. A cloth cap was pushed back revealed a closely cropped head, except for two thick strands of hair that grew out of each temple and were tucked behind his ears. He looked very different from the monk with his shaven scalp and face, and single fringe of hair around his head.
“You are a good baker, Mieczko,” said the monk. “Go on. You can take your rest now. Are you sure you don’t want some of our excellent wine? It will warm your insides.”
“No, thank you,” said the man. “You always ask me, and I always decline. Why do you keep asking me?”
The monk laughed.
“One always has to keep trying with the Jews,” he said. “Maybe one day you’ll accept.”
“Never!” said the man, shaking his head emphatically.
Gregor Tal stared at the kindly face of the man. A Jew! So this was what a Jew looked like!
He watched as the baker went behind the hedge near the wall and lay down on the ground to rest. Still laughing, the monk returned to the kitchen.
As soon as the door closed behind the monk, Krzystoff emerged from his hiding place and ran across the courtyard to where the baker was resting on the ground, partially obscured from view by the hedge. They both moved further behind the hedge to where they were completely out of sight.
Gregor Tal stayed in his hiding place. Although he could no longer see them, if he strained his ears he could hear the faint murmur of their voices.
The morning brightened, and the activity in the kitchen increased. Gregor Tal fidgeted in his doorway, not wanting to leave, yet increasingly afraid to stay. After what seemed like an interminable time, Krzystoff stuck out his head and began to look around. Apparently, he was ready to return. Gregor Tal breathed a sigh of relief. He stopped back into the corridor and hurried back to his room. As soon as he had gotten into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin Krzystoff came back into the room. He seemed excited, almost elated, as he hurriedly got into his bed and closed his eyes. Soon he was fast asleep, but Gregor Tal lay awake for a long time before he too succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep.
Late that afternoon, the boys found themselves together pulling weeds from the abbot’s rose garden. Several times, Gregor Tal tried to start a conversation, but each time Krzystoff answered in distracted monosyllables.
“Krzystoff, my good friend,” he said, reluctantly resorting to the direct approach. “What could you possibly have to talk about with a Jewish baker behind the kitchen hedge in the early morning hours?”
A sharp cry escaped from Krzystoff Papka’s lips, and he looked at Gregor Tal with fear in his eyes.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Krzystoff,” said Gregor Tal hastily. “We have known each other all our lives. I am your friend. You must trust me. I will not reveal your secret. Do you believe me?”
Krzystoff swallowed nervously and nodded.
“I’ve seen a great change come over you this past month,” continued Gregor Tal. “At first. you became unusually wild and rebellious, and then you seemed to step out into another world. Suddenly, you became docile. You stopped talking to people. You stopped smiling. You even stopped eating. I know you weren’t doing this to repent for you sins, as the monks thought. There had to be a much better explanation. Something had to be terribly wrong. Please tell me what it is. Perhaps I can help you. I want to help you. I am your friend.”
“Gregor, I know you meant well, but I wish you hadn’t followed me. In the end it can only mean a great deal of trouble for both of us. It would have been better if you hadn’t found out. How could you ever understand?”
“I can try, Krzystoff. I can try.”
“Very well, I’ll tell you. Many of us here in the monastery are orphans who were taken into the church when they were little more than infants. Most of us have no recollection at all of our parents or families, only what we were told, which I am sure is quite accurate in most cases. Other than that we know nothing about ourselves. Do you remember anything of your early childhood in Pszelitz?”
“Nor do I remember anything of mine. Except for one thing. I remembered that I spoke a different language as a child, a language that I never heard anymore but that I would surely recognize if I did. One night last month, I couldn’t sleep, and I wandered out to that little courtyard for some fresh air. I fell asleep sitting on the grass, and when I awoke one of the monks was talking to this unusual looking man next to a cart filled with bread. And they were speaking the language of my childhood! I recognized it instantly, beyond any shadow of a doubt. Then they switched back to Polish, and I heard the baker tell the monk that his Yiddish was excellent, as good as that of any Jew. Do you realize what this means, Gregor? It means that I am a Jew.”
The shock on Gregor Tal’s face made Krzystoff pause.
“Do you want me to continue?” he asked.
“Please do,” said Gregor Tal in a subdued voice. He was visibly shaken.
“It may be hard for you to understand this, Gregor, but I was happy when I discovered I was a Jew. It was the answer I was looking for, the key to the unhappiness that I myself could often not explain. Suddenly, I knew who I was and what I was. And I knew where I belonged. I was happy and tremendously curious. Do you understand?”
Gregor Tal nodded without conviction. He would try to understand for his friend’s sake.
“Well, after that I began to sneak down to the courtyard every morning. I noticed that Mieczko, whose real name is Moshe, by the way, would always lie down to rest for a while behind the hedge before making the trip back. I waited there for him. You see, I wanted him to teach me what it means to be a Jew. When I first told him who I was and what I wanted he was terrified, but then he took pity on me. Since then I have been seeing him every morning, six days a week. He doesn’t come on Saturday. It is the Shabbath, the Jewish day of rest. To avoid difficulties and complications, I have made him promise to tell no one of my existence until I have determined what course of action to take. No one at all.”
Krzystoff paused to gauge the effect of his words on his friend. A whole range of emotions played across Gregor Tal’s features, but curiosity seemed to be by far the strongest. Krzystoff was relieved.
“I can hardly believe what you are telling me, Krzystoff,” he said. His voice sank into a whisper.
“Tell me, are you allowed to tell me the things the baker told you. You know, about what Jews believe and what they do? Is it forbidden for you to tell me?”
For the first time Krzystoff smiled.
“I don’t think there is any harm in my telling you some things For instance, would you like to know why I have stopped eating anything except for fruit, vegetables and Mieczko’s bread?”
“You mean that had something to do with being Jewish?” asked Gregor Tal, his eyes growing wide in amazement.
“No, it’s not what you think,” said Krzystoff, barely able to contain his laughter. “Jews can eat most foods, but they have to be kosher. That means that they have to be prepared in a special way, according to Jewish law.”
“I see what you are saying,” said Gregor Tal, although he really didn’t see.
“Well, Gregor, I’ll explain it all to you later. Right now, we had better hurry and pull out all these weeds. It’s getting late and we’ve hardly done anything yet. And please, Gregor, don’t follow me tomorrow. If there’s anything you want to know you only have to ask me.”
“Don’t worry, Krzystoff,” said Gregor Tal, pretending to stifle a yawn with his hand. “I won’t follow you anymore. I need the sleep.”
The next few weeks flew by quickly. Krzystoff was a very bright boy, and in a short time he extracted almost all the information the simple baker had to offer.
Sometimes the baker had to consult with others and return with the answers to Krzystoff’s questions the following day. Quite often, he found himself hard-pressed to explain why a simple baker had suddenly become concerned with so many different questions about the Torah and Jewish life, but still, he kept his word not to say anything abut the Jewish boy in the monastery at Konstantin.
Krzystoff was happier during this period than he had ever been in his life. Whenever the baker became tired of being peppered with questions he would instead tell Krzystoff stories about the great Jewish leaders of past and present. The baker had an inexhaustible supply of stories full of sacrifice and heroism, and Krzystoff never tired of hearing them. And in the evenings, Krzystoff would tell Gregor Tal some of what he had discovered that day. For Krzystoff Papka it was a time of reawakening, for his friend Gregor Tal a tantalizing look into an exotic and forbidden world.
One evening, Krzystoff seemed very agitated. When Gregor Tal asked him if Mieczko had told him anything interesting that morning he brushed the question aside.
“Listen, Gregor,” he said impatiently. “I have something very important to discuss with you. Remember that I told you about the Talmud? Well, today I made a discovery. There is a copy of the Talmud right here! Right here in the monastery! It is kept in a small room in back of the library together with all sorts of other old books. I saw it this morning when I was with Brother Feliks. The word Talmudica was written in gilt letters right on the spine.”
“Did you open it?”
“Of course not. I couldn’t very well look at it right then and there. I don’t want to arouse any suspicions about me. But I’ll tell you one thing. I am determined to get it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that tonight I am going to steal it.”
“Are you serious?”
“I most certainly am.”
“But why take such a risk? For what purpose?”
“Gregor, you are a good and true friend, but how can you understand my feelings in this? I have just learned that I am a Jew, one of the chosen people, the oldest and most spiritual people in the history of the world, yet my only contact with my heritage is through a baker’s stories told behind a hedge in the kitchen courtyard. The Talmud will be my contact with my people and their history. When I hold it in my hands and look into it, as so many others have done before me, I shall truly be one of them. As for the risk, do not be overly concerned about that, my friend. I have a plan.”
“Was that the important thing you wanted to discuss with me?”
“That is very perceptive of you, Gregor. Yes, I need your help. I shall understand perfectly if you refuse.”
“Well, before I refuse let me at least hear your plan.”
“It’s really quite simple. Brother Feliks usually locks up the library about midnight. Once it is locked it is impossible to gain entry. However, in the last hour or so before he leaves Brother Feliks has a habit of dozing off in his chair. I intend to take the volume while he is asleep.”
“That is a very good idea. What do you need me for?”
“What if he wakes up while I am in the back room?”
“Go on,” said Gregor Tal suspiciously. “What would you have me do then?”
Krzystoff fidgeted. “Well, I was thinking that in that event, if it unfortunately comes to pass, perhaps you might be able to create some sort of diversion. You know, engage him in conversation or something of the sort. Perhaps if you had a sudden fit of cramps he would help you back to your room and I would be able to get away. Well, what do you say?”
“I agree on one condition. If Brother Feliks wakes up, and I am forced to distract him, you must leave the library without the volume. Otherwise, suspicion will fall on me when the volume is found missing.”
Krzystoff’s face brightened. “That is perfectly reasonable. I accept your condition.”
“One more thing, Krzystoff. Where will we look at it?”
“I’ve already thought of that, Gregor. We will look at it in the bell tower.”
Fortunately, there was no need for Gregor Tal to create any diversions. Brother Feliks’ chin remained sunken deep into his chest, his lips aflutter with his snores, as Krzystoff made off with the volume of the Talmud.
The boys raced to the bell tower and up the spiral staircase. They fell panting on the platform beneath the huge bell, Krzystoff clutching the volume to his chest, Gregor Tal holding the candles by which they would study it.
After a few minutes, when they had caught their breath and regained their composure, Gregor Tal lit one of the candles and they opened the volume.
To their surprise, the entire volume was written in an unfamiliar alphabet. They stared at the letters in puzzlement before they finally decided that these must be Hebrew characters. Gregor Tal thought that he might have once seen something vaguely similar, but he could not decipher even one word. Krzystoff’s first reaction was disappointment, but it quickly changed to delight. This just emphasized the richness and singularity of his heritage. Someday, he promised himself, he would understand Hebrew and be able to study the Talmud. In the meantime, it was enough to just look at the holy words and press them to his lips.
After a careful examination of the volume they discovered an inscription in Old Latin on the margin of one of the pages. Gregor Tal had no difficulty with the inscription. It described the volume as a handwritten copy of one of the tractates of the Talmud, written by Avraham Schreiber, in Rothenburg, Germany, in the year 1164, as a wedding gift for his son. There was no explanation of how it had come into the possession of the church. Nor was there an explanation of what had happened to the rest of this set of the Talmud.
Night after night, they would steal away to spend a few precious minutes with the priceless volume in the bell tower. Gregor Tal was a natural scholar, and he exhibited an especially strong astuteness in the actual text of the volume. The pages became stained with the tallow drippings from the candles by whose light he searched for a pattern or something he might understand. One night, as they were sitting in the bell tower, Gregor Tal looked up from the volume to see Krzystoff staring at him with a very solemn look in his eyes.
“Is something the matter, Krzystoff?” he asked.
“Gregor, my friend, I am afraid that tonight I shall have to say good-bye to you. You have been a wonderful friend, the best friend anyone could possibly ask for, but I must go join my people. That is where I belong. I think I have prepared myself sufficiently, and I have made my plans. Tomorrow Mieczko will bring the bread in a large cupboard, and when he leaves I will be concealed under the driver’s bench. I will go to Warsaw which is far away from here. They shall never find me. Not even Mieczko knows that I go to Warsaw, only you.”
Gregor Tal felt the tears spring to his eyes.
“I shall miss you very much, Krzystoff. Life will be dull around here without you. But it was inevitable that you would leave. I knew it all along. It is the right thing for you to do. Perhaps we shall meet again someday. And remember, Krzystoff, I shall always be your friend.”
“Thank you, Gregor. The most cherished possessions I take with me tomorrow are your friendship, and the volume of the Talmud.”
Krzystoff noticed the look of involuntary disappointment that flashed across Gregor Tal’s face. He had been expecting Krzystoff’s departure, but it had not crossed his mind that the volume of the Talmud would leave along with him. Krzystoff hastened to reassure him.
“I know how attached you’ve become to this volume, but at this point, I need it more than you do. In fact, when things quiet down you can even ask Brother Feliks to teach you the Talmud. Perhaps if we meet again someday I will be able to offer it to you as a gift of gratitude, but in the meantime, who knows where and how long I must wander before I find my destiny? The volume will be my friend and my strength wherever I go.”
Gregor Tal nodded. “You have a lot of courage, Krzystoff. I know that you will be successful in whatever you do and that you will be a credit to your people. I am proud to be your friend.”
The boys spent the rest of the night talking together. Before dawn, they bid each other farewell and good luck, and Krzystoff went alone to the kitchen courtyard. He lay huddled under the driver’s bench as the cupboard rumbled through the main courtyard and out the monastery gates. Only when the gates of the monastery had closed behind them did Krzystoff Papka fall into a deep sleep.
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