In a recent class, we talked about using seeds from real life to create fictional stories. At first, I asked everyone to tell a true story with one lie in it. Then I had them write a story about their mother or father; the piece was to be based on truth, but be at least ¼ fiction. In the final prompt, I asked the class to create a story about one of their grandparents, based on a kernel of fact, with the resulting story mostly imagined.
This is the piece I wrote about my grandfather. All I knew for sure were the bare bones of the story. I made up the rest. It was a very satisfying exercise.
I got my last name because my grandfather, Joe Budjakovski, was a young Jewish boy living in the Pale, the area that spread between Russia and Poland at a time when there were still pogroms, where soldiers still thundered in on their horses and killed for the pure pleasure of it, a time when soldiers burned the meager fields of the farmers and took the prettiest girls and raped them in the fields, leaving them disgraced, disfigured, or dead.
Joe’s grandfather was a learned man, a rabbi. His rules were strict and unyielding. All 613 commandments of the Talmud were followed. There was no room for deviation. No room to dream. And Jewish young men in that harsh land were destined for conscription in the Russian army which meant being worked to death, a sentence of hard labor on the frozen steppes with inadequate food, shoes, clothing, shelter. It was a death sentence. If the enemy soldiers didn’t kill you and hunger didn’t take you, and you didn’t freeze to death on sentry duty, then one of your fellow soldiers, who didn’t like Jews or wanted a little sport might slit your throat in the quiet of the night.
Joe Budjakovski wanted more than the life that was before him, so at age 12, in the dead of night, he stole away from his village, the only village and the only people he had every known. He carried nothing more than a small bundle of bread and some turnips and a warm cloak his mother slipped him at the last minute while secretly urging him away and making the sign of blessing over his head. Joe walked across those vast steppes, he walked through his shoes, the only pair he had, he walked until his feet bled and then he finally made his way to England, where like other boys, he ended up begging on the streets, his dream of coming to America slipping away as his stomach tightened and his mind turned feral, hell bent on survival.
One day, when he was begging on the street, a tall thin man with a neatly trimmed beard and kind eyes looked down at the boy shivering below him. “Where are you from?” he asked.
My grandfather, who had a quick mind and had already learned the rudiments of English, told him the truth. “I came all the way from Russia,” he said.
The man looked at him more closely. “And your family?”
“In Russia,” the boy replied. “I walked here alone.”
“Walked?” the man said, looking more closely at the sinewy strength of the young boy, at the clear determination in his eye, at the thin bonyness of him, the sunken cheekbones, the pride that shone from his eyes.
“And why, may I ask, did you walk all the way here from Russia?”
“I want to go to America,” my grandfather said, “Where the streets are paved with gold.”
“If you don’t freeze to death first,” the man said, and with that he extended his arm to the teenager who was my grandfather, “come, let me feed you.” And he led him down an alley and up a wide street, across a field and into a neighborhood full of shops. As they walked up the street, Joe smelled the most wonderful aroma. It was warm and rich, alive and inspiring. It aroused the greatest hunger he had ever known and reminded him of his mother. Tears stung his eyes and he quickly blinked them back. He could not afford to remember. He could not afford to cry.
The man took out a key and opened a large worn wooden door, and when Joe Budjakovski stepped inside, he gasped. The room was full of vast ovens and on every counter were dozens of loaves of freshly baked bread. His mouth watered, and the man sat him down at a wooden table and said, “Hold on there, boy, I’ll let you eat your fill.” And he pulled out a rough-hewn plate and took down a loaf of rich twisted wheat and a knife. He filled a small bowl with sweet butter and took out a jar of jam, and he laid them down in front of my grandfather, who silently devoured it all, bite by bite, slice by slice, crumb by crumb. The man placed a glass of fresh milk, rich with cream in front of him, and he drank that, too. Joseph ate too fast, and his stomach roiled, but he could not help it.
As he ate, the man watched and his eyes grew soft. He had lost his son ten years earlier when young Jackie ran out on to the street and was lost to the wheels of a cart. The baker’s wife had not been able to survive the death of her son and she died of consumption three years later. Since then, the baker had lived for his work and guarded his heart, pounding his grief into each loaf of bread. As he watched the great bowls of yeasted dough rise, he tried to loosen the grief that raged inside him.
This Russian boy, this bright, determined, starving, heedless boy was the age his son would have been. And so as he watched Joseph shovel the food into his mouth as fast as he could, he made an offer that would change my grandfather’s life forever. “Would you like to sleep here?” he asked. “We could make a pallet under the ovens where it’s warm.”
Joe couldn’t believe his luck, and said, “Yes, yes, and maybe I could sweep up for you tomorrow.”
And so it began. Young Joe became an apprentice baker and he lived in the baker’s house sleeping under the ovens for the next six years. The baker, whose name was Davis, paid him fair wages, and Joe saved his money for passage to America.
Finally, when he was twenty, he said goodbye to the man who had saved his life and booked passage in steerage to start his new life. And when he got to Ellis Island and was asked for his name, he decided to shed his old name forever, to let go of the cold Russian winters and the harsh tirades of his father, and to honor the man who had edged him toward him dream. “My name is Joe Davis,” he said.