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STEALING THE STATE
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AN ORAL HISTORY
Copyright © 1983 Community Documentation Workshop
This story was taken down and edited by Arthur Tobier, with help from
Letta Schatz. Cover photo by Charlotte Schatz.
Published in June 1983 by the Community Documentation Workshop. Send
enquiries (along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope) to: Community
Documentation Workshop, St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 2nd Avenue at
10th Street, New York City 1()()()3.
STEALING THE STATE
AN ORAL HISTORY
I was born in 1896 in a small town-what they called a shtetl-in
the Ukraine. The name of the town was Brusilov and we lived there
in a very small house. For a shtetl, it was a good size. The Jews
lived in the center. The business section was laid out in a circle in a
radius of maybe a mile. During the market days the peasants would
come with all their things to be sold: chickens, eggs, vegetables.
Once a week there was a bazaar. It went on summer and winter.
Winters were harsh, but I remember as a kid liking winter very
much, especially when we were coming home from school. Smoke
was coming out of everyone’s chimney and the houses were all
covered with snow. The snow didn’t melt away as fast as it does
here: icicles would be shining from the tree branches. And there
were always a lot of children around. But frankly I only begin to
remember things for myself around the age of five in connection
with my younger brother, when I began to assume responsibility.
My father was much older than my mother; he must have been
about 60 when I was born. He came to Brusilov from Fastov when
he was a lad of 17. He was a blacksmith and worked in a village
about 10 miles away. He would go there Sunday night and come
back Friday afternoon for the Sabbath. For about 25 years, he
worked among the peasantry: a very strong man physically, who got
along well with the village. People used to call him the Uncle:
Uncle Ben. His name was Ben Zion.
My mother came from Zhitomir after she was married. Zhitomir
was a much bigger town: they already had the railroad there, which
signified that it was an important place.
I was the fourth child to my mother and the sixth of the living
ones of my father, since he was married before. His first two wives
died and the third one he divorced. My father buried about 14 or 15
children before I was born. He had only one remaining daughter
from the second wife and one from the third. When I was born, my
oldest sister was already married; she was my mother’s age and her
youngest daughter was my age. The other sister, Ritka, lived with
us, but by the time I grew up a little, she was working in another
My mother’s first child was a daughter. She was about 10 when I
was born. My older brother was eight years older than me and my
younger brother was four years older.
When I was about four years old, my mother gave birth to a boy,
but he didn’t live too long. Two years after he was born, there was
a measles epidemic in our town, one of many, which took him
away in the wintertime. I used to help my mother take care of him.
She would run off early in the morning to do her work and leave
the two of ·us. It was the first death that I experienced and it took a
while to get over. I remember it vividly because he was buried
according to Jewish tradition. The official buriers, the chavre
kadishm, came at night, took off his clothes and bathed him, and
then wrapped him in white. I suppose when it is a grown-up, there
is a bigger ceremony. This was just two men doing it. That scene
remains in my mind. I felt as if they had stolen him away from us.
There were about 300 kids who died during that epidemic and it
was only a small town. We didn’t have any medication and there
was only one doctor.
My father being that much older than my mother wasn’t in a
position to provide well for the family, and so my mother was
always figuring out ways of earning money. She became the official
milk lady of the town. She gathered milk from those who had cows
and more than they could use and sold it to those who did not have
any cow at all. Everybody called her · ‘Basya der Milchiger” –
Basya the Milkseller. Later on, in the winter. probably for the first
time in our town, she bought slaughtered geese, already cleaned up,
and sold them cut up to the families that could not afford a whole
bird. She learned how to cut up a goose and separate the skin and
the fat, and in that way people were able to enjoy the luxury of
having the meat of the geese.
Coming from a big city, she placed great value on education. I
seldom heard her cry, but when my older brother said he wouldn’t
go to cheder any more, it was a real tragedy for her. She decided
that wouldn’t happen with me. I don’t think she differentiated
between boys and girls. She had a feeling that I. as a girl, ought to
get the same privileges as the sons.
In the first years of the 20th century, there were no schools for
girls in our town. But a group of people, you might call them
intellectuals, created what they called a nonpaid school where the
Jewish children came and learned to read and write both Jewish and
Russian, and I started there.
Later on, my mother being anxious for me to get some kind of
education, rented out part of one of our two rooms to a Jewish girl
who was teaching Russian. The teachers in those days were young
men an~. women who had achieved a certain amount of knowledge
and would rent a room somewhere and conduct classes. The family
kept on living there as if nothing happened. On one wall was the
bench where the students were sitting-12 or 13 children-and on
the opposite wall was the bed and the little furniture that we had. I
learned Russian language and arithmetic there. The teacher was very
good and kind and encouraged me quite a bit.
One time when I was reciting a poem, one of the teacher’s friends
walked in and listened, and told her-he didn’t think that I could
hear him-that I had capabilities and wasn’t it too bad I couldn’t be
in official school. So after that I decided that I’ll try my luck in the
official Russian school.
The official school was quite a way from the city, and the entrance
exams were quite stiff. They had a quota of only 10 percent
who could be Jews. I figured it might be easier to apply for one
grade lower than I could have, and I encouraged two friends of
mine to do likewise. We made out the application and went there,
but when we arrived my friends got cold feet. So I was the first one
to walk in, and right then and there the principal of the school gave
me a question and I answered him. I suppose I had more nerve than
the others. The others followed me and our applications were accepted,
and in the fall I took my exam and passed and for three
years, between the ages of 12 and 15, I studied there.
I would seldom begin my lessons before ten o’clock at night.
Realizing that my mother gave me a chance to go to school, while
others worked at my age, I helped her in every way possible. I
helped her bring the geese home when she bought them from
places, and I learned to cut them up just like she did and sell them
when people came and she wasn’t home. Whatever free time I had,
I helped. If milk had to be collected or distributed, I did it. If
things had to be done in the house, I did it. Thursday nights I
washed the floors for the Sabbath. I mended the clothes for the
The school hours were from eight to three. The school was about
three miles away. In the morning, my father would often have to
strip the blankets and push me off the bed. That I remember! Off
went the covers and my feet were on the ground! I was a good
sleeper, a sound sleeper. But I was never late to school.
We did not normally feel anti-Semitism in school; it wasn’t
obvious, let’s put it that way. Maybe we felt it in our limited
numbers, but once a week the priest would come to teach the non-
Jewish students the Bible and we had the right to stay in or go out.
We went to school six days a week, including Saturdays. On
.Saturday they allowed us to present our lessons orally, so that we
wouldn’t have to write and violate the Jewish law of the Sabbath.
Everyone agreed, except one teacher, the one who taught arithmetic.
He was a fine teacher and we all liked him, but one day for some
reason he decided to ·make us write on Saturday. There were six of
us in the group and we told him we were not going to do it, we
had that privilege. He said he didn’t know about the privilege. He
wanted us to settle problems at the blackboard and even if we had
to write with .ou r fingers, we would still do it. I told him I could .
come up to the board and solve the problems orally, but that didn’t
satisfy him. He wanted blood, I don’t know why.
When school was dismissed for the day, we got together and gave
our papers and pencils to the other Jewish students who were going
home, so that we could claim that we had nothing to write with;
that was probably everybody· s first strike. He kept us until 5, and
we didn’t budge. But he took his revenge when exams came. An
exception cannot be made on exams, so he arranged the exam for
When that period of my schooling was over, my father asked me
whether I did write on the Sabbath. And I said-we had a good
relationship-“Why didn’t you ask me before, while I was at the
school? Why did you wait until I was through?” He said, “I didn’t
want you to sin twice: once to tell me a lie, and once in the actual
By the time I was 12 or 13, my father was pretty much an invalid,
confined to the house. He woke up one morning with a growth on
his eye and he had to be taken to Kiev and operated on. The operation
was said to be successful, but the bandage was made too tight
and, to make the story short, he lost that eye and could never work
as a blacksmith again. He was not completely blind, and helped my
mother in all the chores of her business, but then the other eye grew
bad and all he could do by himself was to walk about in the town.
Having a lot of time, he would study the chumesh with me, and
explain and interpret certain things. He would tell me a lot of
stories from the Bible, and in general I had more of him than either
of his sons. And for some reason, he appreciated my reasoning,
even as young as I was. Later on, if something happened, he would
say, “Let’s ask Sossel what her opinion is.” By nature he was a
very strict, straight-thinking man, but we had a very good relation-
ship. For a man like that, all of a sudden, even at the age of 70, to
get totally incapacitated, was a tragedy.
If the picture I’m painting looks grim, as though I did not have a
childhood, it is not accurate. In spite of the hours spent helping my
mother, there were still hours of play. In the winter, we’d go skating
on the frozen rivers. My brothers made skates for me out of
barrel staves. And, busy as my mother was, she found time to tell
me, even as a kid, all the different stories about her life, to tell me
fables, and to sing me songs. _In addition to that, whatever came to
the city, whether it was a circus or a play, she arranged for me to
see it. In other words, the approach to life was not by bread alone.
In fact, she imbued us with the understanding that riches or
possessions are not the biggest thing in the world. And I remember
a story she told when she wanted to encourage me not to give up
school; she’d learned it as a kid: There were a lot of merchants on
a ship. They noticed nobody but themselves, and the greater their
merchandise-, -the more they were noticed; no one was more respected
than they. In fact, no one else was given any respect. On the high
sea, a storm came up quite suddenly and everything went down.
Those who were saved came to a town. It was Saturday, and the
custom was to invite a traveler to lecture to the congregation. The
man who came up to speak was brilliant, but on the ship he had
gone unnoticed. “How come we didn’t notice you on the ship
before it went down?” the merchants wanted to know. The man
said, “The merchandise that I carry is the kind that doesn’t sink.”
In other words, if you acquire knowledge, nobody can take it away
from you. In her own simple way, my mother encouraged us to
reach for higher things in life.
The happiest time of the year was Passover. That’s when spring
arrived, and the double windows were taken out, and everything had
to be cleaned. Many times I’d get a new dress or a new pair of
shoes: that was a custom in the city. Before the Passover, we
worked very hard. There was a place where matzohs were made and
you engaged yourself to roll them for so much per pound. They
would start as early as 4 a.m. If the adults received pay of three
kopecks a pound, the children would get a kopeck and a half. I’d
stay there for about three hours and then run off to school. Once the
holiday came, it was like a new life began. The house got new
things and it was very festive; it was, in the fullest sense, a spring
festival. As the snow melted, it made mud everywhere, and there
would be boards put down so that you could cross the street. But by
Passover the mud would dry up and you could walk around.
There were harsh things around, but life wasn’t all bleakness and
ignorance. There were blacksmiths and carpenters, and craftsmen
who could carve. and leatherworkers who made fine things, and
many other skilled people. I don’t remember that many sad things.
One fragment of sad memory is from 1904, when I was nine. People
were being called up to service in the Russian-Japanese War. At
that particular time we were living in a street that was facing an
orchard, but a little further up, within three or four blocks. was the
market, and I can still hear the cries of the mothers when their sons
were taken to war. It was the biggest tragedy for a Jew to have a
son be taken into the army.
But then, when my brother went to be examined for the service,
it wasn’t sad. Not then. As far as my father was concerned, it was
a joy. He had lost a lot of children in his life and never thought
he’d see a son old enough to be taken to service. He walked out of
the house with him in a very proud way.
I wasn’t myself part of the revolutionary movement-I was too
young to be-but I was very aware of it. This teacher of mine.
Pessel Mechberg, the one who had the school in our house. was
already at that particular time part of the revolutionary movement.
part of the intelligentsia in our shretl. We had an illegal library in
our house and when I tried to read some of the books, she wouldn’t
let me. She said, “You won’t understand anything now. but when
you grow a little older. you ’11 know what it is all about.·’
They had meetings in our house. I don’t remember exactly what
they were talking about, but I was old enough to understand that
they were illegal meetings and many times I was asked to stand
outside and be on the lookout for police or strangers. We were
trained that nothing was told to others about what was going on.
One beautiful summer moonlit night something was going on at
the bazaar on the main street of the shtetl-I don’t know what-and
all of a sudden about five or six of the gendarmerie came with
rifles, looking for hidden revolutionaries. We lived in a small house,
the third house of a three-house complex, and they ran into the
other two and missed ours. It was hidden by a little orchard, and
they looked at us kids, but luckily they didn’t touch us or come in.
I say luckily because one of the young women residing in our house
was in the movement. The next night my mother took her over the
fields to another friend of ours. I didn’t realize it then, but later on
I learned that my mother was trusted by the revolutionaries and
since she was mingling in the whole town, they used her to transmit
certain messages. Anyway she saved the girl.
Pessel and the others were not teenagers; they were people between
20 and 30, and they didn’t look to me any different from
other men and women. And while I didn’t mix into what they were
talking about, I knew that during the same time there was unionization
going on: My brother was on strike. He worked for a shoemaker,
getting the tops ready for the soles. Everywhere there were
small strikes going on. In that small town, people used to work 12,
14 hours a day, and even more. The song the workers used to sing
was Mir will ‘n nicht arbiten fun acht bis acht: We will not work
from eight to eight.
This would be around 1908, when I was about 12. They were not
big businesses: maybe six, seven workers. But it was class struggle.
Class struggle was part of everyday life and it was something that
my mother helped me see.
When I was young I remember her urging my older brother, who
was 18, to go off to Odessa. He was working as a salesman in a
dry goods store, but for very little money. My mother realized that
he’d have more opportunity in a bigger city. In our small town, his
pay would never advance. Odessa is a big city on the Black Sea and
in those days it was called the Queen of the South. Unlike Kiev, the
Jews were allowed to live there and my mother urged my brother,
even if he had to struggle there, that it was worth it; he’d advance
more quickly, which was the case. After a year in Odessa, he came
back to Brusilov to work for the same store and the proprietor
doubled his wages. The same thing was to be true for my younger
My horizons were not that wide-at least when I was young.
Coming out into the world for me was going with my father to
Fostov, his birthplace, which was about 50 miles away, meeting
uncles andco usins ani th.egonin g ·with my mother to Zh1tomir _
where she was born. The coach from Brusilov to Zhitomir was like
a covered wagon and it took overnight. You started out in the
evening and had to pass through thick forests. There were all kinds
of stories about thieves in the forests but we never encountered
them. Also my oldest sister lived in another small town 25 miles
away and we’d go there at least once every two years: it was the
same shtetl but different. I knew there was a world outside of
Brusilov, but I was given to understand that it wasn’t attainable for
me. For instance, when I got through the Russian state school, the
next thing would have been to go to Kiev or a different big city and
continue, but we weren’t rich enough and, as Jews, we couldn’t go
You could go, but you couldn’t live there. You could only live if
you had special permission. You either had to be a rich merchant
and get those kinds of rights, or be an outstanding artisan who was
given the rights. But the average Jew couldn’t go and live there. It
was at that particular time when thoughts about America first came.
When I finished school on the primary level, I wanted to go
further. For awhile I studied with a teacher who had been through
the gymnasium in Kiev and who gave private lessons. Then I began
to teach Jewish children the Russian language. I taught in three
different chederim; that was the school where the rabbis were
teaching them. In one of the groups, the students were almost as old
as I was; what they called the gemorrah yinglach: teenagers. Some
days, I worked as many as nine or 10 hours going from one scliool
to another and then I had some private lessons to give.
I liked my work, but I wasn’t happy. I used to come home and
cry and my mother would ask me why. And I would say, how can I
teach children when I myself know so little? Frankly, as a teacher, I
knew as much as all the others who were teaching. And I got a lot
of satisfaction from taking kids who didn’t know anything, who
couldn’t read or write, and bringing them to the point of reciting a
poem or telling a story. Once one of the men considered to be
among the intellects in the city-he was himself an outstanding
teacher-asked me to teach his two daughters. I was quite flattered
by this offer. One of the girls, the older of the two, was a bit
slower, and I was determined to bring her to the same level as her
sister so that she could pass the entrance exam to the same school
from which I graduated, and I succeeded. When I was finally to
leave for the United States, her mother came to say goodbye to me
and gave me an embrace that I have never experienced in my life.
It was thanksgiving for what I had done. I gave the children what I
had. But I realized that I had very little to give.
Coming to America was my decision, but my mother helped me
to decide. She had a feeling that, as much as I meant to her, if my
own life was limited in Russia, where there was no further advancement
in school for me, then I should go out into the world. In
America, I could join my sister who was living there, and continue
At that time, we no longer had fantasies of finding gold in the
streets; my sister’s letters were not of that kind. Also, I was helping
mothers to send letters to their children, who were telling them
about life in the USA. So personally I didn’t come with a hope to
get rich. The idea was to get educated. So much so that later on,
when the Revolution had taken place, my mother wrote to me,
“You are writing to me about your work and about what you are
doing, but you never tell me that you are going to school. That was
the reason you left. The limitations you left Czarist Russia for are
gone now, so you can come back.”
But once I had left I never thought of going back. It took almost
a year and half from the time of making the decision to leave to
when I actually left. Everything I needed-the passport, the ship’s
card, the money-took much longer to arrange than I expected. But
then the time came and I remember that day very well. My father,
who was very old, knew that he would never see me again. One
night he woke up and began to cry. He said why don’t I wait until
he will die and then go. But I knew that if I changed my mind, I
would just be sitting there waiting for his death. So I said. ”Live as
long as you will be able to, and I will still go.”
In saying goodbye to my father, I was strengthened by the fact
that there was a houseful of people-neighbors and friends who had
come to see me off-and that I wasn’t a baby anymore. I was 18
years and of a mature age. He took it quite calmly and we kissed
goodbye. (When I came to America and told my sister that father
kissed me goodbye, she didn’t believe me; she said he never kissed
any of the children. When a lot of his children died, he made a
vow that he would forever deny himself the pleasure of kissing a
child. Kissing is a pleasure, and a vow not to kiss means to deny
yourself. He made the vow so as to have his children alive.)
With my mother, it was much sadder. She went with me to Kiev
where we were together for a few days. I had to wait for a train to
Warsaw, which connected with another train to Bremen, Germany,
which connected with the ship I sailed on. We stayed with a cousin
in downtown Kiev and on the very last evening-we were to leave
in the morning-some people came and warned us that there was
going to be a search. Those searches took place occasionally to
ascertain that no nonresident Jews were there. With my passport to
emigrate, I would have been allowed to live in Kiev for a few days,
but my mother wouldn’t. So we packed our belongings and in the
night walked to another part of downtown Kiev, to a friend whom
we knew from Brusilov.
That night remained with me forever. The whole incident of being
told on the very last night to leave the people that were your family,
to pick up your few belongings and flee to somewhere else, to
spend my last night with my mother that way illustrated the plight
of the Jews in Kiev.
We came to our friend’s and she accommodated us for the night.
The next morning, when my mother took me to the train and I was
saying goodbye, I broke down. She said, ”If you are going to cry,
I won’t say goodbye· to you.” In her own way, she was quite a
I came to America one month before World War I. And I soon
realized that I crossed the ocean, but everyone else was in the fire.
The first thing my sister told me when I landed in Philadelphia
was that from now on my name would be Sophie instead of Sossel.
She thought Sophie sounded more American. Her name had been
Rifka and it became Becky. I had to laugh, but Sophie stayed.
Home was an apartment in a practically new building in downtown
Philadelphia, with a shoestore downstairs and apartments on
the second and third floors. The apartment had modem plumbing, a
regular bathroom, three nice rooms, and a view of South Street, and
South Street was booming. It was a little overwhelming.
After two weeks, I went to work in a shop owned by a landsman,
which another landsman arranged for me. It was a shop where they
were making skirts and the job involved a lot of handwork: hemming
and sewing on buttons. I didn’t know how to sew but I
learned fast enough. The earnings were $3 a week-half of which I
gave to my sister for room and board-and I walked a half hour to
After six months I joined the Cloakmakers’ Union. Then a few
months later, at the beginning of 1915, I was taken into a waistmaker’s
job, making blouses. A year later, I was taken up to a shop
where they were making the complete dress and you could earn as
much as $4, $5 a day. Then I joined the Dressmakers and Waistmakers’
Union, Local 15. That was how things were moving during
As far as I am concerned, I liked Philadelphia. When I went to
New York one time to visit friends from Brusilov, the people I
visited knew less than I did and the ones that would come from·
New York to Philadelphia, I used to think, are bluffing. They made
believe they were doing wonders, but I personally felt that I was
lucky to come to a smaller town, where I could assert myself and
not be tom in different directions, and really begin to learn about
In 1915 I began night school at the Jewish Educational Alliance. I
attended five nights a week, from 7 to 9. The major thing was to
learn the language: to translate what we knew into English. We had
debates and discussions and after two years I officially graduated.
At the same time I was attending all kinds of lectures: on Zionism,
on anarchism, on socialism. My sister, taking care of her
home, her husband, and three small children, didn’t see beyond
taking care of physical needs, but the city was full of educational
opportunities. Broad Street had a big hall where every Sunday
afternoon a special lecturer would come and hundreds of people
would attend. Since on Sunday I didn’t work I would get up and
help my sister with household chores and then at 2 o’clock I’d leave
for the hall. The lectures were on labor, on immigration, on all
kinds of happenings. Once you were exposed to the issues, you
learned and you decided.
When we were through with night school, about 20 of us formed
an alumni and met about once a month. A good many of the people
involved were socialistically inclined and so we talked about
socialism and about the labor movement and about the theater. You
could go to the theater for very little and the plays were always
better than good: the classics as well as the modem writers like
Ibsen and Strindberg in Yiddish. When the Kerensky revolution took
place in March 1917, my night school group gathered in one house
and celebrated. It was an exciting time. It was all new. That was
about the time I joined the Socialist Party.
Not that I needed to be told anything about the class struggle. My
formal education here started with night school, but my informal
education started with the shop and my first strike. I was working
as an operator on dresses, piecework-which meant that what you
earned depended on how many garments you completed-and while
I was there the shop was organized and we went out on strike for a
shorter work week. We eventually won the strike and that was a
lesson for me.
I was reading the New York Call, which was a socialist news-
paper, and discussing the stories with the girls in the shop-we’d
bring our lunch from home so that at noon we would be in a position
to talk-and even collecting money for the paper. So it was a
simple matter to decide one day it was time to join the Socialist
Party. And when I joined I also signed up for a class that took
place on Friday night that was preparing us to teach in Socialist
Sunday schools for children from families who were progressive.
The leader was Dr. Elizabeth Baer, who practiced homeopathic
medicine and was the educational director of the Socialist Party in
I remember that it was on Armistice Day that Dr. Baer met me on
Market Street where I worked and asked if I would like to go to the
Rand School. The Rand School in those years was the Socialist
Party’s training school and the center of the socialist movement. It
was in New York and workers from all over the country came to
study the history and the theory of the labor movement. In becoming
a Rand student, you pledged to study for six months and then
return home to devote a year to the labor movement. I said yes. In
a way that decision shaped the direction of the rest of my life.
It wasn’t exactly my first time in New York, but it was the first
prolonged stay. I was 22, and besides free tuition for six months the
Socialist Party gave me a stipend of $9 a week. And, in fact, that is
what I lived on because I didn’t have another penny coming in from
We were four women sent from Philadelphia, two of us from the
Socialist Party there, one from a union local, and another one from
a cultural group, an actress, and we took rooms on 13th Street
between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, for which we paid $3 a week and
then we had enough for food and soap and other necessities and
even a show occasionally.
I arrived just in time to attend a huge protest meeting at the old
Madison Square Garden that you might say electrified me. It was
just after Armistice Day: the Bolsheviks were in power in Russia
and the American government was shivering. The city’s five socialist
aldermen had just been deprived of office and th.is protest –
was organized. The city countered by forbidding the display of the
So there were no flags; instead everyone was wearing something
red. When you walked into the arena the color exploded at you.
And then the socialist organizer, Mother Bloor, stepped up to the
platform. She was wearing a red blouse with enormous butterfly
sleeves and when she began to talk she spread out her arms-it
looked like one big Red flag. The place went wild.
The students at the Rand School were not all the same. They
came from different backgrounds completely. My friend, Anna,
from Philadelphia and I, for example, were immigrants, in the
country just a few years. We were studying the labor movement as
well as conquering the language. One of my. roommates, Edna, was
from Milwaukee, an American-born woman from a middle-class
family, striving to become a labor journalist, and trying to teach me
to pronounce my th’s correctly so I could lose my accent. Milwaukee
was where Debs was and it was on his advice that Edna
was sent to school. She had been active in the election there of the
socialist mayor, Berger.
Then there was a fellow from the East Side, from a poor family,
and already born here, who was aspiring to become a doctor. His
experience was different from ours in the sense that he knew the
traditions and the life here. Another one from Philadelphia was
aspiring to be an actress, but it was still felt that it was important
for her to have socialist understanding. These were the so-called
promising people. We were not all the same and we exchanged
In my class, we were 27 and we represented almost 27 states.
There were Jews and non-Jews, and foreign-born and Americanborn
of the first and second generation. There was one black student.
The people who taught there were leaders of the Socialist
Party, including Alexander Trachtenberg, Algernon Lee, and Scott
The Rand School was on 15th Street, between Broadway and
Fifth Avenue, a four-story building with a basement. and there were
always masses of people all over the building. After classes, there
would be meetings in the auditorium-talks given by leaders from
Chicago, leaders from California, leaders from the women’s movement.
Five hundred, 600 people would crowd in, and we would be
there in the middle of it.
One day-May Day, 1919-a group of veterans came to attack the
school. Those of the students who were around gathered together to
defend the place. One of the teachers, Scott Nearing. went up on
the roof and addressed them. They listened and, in the end. went
away without a skirmish. That was the climate of the time.
Nearing was on trial for his anti-war pamphlet, The Great Mad-
ness, and we were allowed to go, as part of our studies, to witness
the proceedings. We saw the Court and we saw things that were
connected with it, like the lawyer’s defense and the choice of jury,
which was a completely different side from the world I had known.
Then during that time, too, there was a needle trades strike and
we were asked to help by examining the books in some of the shops
to see whether the hardships that the manufacturers were claiming
were real. It was also at a meeting in the auditorium of the Rand
School that year that the split of the Socialist Party took place.
There were pros and cons in the discussions and then the left
When we were through with school in June, Anna and I stayed in
New York for several months working in the shops. We had a
feeling that we’d eventually come back and instead of just coming
blindly, we wanted to see what industry was like here. In the middle
of the summer we went back to Philadelphia as we had pledged.
That fall I was elected by Local 15 of the ILGWU to the Central
At the time, the steelworkers were on strike and a representative
from New York came before the Council and made a very moving
appeal for help from the rest of the unions. She was so impassioned
that she forgot to ask for any specific action from the meeting. I
caught up with her as she was leaving and brought her back. She
suggested that a committee be selected to provide support for the
Four of us were picked for the committee: two other women from
the ILGWU, a man, and myself. I was made the chairman. All
during that cold winter of 1919-1920 we went to different parts of
the city. We covered every union local of the AFL in Philadelphia,
three or four locals a night, appealing for money. We covered all
the building trades, the carpenters, the masons, and all the others.
Most of the locals were men, and when we came sometimes they
all stood up and w~re standing until we came to the platform and
began to address them. We raised pledges of $75,000, which in
those days was quite a bit.
The Trades Council was made up of representatives of all the
basic trades and unions in Philadelphia and they were not so used to
working with women. Once or twice the chairman would ask me,
“Well, little girl, how much more did you collect this month?” I
didn’t take his remarks too seriously. The response to our appeals
was a very good one, and that’s what mattered. I was in almost
weekly contact with the national committee of the strike, sending in
handwritten reports of our visits to the different unions and their
response. As limited as I was, being still fairly new to the country,
I did those reports and I was active in the strike.
In fact, during this period, we had strikes going in our own
union, which meant being on the picket line in the morning before
going to work and we did that part, too. We were trying to get a
well-lit, well-ventilated shop, things pretty much taken for granted
now. But to make it a normal condition, we had to struggle.
The early 1920s were very difficult years for me. World War I
was officially over, but in the Soviet Union there was a Civil War.
During that period, I didn’t get too many letters from my mother,
but once in a while one would get through. It was at that time, in a
letter from her, that I learned about the deaths of my father and my
older sister. My father died a natural death, but my sister was killed
at the end of the war when she was running from one town to
another trying to escape the pogroms.
Then, in 1921 or 1922, I learned of the death of my mother. A
letter came from Brusilov to some of our landsleit. It was given to
me, and the letter was a report that 80 Jews in our town were
literally burned alive. There were the names, and my mother’s name
was among them. It followed me for quite a while: not only the
death, but the manner in which it took place. For many years,
walking to work in the wintertime, if there was smoke coming from
factory chimneys, I had the feeling sometimes that she was there, in
As far as my younger brother was concerned, the last letter I
received from him was actually from the battlefront, as far back as
1915 or 1916. He was then in the Carpathian Mountains and he was
describing it and ~ost wishing that he should be killed so as not
to see all that was going on around him. They never knew whether
he was killed. This was one thing that remained uncertain. For
many years I hoped maybe he was alive.
One brother survived until later. The last letter I had from him
was about the winter of 1923-24, when his situation was difficult.
During the war, he was manufacturing clothing for the soldiers and
did alright, but afterwards I suppose things were difficult; he couldn’t
make a living. Evidently it was during the period of the National
Economic Policy in the Soviet Union, which gave some small
people the right to retain their little businesses.
Although I sympathized with him, I had a feeling that, if he
accepted the new regime 100 percent, he would find his way. In
other words I didn’t take his complaints too seriously. Then there
was silence until the early 1930s when his son wrote. He didn’t say
anything; he just introduced himself. He probably thought that by
that time we knew all there was to know. Somewhere along the line
my brother had died, but I don’t know how or when. (In 1948, after
World War II, I found addresses for other nephews and sent them
packages, but the letter we received back said don’t bother sending
any more. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1963 I couldn’t find
At the beginning of 1921, I came to New York permanently. My
friend Anna and I got a room in the same place where we lived
before on 13th Street. Sometimes, until we adjusted ourselves, we
would work in three shops in one week. Then each of us got more
or less permanent jobs in the children’s dress line.
By Election Day 1921, we had moved into Unity House. It was a
cooperative in a four-story building located on 29th Street and
Lexington Avenue. We were about 40 women, all Jewish immigrants,
needle trades workers, and union members. Anna and I got
one room, one small room, but by the same token on the first floor
there was a huge living room furnished with comfortable chairs and
a couch, the walls had beautiful pictures, there was a phonograph
with the best records available, and we all made use of it. There
was also a dining room where we.were fed two meals a day, breakfast
and dinner, along with everyone else who lived there daily,
including some of our close friends.
There were activities that we all did together. At one time, during
a strike of the Dressmakers’ Union, people who lived in the Bronx
or in Brownsville came and slept in the house and in the early
morning we all started out on the picket line together. Can you
imagine the picture when one morning 50-60 people march out of
the house to go on a picket line!
In 1922 during the Russian famine, we organized a bazaar in the
house. We gave up our dining room for 10 days and collected
garments and all kinds of things from different manufacturers and
raised $5,000. That was quite. a thing for those days.
During the same period, in my own shop the boss let us make
clothing on several Saturdays for the children in the Soviet Union.
Many of the women in Unity House participated in this. Also that
winter we took part of a theater and sold tickets to a benefit for the
newly born Freiheit; we raised over $600.
After a while I also undertook to do the bookkeeping for the
house. I had special knowledge of bookkeeping from a course I had
taken in night school and a job I had where for three days the only
thing I did was transfer accounts from the journal to the ledger.
Those three days were my total career as a bookkeeper. But that
training gave me the opportunity to understand a financial report.
I became a member of Local 91 of the Garment Workers Union. I
was elected a member of the Executive Board in 1922, and the
same year I was chosen as chairman of the local. There were about
5,000 members and you were elected on the basis of your activities.
Even though I wasn’t that long in New York, I was no more a
stranger and I came with recommendations from Local 15 in Philadelphia.
The union was eager for people to be active and to assume
responsibilities. So my time was taken up very quickly.
There was no city like New York then. On a Sunday morning you
could attend the Rand School lectures with 600 other people, and
then later in the afternoon, looking for more, you’d find yourself in
a room with maybe 20 others listening to someone reading her
poetry. In 1922 for the first time, the Moscow Art Theater came
here, as well as other European repertory companies. We didn’t
make much money in the shop, but we always managed to have
some money to attend a concert or a play. And later on I also went
to school at night.
You could go to school so easily then. There were courses offered
everywhere and you didn’t need diplomas. I joined what was then
known as the School of Naturapathy, near the Museum of Natural
History. Five days a week, four hours a night, I studied physiology,
anatomy, and diet: everything that has to do with the human body.
When you graduated, you were supposed to be qualified as a doctor
and to know everything except using medicine. We even had a
dissection once or twice. A lot of both the theories of vegetarianism
and natural cures was coming here from Europe and this particular
school had quite a bit of it. Vegetarianism was becoming popular
during those years.
I was working in a shop on Bleecker Street, nine hours a day, and
then I would go home, rush. rush, rush. and have my dinner, and
go to school. I’d get back about 11. I was young and strong and
figured I could do it. But after awhile. I realized that one cannot
become a doctor in spare time.
We were always rushing, trying to take shortcuts because time
was an important element. Activities were going on all the time.
Between school and work and bookkeeping for Unity House, there
weren’t many hours left over for other things. I almost took time off
from active labor work.
In 1923, I also got married to Shimon Saroff. All things came
Shimon, or Sam, came from the same town in Russia as I did,
but in America he lived first in Chicago. We met at a meeting: I
don’t remember whether it was a meeting of the union or some
other affair. I had known him before: he had been married. Then
we met again and became interested in each other.
He worked as an operator on raincoats and he was also an organizer
of the Freiheit Gesangverein, a Yiddish choral group to promote
workers’ songs. In Chicago, he had belonged to one of the
first Jewish singing organizations, which was under the leadership of
the composer, Jacob Schaeffer. They would do oratories like the one
Schaeffer composed from the Russian poet Alexander Blok’s poem,
The Twelve. Sam came to New York with the idea of organizing a
chorus here and in a short while he succeeded in organizing one of
close to 200 people, the conductor of which became Lazar Weiner.
That chorus is still in existence and they are still performing. This
was Sam’s major activity. He was also active as a member of the
Executive Board, and later the Secretary, of the Raincoat Makers
Union, which was a local of the ILGWU. So we both had our
After we were married, we moved from downtown to the Bronx,
where we lived for about a year, and then we moved to 109th Street
in East Harlem, where a lot of people we knew lived. A year later
we moved to a place on 105th Street, where we stayed until 1926.
In those days, you moved from one place to another; it wasn’t
difficult. We had two rooms in a big apartment that we shared with
another family, and it was enough because we were busy the whole
East Harlem in those days was almost 90 percent Jewish. Everything
was Jewish, the restaurants, the houses, wherever you turned.
I think the majority there were workers. For instance, we were four
people working and still we only had three rooms between us, and
we were not the only ones.
Too many things were going on during that period for me to
remember it in any simple way, like you might say the 1930s was
the Depression. The 1920s was not one thing. But one important
event that I do remember well, because it was a turning point, was
the fight in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union between
the right and the left which boiled over at the convention in
Philadelphia in 1925. Sam and I were both elected as delegates from
our respective organizations.
The union management did everything in their power to prevent
me going to the convention because they knew that I will not
represent their side. They really did everything possible. They
succeeded the convention before, in 1923 in Boston, so then only
Sam went, I didn’t. But in 1925 I was determined. I was a member
in the downtown local but there was also one in the Bronx and in
Brownsville, so I had to go to each one and be elected there.
When I was going to Brownsville, I was already pregnant with
my daughter, so on the way from the subway to the local I began to
vomit. I looked like a real drunken lady on the street. Walking into
that headquarters in Brownsville I’ll never forget. The girls approached
me, kissed me, and were really welcoming. It had a lot of
meaning to me when I was elected.
We spent three weeks at the convention. There was a lot of
infighting. The left fought for more recognition of the rank and file,
arguing that the rank and file should participate more in making
decisions. The jobs of business agents were given to people who
didn’t always represent the workers’ interests. It was a bitter fight
and it was probably the first time in the history of the labor movement
that police were asked to come into a trade union convention
to straighten things out. And that was after bitter fighting in New
York for over two years.
Believe it or not, after my daughter was born, the same union
managers who opposed me came to me and gave me all sorts of
offers to be a business agent in Brownsville. It was because the
Brownsvillites wanted me. There were two elderly women that liked
me even though they didn’t always like my politics. They were
ready to hire a nurse for me and everything. I said no thank you.
In the summer of 1925 I began my long association with Camp
Unity working as its manager. As far back as 1922, those of us
living in the workers’ cooperatives began to long for a summer
place. The ILGWU already had Unity House in Forest Park, Pa.,
which was a beautiful place, but it had already become quite
expensive. There was a desire by the cooperators to have their own
place. So after several meetings that winter, we became united and a
committee was elected to conduct a search and, by the spring of
1922, they found and rented a place in Beacon on the Hudson
River. That was the first year of Camp Nitgedaigit.
Right away a policy was instituted to allow any guest at the camp
to join the Coop and became a member by buying a share for $10,
and the idea spread like wildfire. In the course of the summer,
hundreds of people became cooperators and when they returned to
the city, they continued to meet. It was from these meetings that the
Bronx housing cooperatives-the Coops-emerged, which of course,
is a story by itself.
But the next summer, most people in Unity House where I lived
and in the other cooperative on 109th Street felt that they should
have more rights to decide about the houses and the camp and
everything else than the people who just paid in their $10 and got
an equal say in how things should be run. I was on the side of
giving everyone equal votes.
The different points of view could not be reconciled, there was a
split, and the people against equal voice for everyone decided to
drop out of Nitgedaigit. Instead they decided to look for another
To some extent the new place was in competition with Nitgedaigit,
but afterwords it was worked out that there was room for
two. When the camp committee approached me to be the manager,
my differences with them did not come into question. They knew
me from the time I lived with them in Unity House and they knew
my organizational experience. They knew that I knew proportion
and income and expense. Before the season even began, I worked
out a budget better than the one they had. I pointed out to them that
at $12 a week the income would be too little to meet the costs. It
would put the camp in the red. My budget made sense, the changes
were made, and we charged $14.
At that particular time, Camp Unity was made up of needle trade
workers. There were no buildings and no running water. It was all
tents and a pump, and the swimming was done in a quarry. The
guests would come Friday nights, first by boat which landed in
Peekskill, and then in several taxis. Sunday afternoon everything
was packed up and they went back again the same way they came.
My job was to arrange for the food and the entertainment and to
take complete charge of the management.
I still remember the first day I came there. I worked in the shop
until Friday afternoon and then the ones who were going by boat
literally took me out to the camp to start. That Monday, after
everyone left, l took a taxi to Peekskill and began to walk the
streets to get acquainted with where different businesses were located
and with whom I can do business.
During the week we were about 50 to 60 people. On the week-
ends, we would have sometimes as many as 250 people and it was
just a small kitchen. We had to prepare the food in a big tent and
all work was voluntary, including the cleaning of vegetables and the
preparing of salads. The cooperators used to joke that when they
left the boat in Peekskill, they could hear me calling for volunteers.
But the jokes were all friendly and it was a real workers’ institution.
The big event of the season that first year was having the poet
Vladimir Mayakovsky come and read. It was a beautiful moonlit
night. We carried out a few lights and we were all there. That’s
how we entertained ourselves: lectures, poetry, songs. Mostly we
sang union songs. There weren’t even instruments. But for workers
of the shop to come out and have even two days of nature and to
feel that it is theirs, it was something new. And in those days there
was no vacation with pay. They took a week or two for themselves.
After the summer, I wrote an article for the Freiheit about how a
shopworker overnight becomes a manager of an institution. I also
criticized the committee for the manner in which they were trying to
compete with Nitgedaiget, and they didn’t like it. In addition, on
Labor Day we were to have the big finish of the season and I
invited two speakers from the Freiheit, and the committee didn’t
like that either. Some of them tried to prevent me, as manager of
the camp, from speaking at the banquet. But there were enough
people to insist that I do speak.
By 1925, the cooperative movement was very big. Thousands of
people had come in and the movement had an office downtown.
They had picked the site where they were going to build in the
Bronx and people made investments. They were investments of
several hundred dollars and, frankly, at that time some of the people
were so enthusiastic that they thought the co-ops would bring the
millenium; they thought the co-ops would enable them to avoid the
hardships of the capitalist system they were questioning. Other
workers were asking, “What will happen during a strike, when too
many go out and you can’t pay the rent?”
But the cooperative movement didn’t wait for answers to such
questions. Co-ops were growing on a national scale. And when the
first cooperative houses were built in the Bronx in 1926, the joy of
the people moving in was extraordinary. Those buildings were
something New York didn’t have before and they played an
important part in the development of the left-wing movement.
People would come from all over to see them. I remember a presser
named Davidoff who had such pride he wanted everyone to see his
apartment. It was really in the summer camps that the idea of the
My daughter was born in the summer of 1926 and for the next
few years I was busy with her and not that involved with the camp
or political life. But when she was almost two I accepted the job of
managing Camp Unity’s kitchen. The camp had moved to a permanent
site in Wingdale and had grown into quite a sizeable operation.
We had as many as 600 to 700 people there wee!<Jy, and the
work of managing the place was divided.
When they offered me the kitchen management, one of the men
on the committee said, ”What will you do if your daughter will
take sick?” I said, ··1 will do the same as a man; I’ll call for a
doctor.” The understanding was that I will give fulltime to carry out
the responsibility. I had someone with me in camp to take care of
I started about two weeks before the camp opened. The camp had
242 acres of land, beautifully situated in the hills of the Berkshires.
There was a mile-long lake. The kitchen wasn’t even finished when
I got there, but when it was finished it was one of the most beautiful
buildings ever made for a kitchen-a very high ceiling with
skylights and windows all around it. A good kitchen for workers to
There were only a few buildings in 1928: an old farmhouse down
the hill with several rooms and a big open porch, an open recreational
hall. one large general comfort station for the whole camp
with showers and sinks and toilets, a small canteen. and the big
kitchen and dining room. They had just a few bungalows: the rest
Instead of volunteers. we had paid workers. The kitchen staff with
the dishwashers were more than 20 people. It was the first resort
where we had union people. from Local 110 of the Food Workers,
and it was a six-day rather than a seven-day week.
I was the one to make up the menus and make out the work
schedules. Everyone knew that I knew what I wanted and we got
along very well. As a matter of fact, some of the salesmen who
used to come in would tell me that ours was the only kitchen where
they didn’t see fights and controversies.
The majority of waiters and waitresses were not professionals.
They had to be trained how to do their work-to set up a table,
carry a tray. They were either students or teachers or other professional
people who worked somewhere else during the winter and
had their summers off. The pay was quite minimum and there were
no tips. The saying of the guests was that in Unity if a waiter was
good, he was really good. Many were either children of progressive
people or progressive themselves.
The system of the camp was that, with the exception of the kitchen
staff, the entire staff ate before the campers. In other words,
whatever was served to the campers was first served to the workers.
It differed from other places in that in almost all of the other
country places the workers would get the food that was left from the
previous day. The accommodations for the staff were the same as
for the guests. They had their day off and in their free time, between
meals, in the evening, they could partake in the social life
and activities of the camp.
I stayed in the camp all summer and then in the winter I went
back to the shop as an operator on dresses. New York was very
lively then politically, but I didn’t have much time to be active. Between
running to work and assuming responsibility in the house on
weekends time just fled. That doesn’t mean it was a barren period,
but it wasn’t active. In the movement, a lot of factional fights were
going on and work in the shop started to become scarcer.
At that time, I parted with my husband. There was another
woman involved, and we made the decision to part. It may sound
funny, but we were friendly until the last minute. I knew I was
going away to the mountains and he was going to live somewhere
else, so we gave up the apartment. I sent my daughter away to
Mohegan Colony to stay for the summer.
When I came to Mohegan to take my daughter back to New
York, someone in Mohegan recommended me for a job: it was
taking care of someone’s son, who was a few months older than my
daughter. If the Depression wasn’t as bad as it was, I would have
gone back to New York and gone into a shop. But as things were, I
preferred to stay in Mohegan to mind the child and have my daughter
with mf”. My wages were as little as $10 a week, with board.
But I stayed there for two years, the hardest years of the Depression.
Mohegan Colony was upstate, near Peekskill, a community of
people organized along progressive political and cultural ·ideas.
Anna, the mother of the boy I cared for, was a successful hat
designer in Manhattan and came to Mohegan only on weekends, so
most of the time it was just the two children and me. I did the
cleaning, the cooking, the buying of the food. When Anna introduced
me, she introduced me as her manager. When she was home
for Saturday and Sunday, she took over, and I could do what I
The colony had a wonderful day school for the children, which
my daughter and the boy I looked after attended, and it gave me the
time to do things there in connection with the fight for the unemployed.
The Unemployed Council was a group formed by the Left
to protest the conditions of those who were being left without work
as the Depression deepened. Alone no one could make their situation
felt; you were invisible. The Council gave them a voice, and
one of the first things they· did was organize a protest march to
Albany which had to pass through Peekskill. The woman for whom
I worked agreed that our house would serve as headquarters along
Someone from the Council came up from New York and between
the two of us, we covered the ~~Iony · and almost every house
agreed to take in two or three people overnight. We collected some
money and then, since Peekskill was familiar ground to me, I went
to the baker where I used to market for the camp and he agreed to
give me enough bread to feed them for breakfast and even enough
to make sandwiches for them to take on the road. An inn in
Mohegan Colony allowed us to have coffee made there and served a
light breakfast. There were about 160 people marching and with the
money we collected we were able to have a dinner for them in a .
Chinese restaurant in Peekskill proper. So even being away from
New York, you could perform a function, shall we say, for history.
During that time, the Left also organized the International Labor
Defense and to keep it alive I organized a branch in Mohegan
Colony. There were a lot of arrests all over the country during those
days_, connected either to political or labor disputes. The ILD was
set up so that if people were put in prison they could try to get their
release. Primarily it needed funds. So I organized a branch and we
carried on an educational campaign among the families who lived
there in the winter and I became the secretary of the group, inviting
different lecturers to speak in the auditorium of the children’s
school. But the main thing was that we ourselves would meet once
a week, once in two weeks, and try to help New York financially
There were still hundreds of people who were envious that I was
able to support myself and my daughter because it was the period of
selling apples in the street. People couldn’t find work. And there
was no relief yet. It was soup kitchens and everything else. The
cooperative movement suffered a big setback. Cooperatives were
going through bankruptcy.
Still people were not turned away from being active. They were
active in different ways. After all, cooperatives were a luxury.
People were active in the unemployed councils, they were active in
the unions. It was not a passive period. People didn’t remain lying
From Mogehan Colony one day, I went directly to Union Square:
it was the demonstration of March 6, 1930, where close to 50,000
people came together. Now the event has a meaning historically, but
then history was being made. It was the beginning of the march for
unemployment insurance, and it didn’t stop, in one way or another,
until we got it. It was like a sea of people, the biggest gathering for
unemployment insurance and social security ever. The mayor had
refused the meeting a permit, but the people gathered just the same,
and when people got up to speak and were arrested one by one,
others took their place. I don’t remember who the speakers were,
just that people began to march to City Hall, and that the police
came in on horseback and began to disperse the crowd, forcing
people into all the sidestreets. I was there with my friend, Goldie,
and we were almost trampled. Because I had a child at home,
Goldie insisted that I go into a hallway in one of the buildings, but
we didn’t. We continued to move. The organization organized a
first-aid station on 14th Street to treat injuries and there were quite a
few. Goldie’s sister was injured and landed there. But despite the
brutality, this was a real breakthrough in the fight for social security
and unemployment relief.
In the summer of 1931, I went back to Camp Unity as kitchen
manager again, and when I returned to the city in the fall I got a
job in the Bronx taking care of someone’s daughter with room and
board for my daughter and myself.
When the ~victions began the winter of 1932, people fought back.
When an eviction took place, the furniture was piled up in the
street. Coming home from high school, the neighborhood kids said
it looked like the barricades of the Paris Commune. Those of us
who could do a little bit of speaking were getting up on top of the
barricaded furniture urging the people to take the furniture back.
One time while I was speaking, my daughter and the girl I was
taking care of were in the crowd: I didn’t know they were that
interested. The next day I was in the kitchen preparing dinner and
all of a sudden I hear in the next room my daughter-who was
about 5 ‘h: “Neighbors and friends, today we are on the outside!
But tomorrow, they may put out your furniture!” She had been
listening to what was going on in the street and now she was
making an organizing speech to the other little girl.
A few years later, my daughter was attending Manumit, an experimental
school, and the parents were having a meeting with the
principal. He asked the parents whether the class struggle was to be
taught to children. I said, “You don’t have to create puppets,” and
I cited this incident. “If the children are exposed to certain things,”
I said, “you will not have to give them a special lecture.”
In 1932 it was a very difficult year. After I finished the season at
Camp Unity, I left my daughter in camp with somebody for the
winter and tried to find a job and some kind of income in Manhattan.
It didn’t matter to me what the job was. Jobs were not easy to
get and for a little while I did practical nursing, which yielded about
$25 a week. Even in those days, $25 didn’t last long. When my kid
took sick I had to give up the job and go back up to camp to stay
with her, which meant borrowing money and waiting until the
income of the summer would cover it. There were by then millions
of unemployed. It wasn’t until 1934, with a shortening of work
hours and an increase in wages, that things began to go in a different
It was a hard time-1930, 1931, 1932, 1933-but it didn’t discourage
me. You size up conditions and you do the best you can.
The perception was stil that with organization, if we could not get a
revolution, we could still get improvements. Without organization
we don’t get anything. That’s an ABC.
That was already the beginning of the CIO and the left-wing
unions. Labor was on the march and organizing itself. The unions
almost doubled in size in a very short time. It was not a passive
period. It was the period where fascism was on the march in Europe
and there was a united front among workers. I can’t give it to you
in details because I was not a member of the union then. But that
doesn’t mean I wasn’t informed.
In the fall of 1933, the manager of Camp Nitgedaiget took sick
and had to leave, and I was asked to take his place. I managed
there the winter of 1933 and the summer of 1934. In 1935, I returned
to Camp Unity and stayed there practically the rest of my
The Unity guests, mostly workers, came there not only from New
York but from New England and from the Midwest. Up to 1932, it
was almost 100 percent Jewish, but as the camp went on it became
interracial and interfaith. At one time blacks were about 40 percent
of the attendance; it was not just a lilywhite place. People learned
to live with each other. For some, it was their first experience
sharing a bungalow with a black family, spending a week taking
meals at the same table.
Culturally it was a rich place. A lot of what was done there was
later adopted by the country as a whole. There was a chorus of 80
to 100 guests worked up every week, there were plays, there were
musical pageants. It was a hub of cultural life on a very high scale.
I had to adjust my menu for the different composition of guests. I
visited other camps and tried to compare the variety of food. I
subscribed to Restaurant Management, a magazine that dealt with
food in the different sections of the country and for different types
of eating places. In this way, as I kept on managing, I kept on
learning new things.
I would come to camp at the beginning of May and stay until the
end of September or mid-October, helping to open the camp and
close it. Every spring we made additions and improvements, so
there were carpenters and plumbers and painters. In 1936 we built a
beautiful casino with room for 1,000 people, a new canteen, and
many more bungalows. By the late 1930s, bungalows had replaced
all the tents.
From 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War was very much reflected
in camp. Many of those who joined the Lincoln Brigade were
engaged in both the cultural and physical side of the camp. Our
cultural director, Robert Steck, left late in 1936 and was in Spain
almost three years-including 11 months as a prisoner. And a good
many of them, after they came back from Spain, came to camp and
lived with us, while they rehabilitated themselves. On Fridays,
when we had our campfires, they would sing us the songs of the
different brigades. Some never came back. They died on the battlefields
and we held memorial services for those whom we knew.
During the summer, I would be in the kitchen from about 6 in the
morning to about 8 in the evening with some time off during the
day. I didn’t open the kitchen, but I was the one to receive the
merchandise and check it when it arrived. I also wanted to make
sure that every worker was there when he or she had to be and that
things should run smoothly. I was the one to close the kitchen every
evening. Occasionally I went down to the casino and watched the
program in the evening. I never missed Saturday’s or Friday’s
program. Other nights I either worked on next week’s menu or
looked over some bills or went to the bungalow and fell asleep. I
was never sick during the summer in all the years in camp. What
happened before or after is something else!
For several years I worked in camp both summer and winter.
Most winters I would work in the city. In the early 1930s I worked
as a practical nurse; in the late 1930s and early 1940s I worked in a
cafeteria or restaurant. One winter I worked as a cook for a leftwing
theater group, The Theater of Action. Quite a few winters I
was getting unemployment insurance.
During the World War II years, when my daughter entered
college, I took over and ran a luncheonette on University Place and
12th Street. I felt that I had to work both summer and winter to
carry her through school and I was actually quite busy because it
involved very long hours. I opened the place at about 6:30 in the
morning and closed about 8 at night. I had help, but I had the
responsibility, and it continued that ~ay until 1946.
It was called Ben’s Luncheone~e because it belonged before to
somebody by the name of Ben. The people who came in were from
all walks of life. There were a lot of antique shops in the neighborhood
even then, and shops of workers, and during the war years
more women were working around there than previously. It was also
close to the left-wing newspapers, the Daily Worker and the Freiheii,-
andqu ite a few-printers ancf writers came in. A Frenchwoman
once told me, Mrs. Saroff, your place is a friendly corner. It probably
wasn’t so friendly that it was worth mentioning, but there was
a varied clientele.
During World War II, everybody was in favor of fighting the war
and trying to defeat the fascists. Even my daughter, who was then
only 16, wanted to give up college and go to work in a shop in a
patriotic way. Most of the work in the progressive movement was
directed toward helping to win the war.
The poverty did not disappear. For instance, I remember very
well walking in the morning from 15th Street near Second Avenue
to University Place when there were still people sleeping in the
street. Ordinary people who you could notice that their night was
not spent in a house. A good many people made a lot of money
during the war, but plenty of poor still remained poor.
In those days, I used to laugh that I saw New York waking up. I
could see the workers going to the shops, coming in early for a cup
of coffee, the office people arriving much later: it was a view of
city life from a completely different angle. And it was especially
interesting to see all these women who had never worked before,
coming to work and becoming very consciO!]S. They’d come in for
sweets-something I associated with children-and in those days,
sweets were rationed, along with chocolate, and cigarettes and lots
of other things. Lunchtime they’d come in and actually beg for a
piece of chocolate. It was the first time that I realized that they are
between meals and looking for something to give them the energy
to continue their work. It was a new thing, not only in New York
but throughout the country, that a new type of woman entered the
shops and worked.
The war was, of course, different things to different people. Some
worried about sweets, some about food for their dogs. To me, it
was actually losing the very few members of my family left from
World War I and the first pogroms and attacks. I remember going to
a concert in my daughter’s high school, which was held in a beautiful
new building, and for which they put together a magnificent
program, and while I was sitting there, getting the news that Kiev
was taken, the city nearby from where I left, and that 50 thousand
people were killed. I visualized three times a Madison Square
Garden audience being killed in one day. And I couldn’t see the
program. I could only see the kids in the Soviet Union who were
attacked and who would never go to school any more.
As the war went on, the sons of my close friends were taken.
Five young men from my daughter’s class volunteered. Later on,
husbands of people who were very close to me and whom I knew
were killed. The war to me meant annihilation and killing.
And it was very interesting to me that even during this war,
where the majority of the people were for fighting for it, and gave
quite a bit of what they could, that there were still forces that were
not at all in favor of the Soviets winning the war; they would rather
see Hitler triumph. The newspapers didn’t always discuss this aspect
of the war. But then you could learn more about the developments
of the war from the clientele of my luncheonette than from the
newspapers. There were very few of them asleep.
During that time, my daughter and I lived in two large rooms on
East 15th Street that we shared with a friend and her daughter. The
two daughters had one room and the mothers the other. My
daughter belonged to a national students organization and the apartment
would have plenty of visitors and gatherings. My friend wasn’t
always well, so I would sometimes come home during the day and
help her. By the same token, I knew that when I was too busy, my
friend would be there and when my daughter came home from
school, there would be somebody there to meet her. Life wasn’t
easy, but it was bearable: It was a cooperative life.
During the summer I still went back to Camp Unity, and I hired
responsible people to run the luncheonette in my absence. The camp
was filled almost to capacity during those years of the war because
whoever was not in the war, or at the front, was making money,
and they could easily afford a vacation, which of course is a great
During that time, the camp life took on a different mood, although
it was still full of progressive-minded people who knew what
they were fighting for. I can’t say the same about people in general
during that period. Except for those who had children or grandchildren
at the front, many people complained about the rationing;
they worried that they couldn’t have the exact amount of steaks they
wanted. You got the feeling that they weren’t thinking that there
was a war going on, that thousands of people were being killed.
By then I was no longer an active union member; the last time I
had visited my local was in the middle 1930s. During the split of
the Socialist Party, I had gone with the left, and during my years in
Unity I felt my work in some small way was a contribution.
When the news came through about the end of the war with Japan
in August 1945, I was in camp. People gathered in front of the
dining room and we had music and people started dancing. Those
who weren’t dancing were cheering. But while I was glad, too, that
the war was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about the meaning of
what had been done to end the war: the explosion of an atomic
bomb in two cities.
Roosevelt had died and immediately after the war the forces of
reaction began to mobilize against the Soviet Union. I remember
one day that same year I walked in and the radio was going and
former Vice President Henry Wallace made a speech and said the
blood of the dying soldiers did not coagulate yet, and already preparations
were being made for another slaughter; we were working
our way towards the Cold War. You had plenty to do then in order
to convince people that the Soviet Union is not going to attack the
U.S. Life became a little bit more difficult.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the attendance of the camp was
much smaller than before. Some of it had to do with the lack of
modem facilities and with people getting paid vacations and taking
winter trips. A lot of it had to do with the fear that was put in
people’s minds by the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the
so-called House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.
By the mid-1950s, a children’s camp was added to increase the
camp’s income and to some extent it changed the life of the camp;
it became more a family camp. By the end of the 1950s, it was
only a children’s camp. In 1964, I worked at the camp only parttime,
and that was the end of my camp activity. I was 68.
In 1963 I went to Nigeria. I was living then on Tompkins Square
and more or less at the age of retirement. My daughter and her
husband were teachers, and my son-in-law was working for a
Nigerian government agency. For 10 weeks I was a visitor, but not
a tourist. We traveled for 12 days from the western part of Nigeria,
from Ibadan, to the extreme north. We met people, we visited mills
and mines, we witnessed the festivities of Ramadan. I visited
schools that my daughter was connected with, a neighbor took me
through a hospital where she worked, a few families had me over
for dinner. It was a different continent with different customs and
different people-and yet, ironically, the conditions I found there
reminded me of the Russia I had left back in 1914. Although I
never had the chance to go back, I always wanted to, and the
similarity struck me very strongly. One day I remarked on this to
someone who came to visit and he planted the idea of going from
Africa. Well, to make a long story short, I wound up going from
Rome, and it was like a dream come true.
It was late March when I arrived. Moscow still had snow on the
ground. I had the address of my friend, Goldie, who in the 1930s
had left the USA for the Soviet Union and remained. I called her up
and by evening she and her husband were in the hotel visiting me. I
also called up a sister of one of my schoolmates and she came·to
see me, too.
I stayed in Moscow for four days. My hotel was the Metropole, a
beautiful building from before the Revolution. I walked to the
Kremlin. I rode on the subway. I rode on the buses. When I went
to the theater, I could understand: I still remembered the language.
In Leningrad, where I went next and stayed for five days, I went
to the theater, visited museums and public buildings, and watched a
marriage at the Palace of Marriages. In a new country, everything is
an experience. From Leningrad, I went to Kiev.
Kiev is where I had left from in 1914 and as soon as I had
checked into my hotel I went looking for family. I knew some of
my family had lived in Kiev and even though I wasn’t full of hope
I enquired. Each major city in the Soviet Union has an office to
help you look for family that were lost track of during World War
II. You give them the name of the person, their age, their last
known address, and their father’s name, and they check. They could
find no trace of my sister’s children, but they did have the address
of my brother’s son! I almost couldn’t believe it.
I ran back to my hotel, which was near the Opera, :ind found a
cab to take me out. It was a new section of the city and the taxi
driver was not too familiar with it, but on the way when he saw
that I was worried he told me in Russian, “Don’t be afraid, I’ll
wait for you; and if you don’t find them, I’ll take you back to your
The apartment was on the fifth floor. I walked up and rang the
bell. By then it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A woman almost
my age answered and I asked whether somebody by the name of
Kniznich lived there. She said yes and let me in, and there was my
53-year-old nephew whom I had left at the age of four. Both of us
That evening I met other family who had come from Moscow. At
the table we were about 10 people. My nephew’s wife kept telling
her mother, “Mama, Grisha has an aunt!” For everybody, it was
The next day was Passover and I got permission from lntourist to
join a group of Israelis who were visiting the synagogue in Kiev.
On the way I recognized the house where my mother and I stayed
with my cousin just before I left for America. It was a half-block
from the synagogue.
The synagogue was stilJ in the old fashion. The women were on
the second floor and the men were downstairs, and it was all filled.
There were mostly old people. I stayed for awhile.
On the way back I decided to go into the courtyard of my cousin’s
building and enquire about her. An elderly woman washing
clothes in a wooden tub directed me to orie of the apartments upstairs.
She said, ”They have been here a long time and they may
know the family you are looking for.” I walked up steps I had gone
up 49 years before. On the second floor the.woman I encountered
directed me to another neighbor upstairs. And sure enough that
woman knew my cousin. My cousin had died a few years before
and her daughter had moved out, but her granddaughter worked in a
hospital nearby. The woman was in the midst of making her Passover
dinner, the house was all sparkling, but she put out the light,
and walked me to the hospital.
When I told the granddaughter the story, she said, ·’Mom will be
very excited to see you,” and gave me the address. I promised that
I wouldn’t go there before the granddaughter came home, but my
curiosity got the better of me. Since I knew the language and knew
more or less that the address wasn’t so far from my hotel, I went
At first my cousin just accepted me. Here is this woman from
New York, knocking on her door, and telling her this story about
being her long, lost relative. She was very friendly and very nice,
but somehow it wasn’t easy for her to place me. She told rrie a bit
about the war and what the conditions were like. She told me a lot
about my shtetl. Then she said something that made me laugh, and
suddenly she said, “I know who you are!” It was the laughter.
Somehow, after all those years, my laughter had remained the same.
Until then, she knew who I was, but she didn’t remember me.
In the days left to me in Kiev, I was anxious to spend as much
time with family as possible. I made another attempt to find my
other nephews and nieces, but it was in vain. I visited my cousin
once more: she had another sister and a nephew and they all gathered
i1_h1~ r home so that we could spend time together. I visited
places with my nephew and niece.
Part of downtown Kiev remained as it was when I left, but uptown
,Kiev had been burned out in World War II and was rebuilt.
My nephew said that when he had come back from the war, he
found the houses on the main streets like skeletons. Between the
end of the war and 1963. the outskirts of Kiev had been built up to
the extent that the population and area it occupied was twice as big
as the original city.
My nephew lived in a four-room apartment with the family of his
wife and his 13-year-old daughter. It was a sixth-floor walkup in a
new building. My nephew and his wife had a couch in the living
room. Her father and mother, who were both retired workers, had a
room. Their daughter had a small room filled with books. Everyone
seemed to know exactly what was going on in the world.
Their hall was full of books, too, and among them were almost
all the American classics. The daughter was in a school where, in
addition to Ukrainian and Russian, she studied English. My nephew
was an engineer; he made instruments used in hospitals. His wife
was a doctor. She probably had only two suits and several blouses,
but she always looked beautiful. They were not yet a consumer
My only regret about the trip is that I didn’t act on my desire to
see Brusilov, the shtetl that I come from. It was only about 80 miles
away, less than from New York to Philadelphia. But in my childhood
it took a whole night to get from Brusilov to Kiev and vice
versa. For some reason, I still felt that it was a trip that required
some planning, and I didn’t plan it until one day I was travelling to
my cousin and the taxi driver asked me in Russian where I come
from and I told him. I said, “I would like to go, but it has to take
a long time.” He said, “What? In two hours we could be there! I’ll
come tomorrow, my day off, and take you there.” But the next day
was my niece’s birthday, and the day after I left Kiev, so I didn’t
make any arrangement. That is where it was left.
I went away and I came back, and in the process I traveled half
of the world.
In 1966, I was called on the telephone by one of LEMPA’s
leaders, Morris Golden. LEMPA is the Lower East Side Mobilization
for Peace Action. They were running a bazaar to raise funds
for a headquarters for themselves and they asked me what I could
contribute. Morris and his family were frequent visitors to Camp
Unity and he also knew me from bazaars that I helped organize
when the American Labor Party was raising money. Morris would
be the general organizer for the bazaars and I would be in charge of
the food. I became as famous for the bazaars as for my work at the
camp. We had also both been members of the American Labor
Party in the neighborhood.
Both I and Minnie Fisher, who lived with me then, made some
food for the bazaar and I referred them to some progressive union
leaders, who helped LEMPA get some food free. From that point
on, I stayed involved in LEMPA. The bazaar was a huge success
and LEMPA moved into a space on Avenue B on the comer near
us. In fact, being so close, our apartment became like an annex of
LEMPA. Anytime anyone needed something, or if the headquarters
were closed and they had to meet or leave some material, or have a
mailing done, it was done in our apartment. It made it very convenient
for me to participate and help in a good many ways since I
was not working any longer. And I was especially pleased to work
with an organization for peace since I was all my life against war.
Young and old, we participated in many demonstrations to protest
the Vietnam War. Some demonstrations took place as early as five
o’clock in the morning and we would all go together. When there
were demonstrations in Washington, we went. We were the first
lower East Side organization to hold a mock war crimes trial, at St.
Mark’s Church, with people signing their names in protest.
When the Attica Prison rebellion took place in 1971, we were the
organization that had a neighborhood march and covered most of the
East Side, starting from Avenue B and going to 14th Street, and
then over to Avenue C and Avenue D, and some of the neighborhood
people joined in with us. Since I was retired, I was free when
other people were at work. For instance, there was one time when
there were just the two of us, Morris Golden and me, standing on
Avenue C throughout the afternoon with a loudspeaker, announcing
a meeting to discuss what should be done about Attica. We sent
letters and telegrams to the parole board demanding that prisoners
who had been singled out for retribution be pardoned.
We also participated in the election of the district school board.
Many members of LEMPA were parents and very active participants
at the board meetings. During the elections, a good many helped to
register voters, to distribute leaflets, to raise funds. The members
felt that it was important to be for the improvement of public education.
These were strictly neighborhood activities.
Other times we were called on to help in court cases. For instance,
there was a black writer who the state accused of murder.
He was kept in prison for about seven years, while the state brought
him to trial. There were four trials and we were asked to participate
by attending the last trial, on Centre Street, as much as we could.
And we were there on most days, including the happy day when he
was finally freed.
We also participated in this way in the trial of the Harlem 6,
filling up the courthouse. LEMPA may not be big in numbers but it
is a living and active organization, and that’s what makes the
difference. We have some members who are participating all the
time, some who come just on special occasions, and some who just
contribute money. For me, it was a chance to do my part in the
neighborhood and for national issues such as the fight for amnesty
for those who wouldn’t fight in Vietnam. It is not a daily activity,
but an activity that you participate in at least once a week, and it
winds through your life.
A few years ago, for instance, LEMPA joined with Friendshipment,
an organization that consists of over 100 religious and civic
organizations, to send materials and equipment to Vietnam to help
with the job of reconstructing the damage done in the war. Our
pledge was a tractor that would cost about $2,000. We sent letters
and had parties to raise money. Whei:i .. my 80th birthday was celebrated
in 1976, a big affair was qrganized and $1,000 was raised
which was given to LEMPA towards the fund for the tractor.
My 80th birthday celebration was a double-feeling. First there was
the honor my friends gave me. It was organized by a committee
made up of former staff and campers of Unity, LEMPA members, a
few close friends, and family. They sent out letters and the response
was so great that they decided to hold the affair at the StatlerHilton.
More than 600 people came and the entertainment was
supplied by people who had been on the cultural staff of Camp
Unity and were now well-known performers; some came from
California, Vermont, and Chicago to participate. It was the culmination
of my working life.
Then, too, I had to realize that in my early 20s I was demonstrating
in Philadelphia against the war, and here I was, more than a
half a century later, still needing to worry that the peace in Vietnam
would survive, and that people would be able to put their energies
into reconstruction rather than fighting .
. But then I never thought that life is just working and eating.
There are social functions to be performed and you’ re part of the
world. There is still plenty of injustice and whatever you can do to
improve conditions, even if it is in the ~mallest way, you do it. At
the same time. you don’t add to the injustices. At my birthday, my
daughter told a story-which I myself had forgotten-that illustrates
the way I lived:
One day she and a friend came home from school and showed me
some cutlery they had stolen from the Automat. I did not approve.
They tried to defend their actions; they felt justified because, they
said, the Automat was wealthy and exploited their workers. I quoted
them Lenin: To steal less than the State is petty thievery. When the
Bolsheviks took the Soviet Union, they took a State. If you fight,
you fight for a country: for big things: for principles.
The Community Documentation Workshop is a public history project in the
lower East Side of Manhattan. It publishes oral histories and presents public
Born One Year Before the 20th Century / Minnie Fisher
Making Mud / Merle Steir
Starting Off from Dead End / Michael Donohue
Long Road from Lares / David Perez
Making Neighborhood Heroes / Cus D ‘Amato
Fulltime Active / Sarah Plotkin
Changes I Nora Lugo
Fishmerchant’s Daughter I luri Kochiyama
Between Wars I Anonymous
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