1988: Manya in the Ukraine

1988.XX.XX Manya Ukrain005

2022.05.25: Michael Letwin Oral History @Activist Video Archive

The Red Tide (1971-1981)
Michael Z. Letwin
Alita Zurav Letwin (1932-2020)
Leon Letwin (1929-2015)


1933.03.01: Alita Zurav on Mass Market Moscow Postcard

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Alita Zurav, circa six months old.

2014.03.20: June Fisher MD: New generation of tech innovations aims to help elders stay healthy and connected (PBS Newshour)

New generation of tech innovations aims to help elders stay healthy and connected

March 20, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT 

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 1.46.24 PM

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of us think of start-up companies as primarily focused on younger customers for their business, but some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs see opportunities with a very different demographic. They are designing innovative products for seniors and their caregivers.The NewsHour’s Cat Wise has our report. CAT WISE: Eighty-one-year-old Bud Glickman has lived in a San Francisco apartment for nearly two decades. He wants to stay there as long as possible, but he knows he needs some help.

BUD GLICKMAN: I have had some short-term memory problems. I have tripped a couple of times. I certainly don’t want people to be overly concerned about me. On the other hand if something really happened, I would want their support.

CAT WISE: Glickman’s family is very supportive, and they want him to remain independent, in his own home, but they also want to keep an eye on him and make sure he is keeping up with his daily routines without being too intrusive.

The solution? These small, sleek motion sensors placed throughout the apartment. They wirelessly transmit information to a Web-based app that his son David checks regularly.

DAVID GLICKMAN, Lively: For my dad, this morning, I can see that he is eating and drinking, has been getting out of the house, probably walked the dog. But I noticed that, for medication, the face is not green. It’s actually red. And what that means is that he missed the time he’s supposed to take it.

CAT WISE: David Glickman isn’t just a user of the new product called Lively, which helps him stay connected to his dad. He’s also a co-founder of the company.

DAVID GLICKMAN: People are spending money, meaning families are spending money caring for their adults. And we didn’t see anybody really kind of creating beautiful products, super simple, easy to use, and affordable, using today’s technology, not technology 10 years ago.

CAT WISE: Lively is part of a new wave of tech start-ups developing products and apps for seniors and their caregivers. It’s a multibillion-dollar market, which, until recently, has been largely ignored by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

KATY FIKE, Aging2.0: The past products for seniors have been what we call big, beige and boring.

CAT WISE: One of those leading the charge for more innovation in aging is Katy Fike, a 35-year-old former investment banker who has a Ph.D. in Gerontology. She’s the co-founder of Aging2.0, which provides mentoring for start-ups, including Lively, which target the 50-and-older demographic.

KATY FIKE: But we see real potential to bring in the technology folks, bring in the investors, bring in the designers, because I think the more smart brains we have thinking about and looking for new solutions, the better we will all be.

CAT WISE: Many of the start-ups, like one called BrainAid, are trying to keep older adults engaged and living independently longer. Some, like Sabi, are redesigning products used by seniors like canes and pill boxes; others are creating new apps for caregivers.

It’s still too early to know which ones will actually make a dent in the aging services market, which has been long been defined by a certain well-known commercial.

ACTRESS: I have fallen, and I can’t get up.

CAT WISE: But Stephen Johnston, Fike’s Aging2.0 co-founder and a former mobile industry executive, says the new players want to connect with seniors in a different way.

STEPHEN JOHNSTON, Aging2.0: Three-quarters of people over 60 already have a cell phone. If you look at the usage of social media, Facebook and Twitter, the biggest demographic growing is always the — it’s often the 55-65, and increasingly also the over-65 as well.

And, every day, we’re seeing more and more people figure out how — ways to connect this population with the great services that they offer.

CAT WISE: Fike and Johnston decided to base their start-up incubator in a slightly unorthodox location, at a senior center. The Institute on Aging is a Bay Area nonprofit which provides a wide range of services for thousands of elderly clients each year.

Bringing the entrepreneurs and seniors together under one roof has led to a lot of collaborations and has been meaningful for the institute’s aging clients, according to chief operating officer Cindy Kauffman.

CINDY KAUFFMAN, Institute on Aging: As someone gets older, we have a tendency to do for them. And we have their best interests at heart, but we take away their dignity, we take away their purpose. And so part of what this Aging2.0, and Institute on Aging does is, we get their opinion, and then we have a conversation as to what’s available, what’s not available.

But it’s really important. I want my opinion to be heard, and it doesn’t change as we get older.

CAT WISE: And Aging2.0′s Fike says the start-ups have benefited as well.

KATY FIKE: We wanted to immerse the entrepreneurs in who they’re designing for. We didn’t want them to have to guess about what’s needed or about what would work.

You know, there’s all these folks that are really living every single day either as the older adult themselves or the care providers. They know the needs. We just need to pair them with people who know how to make the solutions.

CAT WISE: One of those entrepreneurs is 26-year-old Jay Connolly, the founder of Lift Hero, a new ride-sharing service which employs off-duty EMTs and other medical professionals as drivers. Pickup requests can be made online or over the phone.

Like many of his fellow founders, Connolly says personal experiences with an aging family member inspired him to start his company.

JAY CONNOLLY, Lift Hero: The seed was planted really when my own grandmother — it took her a long time to find a trustworthy driver. And that’s the process we’re trying to facilitate, is make that much easier for someone to find a driver that they trust and get where they need to go.

CAT WISE: On a recent afternoon, Connolly and a group of other young entrepreneurs gathered at Aging2.0 to hear an unusual perspective on product design.

JUNE FISHER, Retired Physician: I hope, you know, that you will be able to develop strategies, so that you can really design for our needs, and not design for something that you think is clever and we will never use.

CAT WISE: June Fisher, an 81-year-old retired physician and product design lecturer at Stanford, is now Aging2.0′s chief elder executive. Among the first products she’d like to see redesigned are her walking sticks, which she thinks are ugly. She appreciates being asked to give her advice and being taken seriously.

JUNE FISHER: I want things that make my everyday life easier, and that they’re aesthetically appropriate. And I don’t want to be labeled as an old lady and being pampered and catered to, but not really addressing my needs to participate in everyday life.

CAT WISE: For their part, Aging2.0 co-founders Fike and Johnston refute any skepticism that technology can truly improve seniors’ quality of life.

KATY FIKE: I really don’t see technology replacing what humans do. I think it really augments what we can do. I think it fills the time when someone would have been alone. It fills the time when you probably couldn’t have gotten there.

And I think it also changes and improves the quality of when you are together. You know, if you have been having kind of ongoing interactions remotely, that, when you’re together, you’re more in synch. You can kind of catch up in a more meaningful way.

CAT WISE: The number of seniors in the U.S. is expected to double by 2050 to more than 85 million, a statistic very much on the minds of the new aging entrepreneurs.

GWEN IFILL: We have a photo gallery of products designed to help seniors age in place created by students as part of a competition sponsored by Stanford University and Aging2.0. That’s on our Web — on our home page.

2012.01.02: Alita at Zurav Memorial Tree, Ossining NY

39733_1466278651645_1073892763_31352884_8058645_nAlita Zurav Letwin at Zurav Memorial Tree, Lamont estate.

1993.03.21: Manya Zurav Memorial, Riverside Church NYC


Remembering Manya
Michael Zurav Letwin
March 21, 1993

Manya meant something different to all of us.

Some of us had an easy relationship with her. For others of us it wasn’t always so easy.

But either way we feel an intense sense of loss and disbelief that she can really be gone.

From my earliest memories, Manya’s stories, her intense passion, drama, energy and love surrounded me with an aura of magic. That magical sense enveloped her Poltava, her New York, and so many things she had seen and done over ninety years.

It always seemed to me that even her apartment was a bottomless mystery
— and having spent the last month organizing her papers, I now know that I was right! That sense of magic was purest when I was a child, before I also chafed at times under some of Manya’s ways. But still, to this day, that magic finds its way right into my core, as it did with her great grandchildren, Brian and Andy.

Manya’s magic was also part of her being a living link to distant times and places, which made me feel that I had travelled her journey with her, and helped me to feel part of something bigger and more powerful and more dramatic than just myself.

Some of my favorite stories were about:

–How her first memory of life was at two years old near Kopatkevichi in Minsk Gubernia, watching some peasants trying to pull a stuck horse out of a swamp.

–Moving to Poltava a year or two later with her parents in an old horse-drawn cart.

–Realizing the world was unjust after seeing how poor people had to buy new clothes when the Tsar paraded in Poltava before the First World War.

–Her teenage hunger strike against her strict Hasidic father, who didn’t believe that girls should be educated.

–Her group of friends, led by Nunya Kalashteiner, who would sneak around the guards into the Poltava Opera House.

–Pleading with White Cossacks during the Russian Civil War not to pull her grandfather by his beard and kill him.

–­Courting with Zell on a Poltava park bench that was still there when she returned fifty years later.

–Her arrival at New York Harbor in 1923, where Zell’s mother first learned that her husband had died there just a few months earlier.

–When Zell punched a guy in the mouth at a big political meeting in the 1920s because for trying to flirt with Manya; and how Zell once got drunk at a big picnic and said to her “don’t tell Manya.”

–Being a fiery radical labor organizer in the 1920s, complete with red beret and black leather jacket.

–Nursing Alita, a blue baby, for a year in Moscow, with her mother’s help.
Manya’s magic was also related to her limitless Russian passion for every aspect of life: politics, art, music, travel, her neighborhoods, and nature.

But she was passionate above all about people, and her curiosity led her to go anywhere and do anything, without regard to her comfort, or safety, or age.
Many of you know about more recent examples of that spirit, including her arrest at a South African embassy anti-apartheid protest in Washington, when she was at least 85.

What you might not know is that, almost sixty years earlier, she was personally arrested by the Newark police chief for instigating a strike, but not before she had lectured him about her rights.

Or how in 1932, five months pregnant, Manya watched in horrified fascination Nazis fired on a May Day rally in the streets of Hamburg, so that she missed her ship to the Soviet Union, and had to meet it on a small boat and climb up a rope ladder to board.

Of course, these same impulses made often made Manya single minded about pursuing her own pace and priorities. I was surprised to find, however, that Manya did try to change in many ways, particularly in the later years of her life.

After Zell died, she reached out to build herself a new life, traveling, and  discovering the Riverside Church community.

In her final years, she made truly heroic efforts to organize what turns out to be about fifty boxes of papers, which she collected over a century of living.
And while sometimes overly critical of others, she was her own harshest critic, leaving notes mercilessly accusing herself of “completely lacking in self-discipline,” being “self-indulgent,” or a “hopeless procrastinator.”

She was also a philosopher about life. About two weeks before she died, she told Alita and I that she “thought this was the end,” but that we “had to be stoic because death is a part of the natural process” and “after all, we can’t stop nature from taking its course.”

In her final days, she also talked a lot about her great-grandchildren, Brian and Andy, and how important it is to encourage their musical and artistic talent without oppressing them with the process.

These characteristics help explain why, despite her faults, Manya was such a people magnet. Particularly as she grew older, she was constantly surrounded by people of all ages who not only cared deeply about her, but also felt that she played an important role in their lives.

Finally, I want to share with you some of my favorite images of Manya. I remember:

–Being very excited at age five or six to arrive at Manya and Zell’s apartment late at night with my family after a long trip, taking the elevator upstairs, running down the hallway and finding them waiting for us.

–Going down with her to the big green milk machine or the laundry room in the basement when I was small and watching the clothes go around the windows in old fashioned washing machines.

–Going with her to Grant’s Tomb; in the early ‘60s with me, Danny and David; and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with me, Brian and Andy.

–Sitting with her and Zell on her porch on summer nights long ago.

–Listening to her and Zell tell stories on other nights in their primitive bungalow at Camp Midvale that had the old potbelly stove, while fireflies flew around outside.

–Watching the red subway cars go by from her 18th floor windows, just like Andy and Brian do now.

–Taking the subway with her to have lunch with Zell at their candy and tobacco stand in the lobby of 45 W. 45 Street in 1964.

–Going with her to shop for ice cream at the Co-op market thirty years.

–Playing with her and Zell in playgrounds in Milwaukee, and in Morningside Gardens, just like Brian and Andy later did with her.

–Reading storybooks to me in the living room when I was Andy’s age.

–Her Russian song about a baby whale who got his grandfather angry when he woke him from his nap.

–Her beautiful, flowery stories about Russian children in the first “idealistic” years of the Revolution.

–Claiming that she and Zell weren’t arguing, just that Russian and Yiddish made it sound that way.

–Taking her to the zoo, the museum and the park with Brian and Andy.

–Her chicken “concoctions.”

–In the den, watching the intense sunset on the Hudson, behind the Alcoa building.

–Telling her when I was small that I didn’t ever want her or Zell to die.

My son Brian says, “It’s not fair. Why did Manya Manya have to die? I can’t believe I’m never going to see her again.”

I feel just the same way.

1986: Manya at Family Home in Poltava

Manya (right) revisiting family home in Poltava (exact location now unknown), in 1986(?). (Per Yurii Shilnov.)

1985.01.29: Riversiders Take 24-hour protest trip to nation’s capital [Manya’s Anti-Apartheid Arrest]

1985 -- Manya (age 85) arrested at anti-apartheid protest in D.C.
Manya Zurov [Zurav] protests in D.C.
Photo: Maria Monterro

Newsletter of the Riverside Church
Volume 21, Number 6, March 11, 1985

Riversiders Take 24-hour protest trip to nation’s capital

Two bus loads of Riversiders joined other UCC church members in Washington, D.C. to protest the South African apartheid policies on January 29. Seventy Riversiders, from a variety of task forces and organizations in the church, including William Sloane Coffin and Channing Phillips were among a total of 98 people, the largest group to date, to be arrested at the South African Embassy. The group was peacefully arrested for protesting within 500 feet of an embassy. “Intent on our cause we sang We Shall Overcome, ignoring a policeman ordering dispersal. As the sun and temperature lowered, a slow counterpoint of arrests kept up until everyone was handcuffed, photographed and paddywagoned. We spent about four hours in custody and were released on our own recognizance,” said protester Philip Paris. Over 1150 people have been arrested, including many members of Congress, in a total of 17 cities.

Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, the Caribbean and African lobbying group that is spearheading a Free South Africa Movement and organizing the demonstrations, greeted the Riverside group.

A persistent theme in the peaceful protests has been to pressure the white minority-ruled South African government to extend full political participation to that nation’s black majority and to persuade the Reagan administration to take a more aggressive role in speeding political, economic and social change for black South Africans.

Background by Alita Zurav Letwin: 

During the last fifteen years of her life, Manya joined the peace and justice group at the Riverside Church. She loved to go there to hear people from all over the world speak about these issues, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela from South Africa, Rev. Sloane Coffin and civil rights leaders from the United States.

In 1984, she heard Randall Robinson, Director of TransAfrica, talk about a movement developing at the request of South Africans fighting apartheid, which called for the boycott of South African businesses, sports groups and any institutions that discriminated against non-whites. Robinson called for demonstrations all over this country against the South African apartheid government.

So, in January 1985, Manya (age 85) and other members of the Riverside Church answered this call by going to Washington, D.C., where they and many others violated a court order by sitting down in front of the South African embassy.

When Manya saw a particularly handsome officer, she said, “this one’s for me,” flashed a big grin, and waited as he handcuffed her and took her away to a waiting police van. A photo of her arrest was later published in the Riverside Church newsletter (above).

There were so many protesters that it took hours to book them. Meanwhile, they were kept in a large holding cell, and passed the time singing civil rights hymns. Manya’s trained voice, I’m told, was the clearest.

A year later, Manya met me in Washington for the National Council of Social Studies convention. Sitting in the lobby one evening with a group of teachers from all over the U.S., she was reminiscing about her anti-apartheid arrest. They were fascinated by this small, spunky, elderly Russian-Jewish immigrant who had committed civil disobedience on an issue of justice for South Africa!

Several months later, she received a letter from an eighth-grade teacher in Montana, who wrote that she was teaching all her class about civil disobedience by telling them the stories of Rosa Parks and Manya Zurav.

“You are never too old or too young to stand up for what you believe,” she told her students. Who knows how many Montanans know the story by this time!

1983.06 – Sophie Saroff, Stealing the State Oral History (1983) – B&W – OCR

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 9.13.50 PM

View in searchable PDF format: Sophie Saroff, Stealing the State Oral History (1983) – – B&W – OCR

Raw text:



.,.,;; .. ~

.i.; !:

,,. .

,1.– r. ._,.,. . ;.i”‘ Ill’

‘F, ~ I

‘, V J b

j . ~.I~-.-~ fj (,, ~–=~-

;. .




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.





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

my education.

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

strong character.

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

that time.


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

Red flag.

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

walked out.

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

Labor Council.

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

the smoke.

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

co-ops began.


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

my daughter.

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

work in.

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

were tents.

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

the way.

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

and othetwise.

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

working life.

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

almost fainted.

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

history exhibitions.

Also available

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


! ,, ~




1976.12.01: Born One Year Before the 20th Century — Minnie Fisher/An Oral History

Minnie Cover

[Note: Minnie Fisher (1899-1976), née Minnie Zurav, was Zellick Zurav’s older sister.]

Born One Year Before the 20th Century
Minnie Fisher/An Oral History

The work of the Community Documentation Workshop at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery has focused on reconstructing the various historical periods that the Lower East Side has passed through over, roughly, the past 130 years in order to understand how the various ethnic groups lived and supported themselves in the area, what they left behind when they themselves moved elsewhere, and how the place came to be what it is.

The idea behind this developing work is to encourage ordinary people (such as ourselves) to see themselves as part of history, to see themselves as the active bearers of that history, to create a ‘structure for reflection, and in the end to be supportive of the people who live in the area now.

Another way of saying this is that we are interested in extending the meaning of culture. Though the effort to do this has a complicated history, at St. Mark’s as elsewhere, part of the energy behind it has been democratic. The argument here is not that, in matters of culture, the majority is always right; it is, rather, that everyone always has some right.

Born One Year Before the 20th Century
Minnie Fisher
An Oral History

Copyright© 1976 Community Documentation Workshop

[Chapter] 1

I was born in White Russia, in the state of Minsk Gubernia, in a very remote town. There were a lot of small towns; they bordered each other and the people in one place would visit those in the other. Each little town had its own characteristics. The one that I was born in was called Zarichka. Zarichka means “near brook.” We were right near a river called Ptich. The forests there were among the biggest in Russia, that’s why the region was called Poliesia. Lies is the woods, and Poliesia is “in the woods.” Our backyard was the big woods; we were very isolated from the development of that era. I was born one year before the 20th century.

I say isolated because evidently, the revolutionary movement in Russia was going on. While the oppression in Poliesia was great, it was awhile before the movement reached us. At that time, Poland belonged to Russia, and strangely enough, all the wealthy people who had enslaved the peasants were Polish people. They were not associated with the Jewish people, because the Jewish people held on to their own religion and culture. We were sent to cheder.

The Jewish parents would hire people who would come to this remote village especially to teach the boys, although, already in my time, the girls were taught also; not too much, but to a certain extent.

In my time already we had a public school. It was built in the center of four villages, and the children, from six years on, would walk two miles to go there. Besides the regular school subjects, we also learned Russian, and could take the religious training of the Russians. If the Jewish children wanted to stay they were allowed to stay, and if they didn’t want to stay they could have walked out.

The Poles who were called pani were the rich people; they sent their children abroad to study and went horseback

riding in the fields. There was only one street, and at each end there were gates so that the animals wouldn’t run in to the fields when the pani were riding there. When they were finished, we children would run and open the gates for them and they would throw candy to us. Yet they were oppressive to the peasants. Old ladies would sit with us on the ground in the summertime, women who were too old to work, and tell the children stories of how they were abused by these people.

Although it was a government forest, the rich people used it as if it belonged to them. They made the peasants get permission from them to pick berries and mushrooms and nuts, or to gather the wood that was growing in the forest. Even if the peasants needed logs to build their homes, they had to pay these wealthy owners, and they would pay in labor. The pani used the peasants like slaves.

One of these old women must have been 80 or 90, maybe close to 100; we loved to listen to her. She told us that once, when she was a young woman, still bearing children, and carrying her child cradled on her back, she saw that, according to the sun, she would be late getting back to work and she knew she would be severely beaten for it. In her rush, her child fell out of the basket on her back, but she didn’t even dare to turn around to pick it up. She knew that her neighbors, or the younger children would pick it up and care for it until she came home, and she hoped it would save her time. But she still arrived a little bit late and they beat her anyhow.

This was the kind of slavery that was still going on at the beginning of the 20th century. My family lived through this, but\only through these other people. We had it a little easier; we also had land. But the Jewish people had no right to own any land. So we had the land on a neighbor’s name. At the time, I was too little to understand any of this; later on I understood it. The peasants were so honest that they never threatened to take away the land from my father, even though they could have.

My father was sort of a merchant, as was his father, and his father before him; they dealt with buying up stuff and shipping it to other places. But mainly, he loved the woods. There were only a few Jewish families where we lived. Besides my large family, which included all of my

grandfather’s many children and their children—my uncles, aunts and cousins there was the blacksmith, the tailor, and the shoemaker. The rest were peasants. In the summer, my father and brothers worked with the peasants cutting logs in the woods. They would log the wood and bring it to the river to ship it off to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians had a lot of food but they didn’t have a lot of forests.

Besides doing that in the summer, my father also tended his land; he used hired help to prepare the hay. We had domestic animals, and we raised a lot of potatoes so that we could sell them. Everything was sold to these rich merchants who operated breweries. These rich people had an awful lot of land and all the peasants worked their land practically as slaves. It was already in my time that they had to pay them, but they would pay 4hem like 20 kopeks a day. The only land the peasants had for themselves were small strips; most of the time they spent working for the few wealthy people. My father would sell whatever we had more than we could use.

Then the pogroms against the Jewish people in Russia began. It came to the point, I don’t remember it very well, but it came to a point that it was very scary for the Jews who lived in the little towns right near us.

When I was born, my mother had already had a lot of children; she must have had 12: a few little ones who had died, three girls, and five boys, or something like that. Boys were more acceptable to the parents because they wouldn’t have to give them a dowry. I was the fourth girl in the family, so my mother really didn’t want me. But then one of my aunts came and said I was a very beautiful baby, which made my mother turn around and take notice. Then, like every other mother, she thought that I was the nicest, until my brother came along.

Because of the bigger children, I was a little bit spoiled as I was growing up. By the time I was not quite four, I got smallpox. They thought that they shouldn’t bother with me because I couldn’t live anyhow. With that kind of fever a child doesn’t live, it doesn’t survive, and very rarely did they ever get a doctor to come to this village. But after months and months of illness, I pulled through.

Our house was the largest in the village, even though all we had were four rooms. But they were very large, they were like four houses put together. Later on they would

seem small, but at that time, the way the people lived, the way the peasants lived in very small houses, our house looked large.

I had a lot of responsibilities at home, but not the kind that I liked. I liked to do what the big people did, I wanted to participate. But I wasn’t permitted just because they didn’t want me in their way. They wouldn’t even let me do the dishes.

But away from home we had a lot of other responsibilities. For instance, in the summertime, all the peasant children would have to go into the fields with the animals to make sure the animals didn’t wander off into the gardens or get lost in one of the marshes. My duty was to take care of the geese and the dogs. We would have to get up at four o’clock in the morning, just before sunrise, and go with the geese, the dogs, and the other small animals up to the pastures. For the large ones—the horses, the cows—they had special people. This was the most interesting time of my childhood. We would see the most beautiful sunrises, and we were always outdoors. We would make a little fire and play around and observe birds.

There were an enormous number of cranes; the area was a breeding grounds for cranes, although they say that cranes have to have very high trees for that. But since we had the forests, it’s understandable that they had enough high trees there to breed, and then, when they got bigger, they would come to the marshes to get their food. When I was a child, we used to say that the cranes were having conferences. In this one particular field near the marsh, they would come in the thousands, or maybe millions. And there would be so much noise, as if they were talking to each other, communicating with each other. We children would be petrified, watching them. We would just sit, not move! They’re very large birds. In our daily routines, we would see them, individually or in pairs, and we wouldn’t pay much attention. We would see them in the marshes walking around, looking for their food. They were very natural with us. But when they would come together in these great gatherings—maybe it was toward fall, when they were preparing to fly away somewheres—it was awe-inspiring. In my mind, I can see them, as if it were today. I can see the fields, I can hear their voices, even now, because their

talking to each other impressed itself on me so much. Then they would fly off, by groups, with a leader. We would see certain groups taking off and flying and one would fly in front and the rest would follow them.

Before I was five, I just stayed around the house and played. Sometimes I’d go to watch the neighbors weaving. My mother didn’t do any weaving. She had a very busy household, and the Jewish people didn’t do these crafts. But the peasants made their own flax right from the grain, which they planted, and made their own clothes; they made the most beautiful designs. They were very patient with us, and even let us try the wheel. I always think about it, how patient the people were at that time, how close they were to nature, and how, with all the atrocities that the Tsarist government was trying to perpetrate on the Jewish people, they could still show us affection.

I felt the prejudice later, when the Russian school was established. You’d go with your own little friends, and you love them and they love you. But the same little friends would ask me for a piece of paper. You see, everything was a big thing then. A piece of plain paper that you can write H on was a big thing. And if I didn’t have one for them, they would start telling me stories. You know, that if you kill a Jewish person you don’t have to go to jail, you just have to pay three rubles. Where the kids got it, I don’t know.

But my family got along well with the peasants, as I say. They used to come to our house for tea, for instance. We had a big samovar, while the peasants didn’t have a samovar and they wouldn’t have this custom of having tea in their house. I didn’t understand the discrimination. And I didn’t believe they were really discriminating against us. What I felt, as a child, was that they were being moved by some forces to put the blame for their suffering on the Jewish people. Most of the Jewish people I knew blamed the church.

As a child, of course, we were not allowed to go to the churches. But by the time I was 10, my parents permitted me and my brothers and sisters to go, if we wanted, to see what was going on. We’d go on Easter, at twelve o’clock at night, when the Russian Orthodox blessed their baskets. They have interesting ceremonies: my friends were dressed up, and they sang.

In my village, the peasants had their own orchestras and

music. They would make up their own. Their instruments were made by themselves. They must have been brilliant people: they hadn’t ever seen a note written, and they didn’t know how to read or write, but they made the instruments and they played at weddings.

The Jewish child was not permitted to go and dance at the peasants’ weddings. I didn’t understand why. I think the adults were worried about their children falling in love with one another. It had happened that one of the girls in the village had changed her religion. And this marked the families for generations. So maybe this was why Jewish people kept so separate.

Religion was a dominating part of life. Definitely. Each village had its own church and its own priest. In our village the priest was especially friendly with our family. We had 13 Jewish families, as I said before, but only ours was very friendly with the priest. I was friends with his daughter.

The priest was the first one in the village to get a phonograph. And when he did, he invited my family to listen to it. He got some Yiddish records from some big city just to please my parents. This is, I think, very interesting, that there was a certain relationship there, an intellectual relationship.

[Chapter] 2

Other than that, the lives were the way our lives ran. We constantly had chores, for the homes, to provide our living. For instance, we raised a lot of geese and ducks. When it would come Chanukah, they would kill a lot of these geese and this would provide meat for the whole winter. We ‘think now that freezing food is only the modern way, but it probably goes back a long time. We had our meat frozen on top of the house and they put it in barrels from which we would draw all winter long. We would have feathers to pluck all winter. All our pillows and featherbeds were made by our own feathers. And all these feathers had to be plucked by hand. You had to take out that little hard part in between that keeps the feathers together. This was the children’s work.

At night the children would sit plucking feathers, listening to the stories of the adults. Also, in Europe, it was the style to teach children from the beginning of school to do work like embroidery and knitting. At the age of six, all the children knew how to knit their own socks and their own gloves. You got instruction from both your mother and the embroidery teacher in the school. You had to do it. It wasn’t a question of just watching. It wasn’t a question of the child’s amusement. It was a question of survival for all the people, the peasants as well as the others. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people would knit for the peasants who were too busy to knit for themselves and barter with them for the rugs and clothes they were weaving.

At the end of the week, of course, the struggle was always how did one provide for the Sabbath, for the holidays. No matter how poor a Jewish person was, the rest of them put together money and gave it to him so that his family would at least have the food that they required for the Sabbath. And this they would start worrying about on Thursday.

Thursday, because Thursday they had to prepare the challah for Friday, as well as all the other goodies that were to go with Saturday.

Each family had two sets of dishes, which they used for the dairy side and for meat. Everything had to be clean from top to bottom.

The people were practically in a trance, but especially the children. I know I—when it came Thursday, there was such a happiness, because we had to do all these things, because it was a holiday. And our holidays were very joyous. We used to sit at the table and take our time; we’d have good food at our table, like fish and meat, and all kinds of wonderful dishes: chicken soup was a must every Friday night. And a dessert called tsimmis. Tsimmis was cooked big enough so you could eat it hot and you could eat it cold. So you could eat it with every meal for dessert.

So they would prepare the meal for Friday, and nobody would touch any fire or anything after sunset, after candles were lit. For that, you arranged for a non-Jewish person to come in. They would put the food for the next dinner into the oven and seal the oven until my parents came back ‘from shul (the synagogue). In the morning, they would get up, have, like, a cup of tea or something, and go off to shul. There were lots of baked goods around. When they came home, the dinner would be served, which was magnificent. With white tablecloths. According to that life, every Jewish family had a white cloth on the table, and the meal was served as if father was the king. It was a joyous meal.

This went on Friday night, Saturday all day, and during the Saturday evening meal, which, in Yiddish, is called salashudes. For that meal, we would have dairy dishes and fish and kugel,which is noodle pudding, with all kinds of fruits. If it was a full moon, the father would go out and make a prayer and drink some wine, and the children would just enjoy all of these rituals. This is what went on constantly.

It was the custom in our house to have on the table a large loaf of bread, maybe five, six pounds, or eight pounds, a round loaf of bread, and a sharp knife, all of it under an embroidered cover. Any stranger who came into the house was welcomed. There were people who were passing through the village. My mother never asked them whether

they were Jewish or not. All she would say, if they would come in to ask for directions to another town, or for something that they needed would be, are you hungry? I remember that from when I was a little girl because any stranger made me curious. You would just hang around to see what’s going to happen. And my mother would say, “You’re hungry? So wash up and just sit down at the table. Bread and salt is on the table; whatever else we have, I’ll give you. But you’re sure of one thing, that you have bread and salt on the table.” And that’s how we used to have strangers come to the house. A lot of the strangers were peddlers, passing through. Either they were selling Yiddish pamphlets or stories, or they were going from place to place to work in each village. They would pass through a village with 10 miles further to go. Most were walking, they didn’t have a horse and wagon. They walked and carried their stuff with them. They probably knew already that they could come into our house. That’s all my mother would ask. “Are you hungry? If you’re hungry, go wash your hands.” The water had to be brought in from the wells. She had measures that were hanging on the pail where the water was, and she had a basin there, and you could go and wash up your hands, and she had towels, and she didn’t ask you your name. All she would ask is if you were a human being, if you’re hungry. And you go and you eat, and whatever she had, she’d give it to them. And we children would be so happy with the strangers who came because it was a rarity to see a stranger.

They would tell us lots of stories. While they were resting and warming themselves in the house, the children would gather around them, and they would tell us tales that I still remember. They would tell us about devils they saw, and what happened when they saw the devils.

The people were very pious and very serious. I believed very much in that life. But because I was a child I didn’t know that I was being serious. I thought that this was the thing to be, as all the children did. We all had the same feeling, that we were all going to heaven after we die. We weren’t afraid of death. We sort of thought that death would be very nice, that we liked death. And we were taught that only the Jews would go to Paradise for their sufferings. I remember saying to my mother, “But if I love Baba

Ayosha,”—she was our next door neighbor—”if I love her so much, I want her with me even in heaven. Can she come with me?”

My mother said, “I think that we’ll pray for her and she’ll come with us.”

That was the attitude we had. I don’t want to rationalize it now. But we didn’t spend time talking about whether or not we should be happy.

The relationship between fathers and their daughters then was very formal. They were protective but they didn’t show any love for their little girls; in fact, publicly they were sort of ashamed. But we knew that our father loved us, because even if he had hollered at us and screamed at us for doing the wrong things, he never hit us.

I never even saw my uncles show any love to their little girls. The only exception was an uncle, my father’s brother, who loved me dearly. When I was sick, and they needed to cut off my hair, he was the only one who could persuade me to do it.

He had about six, seven children older than me. That was a wonder. To this very day I don’t know why he loved me so much, and I loved him so much. He would express love more than my father. I remember going with them when they went fishing. I said I wanted to go and watch them fish. When I ran after them, my father told me to go back, but my uncle said, Oh, let her come!” So I continued to run after them, and when I got too tired, my father took me on his back and carried me. Not my uncle, but my father. And he was the one who chased me back. I never in all my life forgot that.

My parents were very just people. They believed fully in human beings and they believed in justice. And I think that was generally known. I remember once a person came to our house, a young man, who wore a big crucifix, and who talked with my mother for a long time. I didn’t know what they were talking about because we weren’t allowed to listen, but afterwards she said that he could stay in our house. She said he was a very good man. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I did know it was unusual for someone who was not Jewish to stay at our house, even though my parents were good friends with the priest. But she housed him for something deeper than his being a good man. Evidently

something was already going on in the country. I was very little and didn’t understand it. But in later years, my mother told us that the man had been a revolutionary. Somebody who knew that my mother, besides being a pious woman, was a person who understood the social struggle, put him in touch with her, I think he came from Minsk; he was sent in to our village as an organizer, and I think he helped prevent a lot of pogroms and killings.

My mother was also the midwife in the village. She attended every child that was born there. If, in the middle of the week, my mother baked something that was made out of white flour—because neither the Russian peasants nor we ever had white bread except on Saturday, thinking it was special because city people ate it all the time—we knew that a child had been born in the village. Then she would take tea and sugar, which was a big thing for the peasants, and she would go away, sometimes in the middle of the night, and stay until the child was born, helping the peasant woman. She would bring her this white bread, thinking it’s better for her, and the tea and sugar, and the peasant woman would stay home one day and then she would go back to the fields to work.

[Chapter] 3

In 1904, a lot of the young men from my village went away to fight in the Russian-Japanese war, and being away opened their eyes to many things. When they came home, they saw the hard labor and the abuse of the wealthy owners differently. They no longer felt they didn’t deserve better, and with the understanding came the resistance. And this I understood even as a child, because the peasants would talk. They would sit around either outside, if it was warm, or in their homes, and we children could listen, if we were interested. The children would listen to what the elders talked about. That’s why I have all these vivid memories of this sort of a thing. Otherwise I certainly wouldn’t have known about it.

Most of what we knew about what went on in remote villages came from the gypsies. Every spring, the gypsies would come around and stay in our villages for a few weeks, and when they came, they would tell lots of stories. There were lots of thieves among them and they would steal things from the peasants but in essence they were good people. The peasants liked them very much. The gypsies would tell stories of what was going on in the cities and in the towns, and this is how the peasants learned. We never saw a black person; we didn’t know. When we read in little books that somewhere there were black people, we almost didn’t believe it. We thought it was impossible. How could there be black people? Because we never saw them. But we knew about the Chinese and Japanese. We knew that these people were yellow and wore braids. In fact, they came through our village as peddlers. They would come from very far away. They spoke Russian freely. I don’t really know if they were Chinese. Maybe they were Russian Asiatic people who were both Chinese and Russian at the same time. We all lived in Russia, but Russia is immense; we didn’t know about these Asiatic places then.

It was around this time, moving toward 1910, that we began to feel, you know, that leaving was becoming inevitable. The pressure on the government was so great that we knew they wouldn’t be able to prevent the Jewish pogroms from spreading. That’s why the Jewish immigration started.

People in my village—the Jews, not the peasants—started to talk about immigrating around 1910. They started to talk, but not everybody immigrated. It was just a few people who decided that they would immigrate because of the pogroms and the pressure from the government, and because they hoped that they could achieve a better education for their children. You needed money to immigrate and not everyone had the money. What would happen is that one person from a little town, from a little village, would go to America and start some kind of a business, like a tailoring business, or something, and then bring over some people who they calledlandsleit, which means the people from the same village or town. And they exploited them here. The first ones to come exploited the ones who came later. This was their cheap labor. They would send their landsleit a ticket for the journey, the people would come and work to pay off their debt, and they would get paid very little.

That’s why it happened to develop that a lot of people got wealthy, while most of the people stayed poor, even though they worked very very hard. This is when the unions started to develop in the United States, especially in the needle trades.

I can remember the feelings everybody had about immigrating, about wanting to go to a free country where you could feel like the rest of the people, not feel that even though you’re so friendly with the peasants, and your neighbors love you and you love them—you would wake up in the middle of the night to help a neighbor—you were still second-class, a pariah. They wanted to go to a place where they would feel free and equal. And that was the attraction of the United States. We heard it was so wonderful here. You could earn money and do what you wanted to do. You were free to go to any city to live. In Russia, it was “normal” for Jews not to be allowed to live in certain cities. They couldn’t live in Leningrad or Moscow. Even in Kiev you needed permission to live. It was like the black people here who couldn’t be served in a restaurant in their own city.

Sometimes I’m sorry we ever left that village. I say to myself, “Why did we have to leave such a heavenly place? Such a beautiful place?” I forget what happened in the middle, and all the reasons. All I see is the beautiful forests, the river, and when we were running around, and all the good things, all the food that we had.

In any case, my brother and sister had already left for America and we missed them very much. That was the reason that we wanted to come and settle here and build a life together in the city. Maybe, the way I think now, it was a mistake. But this is what happened. The big wave of immigration had already started; from all the villages, Jewish people started to immigrate. Even my Jewish teacher was already in the United States by the time I left.

We had mixed feelings about going, though. It was very hard to leave your place. You had the feeling that you could never come back, that the relationships you were leaving behind—uncles, aunts, cousins, friends—would be completely cut off. But then it was decided by my father that we should sell out and go. Those who stayed behind would come later. (Of course, when the war came, we didn’t hear from each other for the longest time.)

Once the decision was made, the only real preparation we needed was the mental preparation. You took some things, you had some tickets, and you went to the United States. And, naturally, people went steerage when they came here. I remember the day I left. My heart sank. I remember standing and looking back at the whole picture of the village. Then I turned around quickly and I just walked off.

We had to ride by wagon to the town where the train was. Then we took the train to Libava, a long overnight journey, which is where I saw my first movie. We hadn’t known there were such things. This was already 1914, just before the war. A lot of people, including one of my uncles, were leaving Russia then to avoid having their sons taken into the Army. The boat journey lasted 14 days. I remember it was so stormy that I thought we would never reach our destination.

[Chapter] 4

When we first came to New York, we lived on Ninth Street. The house is still there, believe it or not. It was Ninth Street and Avenue C. I don’t think we had Avenue D then, because I remember that there were boats moving on the East River and they had little platforms—there was a platform right at the end, by Ninth Street, where boats docked. We used to go there, take our shoes off, and put our feet in the water. In the evenings, when it was very hot, we used to sleep on the roof, under a blanket; nobody was afraid.

New York was a surprise. It all looked so big, even though it really wasn’t compared to what we have today. When you, come from a little village, you’re naturally surprised in a big city. But young children have a way of getting oriented very quickly. The freedom of the large city, the big city streets, and the things you can do are very appealing. And in those days people were doing a lot. You belonged to a cultural club, you went to school at night, you were very healthy, you didn’t feel the pressure of the city. And the city itself! Sunday we would get dressed up and for five cents on the Fifth Avenue bus take a ride to Central Park. That was an outing. Going to Van Courtlandt Park was an outing. Life wasn’t that pressing, as it is today. It was much different, much. And you got imbued with doing all these things. I was very excited about it, about the openness, about being able to go to school, about going to the ocean, which had seemed such a big thing. To this very day I think I never grew up because it still excites me, I still think that New York is a very exciting city. There used to be an open trolley that went all the way out to Coney Island. Can you imagine how beautiful that was? The excitement of the city was so great, from the first day that I came, that I hardly ever realized there were any hardships.

In school, listening to the teachers speak, I thought I couldn’t hear, so strange was the language. But we were persistent in going to school, and little by little I started to hear words. Inside of six months I began to understand the language and started to speak it. Outside of school, we were mostly Yiddish-speaking and Russian-speaking. But we made a pact that we would not speak any other language until we learned some English. That’s why in a short time, we learned to speak, although I never got rid of my accent.

When you’re a teenager, everything new is very exciting. Especially when you come from a rural part of a country to a large city. It was 1915, a high period of immigration to the United States, and for Jewish people the first part was New York. I met people who I knew before, from Europe. One of my teachers, who wasn’t very much older than I was already equipped for teaching children. The war was on and young people were impressed with its horrors, not impressed in the sense of rejoicing; rather you felt a pressure, a certain responsibility. I felt a responsibility that I’ve got to do all I can to stop this war, knowing the struggle of the Russian people and all that they had been through. Now they were in a war, fighting for their lives, and being killed, and I was in this country, and rejoicing about it. I was enjoying freedom. I felt full freedom. It will be very hard for the people today to understand that living on Ninth Street, which was so close to the water, could give you the sense of freedom. People weren’t so fearful then. You would see kids having a fight outside. There was lots of fights between the Jewish and non-Jewish kids. But it was entirely different. People weren’t afraid that they would be robbed or stabbed or killed.

I was impressed with the whole of the East Side. To me, it looked so very big. Everything was on a very large scale. And seeing it was so close to the Russian Revolution, I think a lot of the younger people, especially those who came from Europe, not only Russia, felt that the revolution would happen here. There were lots of open-air political meetings, on Union Square, on the square in front of St. Mark’s Church. Every day there would be meetings and we kept busy going to them, either after work or after dinner, in the summer, when it got dark later. The meetings inspired us to form our own club.

At that time I didn’t understand the Socialist problem, I only knew the problems of the world, that something is going on. So we got together a few youngsters and made a club, called theYiddishe Yugend, where we discussed the problems of the world; we thought we knew an awful lot. By that time we already read newspapers and I felt that we were getting developed. In the meantime, we still lived under the respect of the family: Friday night was the big dinner. Where it came to your home life, life went on as if it were a continuation of the European experience. But at the same time, the American life was partly taking over. We didn’t realize it because we didn’t see the changes in us, but it was happening.

We were imbued with something that we honestly wanted. Because the United States was our selected country, so the love for the country was great, and we wanted it to be pure, to be almost holy. To be like the scriptures that young people were taught to live by. We were very naive. We wanted the United States to live by the codes that we thought were right.

That was about the time my cousins took me up to work in the needle trade. I forget what my first job was, but I got $2 or $3 a week. I was 14 years old. I came up to the union and said, “I want to become a union lady.” They laughed. They said, “Who sent you, little girl?” “Well,” I said, “I came myself. I heard the speakers.” I thought the unions were everywhere already.

The garment factories then used children between 12 and 18, as well as married people. There were a lot of Italian women in the trade then, terribly exploited. The bosses took advantage of them and would pay them very little. The shops were not that organized. Even if it was a union shop, the union didn’t come around very often to check on the conditions. The first job I had when I came to the factory was pulling out the bastings from the coats. The basting is the thread that holds the material together temporarily until the garment is worked in the machine. As a youngster, I didn’t know how to make a garment, so I pulled bastings. When the garment was ready, all the bastings had to be pulled out before it could be pressed. Finally, I learned how to sew on buttons. When that happened I was really a worker and moved on.

I remember that the boss I had on my second job used to scream, “I’m 34 years old and I’m a college graduate!” So we couldn’t tell him anything. He thought that, after all, we were all kids, from different countries; very few had been born here, Even the Italian kids who were born here knew very little. And he would feel that we have no right to tell him that the work is too hard or whatever.

But by my going to these open-air meetings and listening, I learned that you have to speak up for your rights. Evidently I didn’t understand that maybe I would cut off the income of my needs by being so outspoken. People used to do a lot of talking while we were sitting sewing on the buttons. Most of• them were women who had children my age or older. And I would tell them, “You can’t work for so little. You work so hard and you look so tired, you can’t do it.” So we organized a committee. I said to them, “Look, the two of you, let’s go into the boss and no matter how much he screams, we’ll tell him we can’t work for that little.” So they listened to me, the younger ones, and we went in, and we talked to him, and he screamed and he carried on. We said, “Alright, we want to have the business agent come in.” It was a union shop, but the union business agents didn’t pay attention to you as long as you left them alone. I don’t remember whether they felt they couldn’t press our grievance at that particular time—sometimes even a union, no matter how honest it is, feels the danger of pressing for too much at the wrong time. Well, I didn’t understand danger. All I understood was that these women were working for so little, and I was working for so little.

The boss screamed and screamed, but in the end we started to make more money. I guess he realized it would be better to give in than to fight us. He wasn’t a very bad man. I don’t even know if he was able to pay or not. From that day on, he named me Emma Goldman. This was my nickname in the shop. “Hah! Emma Goldman!” That’s how he would greet me. Once, when he was in a good mood, I told him, “Who is Emma Goldman? And why are you calling me Emma Goldman?” So he explained who she was. At that time, she was on the East Side doing a lot of organizing work, and got very curious. I found a meeting where she was speaking and went to listen. I think it was at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. I don’t remember

what it pertained to, but I know it had to do with the work I was doing, and she was very very exciting. She was already an old lady.

From then on, as I was growing up, growing older, and going to night school, my life in New York took on a deeper dimension. I was still living on Ninth Street, and our club had grown to about 50 very progressive people. People came and lectured to us about the Socialist and Zionist movements. I started to go to the Yiddish theatre and saw that the theatre reflected the life of the people, which inspired us to write and put on our own little plays. Most of us had never seen a theatre before coming to New York. And here was the Kessler Theatre, Tomashevski’s Theatre, and, especially, the Adler’s Theatre. They were all great artists and had a great repertory.

We started to go every Saturday to different theatres, first to the Yiddish theatre, and then we learned to go to the English-speaking theatre, and to good concerts. The plays we put on weren’t very professional but we did it because we thought it would be interesting to do. I remember playing the part of a young man’s sweetheart and I had to die! And when I died, I had to stretch out on the floor. But we didn’t know how to make me look pale, we didn’t even use cosmetics, and I had very red cheeks. I remember the mother of the boy who played my sweetheart sitting close to the stage and saying, “Look at that, my son’s sweetheart has died with red cheeks!” It was hard not to break out laughing.

Well, this period went on for a while. As we grew older, our interest started to spread more and more, and we started to meet and get interested in the Jewish writers, the older ones and the younger, aspiring ones. East Broadway and Second Avenue were in their prime; for the Jewish people, it was Broadway. The office of the satirical magazine, Kundes, was on East Broadway. In Yiddish, kundes is a satire that laughs at everybody. And the editor’s sister ran a restaurant nearby where everybody came because it was homemade cooking and because of the atmosphere. The younger people just flourished in this atmosphere.

Then we started to come to the Royale on Second Avenue at Twelfth Street. By that time, the Jewish Art Theatre across the street, under the direction of Maurice Schwartz,

was already well known. (The building is still there. In fact, Jewish plays were still produced there until this year. Now it’s a movie theatre.) Jewish culture was really at its height, as far as theatre was concerned. And in the Cafe Royale, not only the Jewish writers would come, but the writers from all over the United States. It used to be open day and night: you could always find interesting people there, discussions going on all the time, discussions between the Jewish groups—the different kinds of Zionists, because there were a lot of them—mixed in with the socialists and the anarchists; by this time, the meaning of our struggle started to crystalize.

It was only a couple of years after the Triangle Fire, and we began to understand that we were being exploited, and our lives were in danger. We started to participate in strikes, to protest our working conditions.

I remember the first strike I was in; it was outside a shop on Greene Street in what we now call Soho. In this particular shop, we were entitled to get, I think, $2 or $3 a week strike benefits. The young people were so naive; we thought that everybody was honest; we said that we would eat at home and do without the benefits. We refused to take the money so that it could go to those workers who had families to support, even though we needed the money, too. The people on strike never had anything saved. There was a lot of slack time during which people didn’t work. They would buy their food on trust and when they started to work, they paid off. But by the time they paid off what they owed, they had to buy on trust again. So we decided we’d forego the couple of dollars coming to us. Let somebody else get more. These were principles instilled in us by our parents. My father, for example, had never signed a contract in all his life, even though he was doing business. He would say, “I’ll never take anybody to court. If a man wouldn’t pay me, he wouldn’t pay me. Because I trust him. That’s his problem.” Well, I guess we absorbed some of that faith.

During that time, I started to go to the Rand School, which was on 15th Street; I think it was number 7 East 15th Street. Most of the teachers were from the socialist movement, Scott Nearing taught us economics. We started to understand the life of human beings. We started to understand capitalism. There were more than a thousand

students, many of whom were sent there by their unions. You could take classes during the day or in the evening. I used to go at night, after work, part of the week to the Rand School and part of the week to Washington Irving High School. I went on my own, not as part of a union group, and not for a degree. It was just self-education. The Rand School is where we got our development along social lines.

You must understand that, at that time, society as a whole was not as promiscuous as it is today. That’s the reason that we had that great trust in the people; even in the government, we had trust. We were learning to protect the country for the working class, but we also felt that the people who had been elected to run the government were more or less honest.

We unionized our shop in the same spirit. Within the union meetings there was always the feeling that we don’t sabotage in the shop. Sometimes you would hear the anarchists saying that they wanted a certain uprising here or there. But we felt that in order to get an honest day’s pay you had to give an honest day’s work.

And yet the bosses would always want nonunion people. They would try to grant them a little more so that they wouldn’t join the union. They never realized what they were doing to themselves. They always accused the union people of not giving them an honest day’s work, which they really did. While they were working, the union people were the best people. They didn’t waste their time. They felt it like a responsibility. The honesty of the person was important.

So we began to fight. And naturally our wages came up. We started to earn a lot—a lot more than when we first started. We got $25 a week, which was a lot, and then we started to make $30, $40 a week. Then we won a shorter work week, first from a 6-day week to a 6-day week, then to 44 hours. When we got to a 44-hour week, we felt like we had won a great deal.

Most of the union meetings were held on East 4th Street at the Labor Lyceum. I think the building is still there. We’d meet once every two months, unless there was reason to meet more often. They were general meetings, people from a lot of shops from the same neighborhood, the same industry. It was interesting, too, that at that time the younger writers would take interest in coming to the union meetings.

If the union sent you to the Rand School it wasn’t so that you could get a degree but so that you would develop along the union line. You studied the social system and you learned the language. I strongly believe that this was the right thing for me. The unions sent their best younger people into these courses, but you didn’t have to become anything in exchange. You didn’t have to become a business agent or a high official. It wasn’t for any diploma, or anything. It was only to be developed, to be able to participate, and to carry on the struggle for the union and for the working class.

We used to hang on to Scott Nearing’s coattails because ft we admired him so much. That a man knew so much, and could give so much, was amazing. I remember listening to him speak in Webster Hall just before he went to prison for being against the war, the First World War. I forget whether it was before or after the Russian Revolution. And I heard Debs speak there, as well as Meyer London, who was a Socialist assemblyman. There were some big, meetings, but many small meetings. People would organize meetings in the street. The anarchists used to speak a lot at the corners and the younger people drew from all of it; it wasn’t just at one side that we would stand. We took enough interest to go to all of these things without prejudice.

There was a lot going on. The school was just a small part of it. The big school was the outside. For example, I remember an incident, already in the early 1930s. By that time I was married and had my first child. We came by the corner of St. Mark’s Church because there was a meeting out in front. There were people there attacking the Soviet Union. And one of the people who knew me from the union, from an earlier time, ran over to me and said, “You must get up and say something! Because look what they’re saying!” He had tears in his eyes. “Look what they’re saying, they’re attacking and attacking!” You see, we were very devoted to the Soviet Union because it was the first country that had had its revolution.

But I didn’t want to say anything. My husband said, “Oh, come on. You’re not frightened, you’re not frightened.” The man on the platform kept on challenging. “If anybody can deny what I’m saying here, let him come forward!!”

So I went up, and my heart was beating very fast, and I

remember speaking there for a long while. By that time there were a couple of hundred people standing there. And when I got through telling them what I had on my mind—and this was an accumulation of my development in the union along social lines—by that time, the previous speaker just ran away and left me on the platform.

[Chapter] 5

The Yiddishe Arbeiten Universitett (Jewish Workers University) grew out of the eagerness of the Jewish emigrants in those days. It must have started in the early 1920s. I didn’t get into it until about 1926. The organizers were the more progressive people in the Jewish branches of the International Workers Order (IWO). These people wanted to achieve more of the American language and life and culture and they also wanted to bring Jewish culture to the American people. They decided to build an institution that would help the young people, particularly the younger people who were growing up, to develop an appreciation of culture, beauty, and class consciousness. The money for it came in from pledges, from dues that people paid to belong to the branches of the IWO, and from a lot of contributions. Mostly the money came from working people. To build a university, in those days, didn’t require that much money. They took a loft on 14th Street near Luchow’s, which didn’t rent for that much, and all the professors, who had other regular jobs, volunteered their services. A lot of these would be hurt later in the McCarthy time, but then it was between the wars; things were still a little more liberal. Anyway, these professors were great scholars, immigrants like us, and whether they did get jobs somewhere else or not, lecturing in our country or in other countries, they were a great contribution to the universitett. There were also a lot of volunteers from workers—people in their teens and in their 20s—who did the work of collecting money and seeing to it that things were there when they were needed for people to come together and study.

At that time I was working at millinery, and working in a shop, and through the unions we were very busy. In the early 1920s, the unions were very young—10 to 20 years old—and very idealistic. We had a lot of union meetings and

we were busy. But each one of us tried to clear some time to develop ourselves, I started in the universitett by taking subjects that interested me. I was interested in history, and I was interested in economics, which had great appeal to the working class there. We wanted to understand the economics of the world so that we could be forward-looking. To us, the world was going to be without conflict. The slogan at that time was “No more wars,” It was after the First World War and that was to be the last war. “No War” Wilson got elected on that. We wanted our country to be ideal; we believed sincerely that Wilson was right, that our economy would lead us to no more wars.

We didn’t consider ourselves working too hard. All we felt was that we are working hard in the factories and that we’ll build our unions to keep us on a level, on a keel, but we were very sincere about our country, that we are building a new life, and therefore we didn’t feel that the hard work that we were producing in the shop and all this was an imposition or that we were giving too much. In my time, we didn’t feel that way. We felt that we were building the new life, and equality, that we’d have equality, and in those days we didn’t—and we already started to fight for black equality.

The universitett operated every night from Monday through Friday. There were no day classes. We went there after work and we would never be through. I remember going maybe three times a week, from around eight to eleven. We were so eager that we never ran out of the class. We were always standing around, and when we didn’t have to take notes, we were still discussing. This was a very interesting period of our history, because it was just after the world war, after the Russian revolution, and near—although we didn’t realize it—the coming to power of German fascism, Nazism. We were always analytical after the classes, both in the building and on the streets when we walked home. I was living uptown in what today you would call a students’ commune, and at least once a week our group walked from 14th Street to 102nd Street and Madison Avenue. Still involved in the discussion, we would walk up to Central Park, walking with one of our teachers, continuing the class. We walked for the physical exercise and for the exercise of the mind.

In the class, discussion was very open; it was give and take. You were able to ask questions, no matter what side you took or what you knew, and the teacher would discuss every question that was asked. Even if someone asked a question that we thought was inappropriate, we still considered it, because we were already at an age that we considered the human beings, that we considered, “All right, if it bothers him, it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t tie in to the lecture of the professor.” The professor himself felt like that and he would stop dead in his tracks to clarify.

A good example is when we studied Marx in economics classes. There were some people who weren’t acquainted at all with Marx’s work, and they would ask just the question that would pertain to what they understood, what they had heard from friends or the attacks that they herd or something, which did not pertain to the scientific explanation. The teachers always took it very seriously. They would recommend what to read and suggest that the student come prepared for the next lesson, ready to discuss the question further. They didn’t care whether you believed in one approach over another, but they wanted you to understand it. Then it was up to you. You could accept it or not. Nobody was made fun of or looked down upon.

You weren’t going for a diploma and you didn’t get grades but everyone took the work very seriously. Probably more seriously than the ones who went to our American universities, because those were young people who were being supported by their parents and by the state, and who wanted to make a career for themselves, more than study; the study took second place to the career. At the universitett, knowledge itself was your diploma. The goal was to live with the rest of humanity, and to help yourself, and to help the other people, the workers in the shops.

That’s why, in the shops, we always would try to conduct discussions with the people we worked with, sharing what we were learning. You didn’t look down upon them, didn’t feel that their minds wouldn’t understand. Even if they opposed you, you still carried on discussions during any leisure time you had at work.

Now, I look back upon the universitett as one of the great contributions of the people of that time, because the working class was uplifted. There were lots of people in the shops

who didn’t know how to read or write because they came from different places. Some would come with high education and some would come without education at all. I knew one young woman who cam from a part of Austria called Galicia. She must have been, when we met, about 17, 18, and she didn’t know how to read a clock, Believe it or not, by the time this woman was 25, she was a very developed person. She learned to read and write and, later, she would tell, in a very beautiful way, the story of her not knowing till that age how to tell time.

People weren’t penalized if they didn’t know how to speak English. For one thing, the classes were held in Yiddish. Secondly, we had classes that taught people to read and write English. Because they were able to speak in Yiddish, and learned Yiddish, through the Yiddish they also learned English because their minds started to work differently. If you’re educated in one language, the other languages come easier. But if it’s total blindness, then naturally it’s much harder. That’s why it was easier for them first to learn in their own language.

I wanted to be a teacher. I was always interested in teaching because how else can you get to the people, how else can we get organized, how else can we do it! But by that time spoke and read a lot of English, and one of the directors of the universitett, Pop Mendel, who was a dentist, influenced me otherwise; he thought I should become an organizer. Pop was a person we respected and loved. He died only a few years ago, when he was way over 90. He influenced us to think about America as our country, and what kind of country we would like to have, because we chose to come here. And we called it our country from the minute that we were admitted here. Notwithstanding the fact that I say now to the fascists, “You tell us to go back to where we came from—” They were an accident here, we were not an accident. We came because this was our choice. That’s why we very much wanted our country, and why I want it still; I still believe that our country will be an example; we will overcome a lot of things.

I suppose because I was able to get up and speak a lot in the class—I had a big mouth—and I questioned a lot of things in the class that made Pop take notice. He said one day, “No, you can’t be a teacher of children, you’ve got to be

with the rest of the workers, the ones who are your age, who are in the factories. You can influence your peers, you can tell them, because you want the right things for the people.”

Fourteenth Street was so much alive then. Fourteenth Street from Second Avenue maybe up to Fourth Avenue, those couple of blocks, that was an interesting area. It teemed with young people. There were prostitutes nearby as there are now, but not on those blocks. And even if they were, to us they were people. The young people would come pouring out of Washington Irving High School and out of the universitett and we would all pile into the cafeterias that were there on the same side of the street that Luchow’s is Very big cafeterias. And there we would come in and get coffee and whatever people wanted—if people were hungry, they would have their meals. You saw a lot of people with smiles on their faces. There was no question of being frightened of things. Fourteenth Street was a very important street at that time and the cafeterias were like our clubs. You could come in and eat and in the meantime, while you were eating, you would talk of all kinds of things—from the theatre to school. People were always talking, telling jokes, arguing points carried over from class. Some of the things would come out very funny, very peculiar, because for most of us English was still to be mastered.

It was five cents for a cup of coffee, five cents for a big piece of cake, ten cents for a plate of soup in Ratner’s on Second Avenue; the rolls were free. A lot of hungry people would get a plate of soup, and we were big sports—we would pay ten cents for soup, we couldn’t buy anything else, but we left five cents for the waiter.

There were always discussions in the streets, there were all kinds of socialists around, then anarchists, and just pure unionists, and already there was the beginning of the Communist Party, because there was a split in the socialist party and everybody was on the corners and everybody was trying to explain. And Union Square was the Mecca, our Hyde Park. We would always get up there. By that time, there was a cafeteria opposite Union Square on the side of Klein’s, and Irving Place had a theatre where Paul Muni played in very literary plays.

Melech Epstein was typical of the kind of teachers we had. Melech was very good. He taught courses in Yiddish literature. In his regular job he worked as a journalist for the Freiheit. The Freiheit had just emerged, a communist daily, and a lot of the teachers at the universitett were among those who organized the Freiheit. I remember the first time I saw Melech Epstein. This was before I got into the universitett. We had gone to hear him lecture. We saw this man, and the younger people started laughing. He looked so homely to us. Horrible. But by the time he was through with the lecture, he seemed to us like the handsomest person in the whole world. He had such a beautiful command of his language. And he had such a beautiful projection. And he had such a clear mind. And he just grew beautiful. This is what I remember of Melech Epstein of that time.

We didn’t spend very much time in the public schools. We got our education from all the waves of immigrants who came before us, and from the institutions they started, like the universitett,where the emphasis was on social development. In my estimation, this was in the air. We felt this necessity. And all these people—among them giants in their fields—were giving it to us.

I was taking courses at Washington Irving High School at the same time I was going to the universitett. And when we would get up to ask and discuss questions and to talk, the teachers would be amazed, because we could bring to the discussion the culture that we were getting elsewhere, pointing out perspectives that had never been considered. One teacher, I forgot her name but I think she was Irish, would say, “You know, I think that I learned more from you than you learned from me.” She was a very honest and fine woman.

The universitett was important to me for another reason. I met my husband there. We took the same courses and when we decided to get married, we decided that we would start out across country, hitchhiking. In those days it wasn’t considered dangerous. It was the thing to do. The universitett was closed in the summer. We figured we’d be back by the time it opened again. But there was so much to see and the country was so vast and beautiful, and the contact with the people was so stimulating, that it took us a

whole year before we did come back, And when we did come back, I was expecting a child. Instead of going back to school, I followed Pop Mendel’s advice and got involved in activities amongst the workers, In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

The big school was the outside.
I learned that you have
to speak up
for your rights.

Published in December 1976 by the Community Documentation Workshop of the Preservation Youth Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 44 10th St. and 2nd Ave NYC 10008. Distributed by St Marks Church.