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py New Year! Happy New Year!' came faintly above the other sounds to my room. What had the past year brought to me, and what will the New Year bring? Like a curse, the wishes rang in my ears.
Everything began to mingle before me. All the experiences of the past year chased through my brain: my home, Russia with its persecutions, my departure, my journey, my arrival, first experiences in a factory in Canada, my arrival in New York, five weeks of work in a factory in New York, and then the nine weeks of searching for work. The memories crowded my brain and benumbed me with their hopelessness.
Home, home! How I wanted to be there, in that spacious living-room with four windows all opening on the street; at that long table with the elder children seated round it, each busy doing his or her own work; mother seated near the brick oven, bending over a boxful of goose feathers, separating the down, preparing pillows for her daughters' future homes; all awaiting my father's return, who after the hard day's work in his school gave private lessons in the evening, in order to keep up his 'small' family. The younger children, playing joyfully on the floor, delighting to play tricks on us, called from time to time, "There's father!' and laughed gleefully when they succeeded in making us raise our heads, in vain, to greet our self-sacrificing breadwinner.
Home! To be back in the warm home under mother's devoted caresses; to be at home, sitting with father like a true comrade, discussing with him new plans and methods, for the success of our school, where I was his assistant for more than two years!
My father was a Hebrew teacher. As only a small proportion of Jews gained admission into the Russian educational
institutions, Russian was taught secretly in the Hebrew schools. The Hebrew teachers were not allowed to teach Russian in their schools without a special license, which they could seldom obtain. I taught Russian in my father's school. My own small school of sixteen girls was also without a license.
My education I received from private teachers because I had never been able to get a chance to enter a Russian school. Jews are permitted to form only five per cent of the total enrollment of pupils in public and high schools, and a decreasing percentage in the higher institutions. Once, when I was ready to pass my examination, my application was rejected: the list of possible applicants was full. Another time, the examination was made so difficult that out of sixty girls only fourteen passed nine Russian and five Yiddish; the rest, all Yiddish, failed. Questions absolutely out of the course were put to us. The majority of us knew the prescribed course thoroughly because we were aware of the difficulties the government created for Jewish scholars and were prepared for them. Still, we failed.
Those long years of struggle for an education! At fourteen, I already gave lessons to beginners, so as to earn the money to pay for my books and teachers, that I might be less a burden to my father. His highest ambition was to see me get my teacher's certificate, so that we could open up a licensed school and stop paying graft to the chief of police, who threatened us continually. Many a time he and his guards would disturb us in the middle of the day, interrupting our work and frightening the children, who feared the uniforms as if they concealed devils. Each visit of that kind meant a precious twenty-fivedollar bill. My father had paid fines several times for my school because I was under age; and even with a license,
I could not teach until I was twentyone, so that my father bore all the responsibility.
With my second failure to obtain a certificate, all our hopes, cherished for so many years, began to vanish slowly. The chief of police assailed us more frequently; we were less and less able to fill up his bottomless pocket. After each visit, days of misery followed. Many and many a time my father and I sat through the night, thinking and thinking how to better our present condition, what future to provide for the children. But nothing could be done. Members of the universe, people with brains and ambition, we were not citizens, we were children of the cursed Pale, with our rights limited, the districts in which we could live and the trades and professions we could follow, all prescribed for us. What would become of us? What could we expect? Fight for liberty? For equal rights? The persecution was so terrible-for one free word one found a home in prison.
Thunderstruck by my last words, they all looked at me. The first to break the silence was my mother.
'Are you mad? A young girl-alone a far country!'
She trembled, tears flowed from her eyes; she felt insulted that I should think of leaving home.
Father sat silent, his head hidden in his hands. The youngsters were crying with mother.
'Never let me hear that nonsense again.'
'But, mother, I shall go finally. I do not want to sacrifice my life. I don't want to be condemned to eternal limitations! I want to be free. I shall go to America, to a free country, where everybody gets free education. Imagine, free education! I shall work to earn my living and study in the free evening schools; and when I have firm ground under my feet, I shall help you all. Think of the children going to
‘O father, it is suicidal!' I would free schools, growing up free citizens!' often say.
He sat downcast, as if guilty in having given life to children whose fate like his was to exist within the Pale, be in the hands of the government dogs, fear the least drunken moujik who, influenced by the priests, would so often make a sudden attack on the property and sometimes the lives of the Yiddish people. They say that they considered it a virtue to rob and kill the enemies of Christ.
Freedom I wanted. 'Father,' I once said, when our family was seated around the table ready for the Sabbath meal, father, I have been thinking of myself and of you all, thinking hard for the last three weeks. What will become of me and of all of us if we remain in this hole? The future appears so
My mother would not listen, nor would my father. would my father. Except for my younger brother, I had no one's approval. But my determination was strong and my fight began.
For many days, my mother's tears would not dry. She would tearfully picture to me all the hardships in a far country.
'No matter how bitter life is here, still there is no place like home. There will be no one to look after you there. I shall live in constant anxiety. I shall not sleep nights thinking that you may not have a warm place to sleep, that you may not have a meal in time, nor your laundry washed, nor your clothes mended.'
Poor mother! Her sensitive heart perceived beforehand all the misery that life prepared for me when I found
myself on the other side of the globe. 'But, mother, I am no more a baby; I have passed eighteen and am big enough to take care of myself, whereever I am.'
"Think of mother and me! What will become of us? Do you know what it means to part with a child? In sorrow or in gladness we must all be together,' father would say.
Not succeeding in persuading me to remain, he declared that he would not give me a passport, and without one I could not leave Russia.
Weeks passed. I failed to get their consent. As a last resource I tried declaring a hunger-strike.
When, after three days of hunger, tired and weakened, I still refused to eat, father brought me a passport.
Then preparations began. Sewing and packing all dipped in mother's tears. Then the day of my departure, that forever memorable day! Mother fainting, the children crying, father madly walking back and forth across the living-room, the house full of neighbors who had come to say good-bye. My pupils, all in line, with flowers, were there to say farewell.
When I was already on the stagecoach, my father jumped up, clutched me in his arms and bit rather than kissed my cheeks. That last scream from my mother's wounded heart still rings in my ears; a scream from a heart torn, it may be forever, from its dearest and best beloved!
I left all behind me with regret, and yet with no regret. Oh, the weary days in the train! Each third-class coach was divided into sections, with eight hard benches, four upper and four lower; each bench planned for two passengers to sit, but no place to sleep. During those three days, until we reached the seaport, we slept sitting or leaning on our baggage. The great unwashed mass who had occupied those benches
before us, sleeping in their clothes and often in their kojucks, had left insects behind them which made our lives miserable. My clothes were full of them when I arrived at Libau. I im'mediately sought out a bath-house and cleansed myself from the parasites; but the emigration houses where we stopped were equally infested. Emigrants are treated worse than prisoners, not only in Russia, but in England. We were driven from one bad place to another still worse. In London our baggage was opened, our clothes thrown carelessly together with those of the other passengers, to be disinfected by steam, then replaced in our trunks, all rolled up and wet. Everything was so mussed that I had not even a shirtwaist fit to wear on the voyage. The food in the emigration houses was not fit for animals; but we were only emigrants.
On the steamer, we traveled steerage to Canada, together with unwashed Russian peasants, and Germans only a little cleaner. We only two of us, a girl friend and myself-were lost among them like little wrens among a flock of crows.
It was impossible to sit with them at the table; not used to forks and knives, they would dip their hands into the platter and grab all the food. We begged the interpreter to bring us some food to our rooms, but he said it was against the rules. For two days, I took nothing but a glass of tea.
We dreaded to eat with them, and spent most of our time on deck. On the third day, I became seasick and did not leave my berth for four days. Our appeals to the interpreter for food in our room were always met with the laconic
1 A loose gathered overcoat lined with lambskin; a splendid hiding-place for all sorts of vermin.- THE AUTHOR.
reply, "Them orders is orders. You cannot get anything in your rooms.' I would have starved had not a gentle Englishman from the third class brought me an orange occasionally. With his help we tipped the interpreter and waiter, and then 'Them orders is orders,' was forgotten; we had our food in our room.
On the seventh day, I recovered, and spent the remaining seven days on deck or in the third class with the English people they were all British in the third class-who arranged concerts there each evening.
Some hours before our arrival at Quebec, we were held up by quarantine officers. A man in the steerage had contracted typhoid fever, and all passengers in the steerage and third class were kept in quarantine for another two weeks. We were held prisoners and fed with meat filled with worms.
That also I left behind me, and took my first step on the other side of the globe full of hope and ready to stand against anything and everything.
From Canada, where I had been fairly prosperous, I ran because of its provincial mental atmosphere. My restless mind sought something to inspire me, to interest me, to absorb me. My second stop, Chicago, was also unsatisfactory, and I decided to try the much-feared New York.
'New York, the devil's nest!' How people warned me against it, trying to keep me back! A girl with no trade, no relations, will soon get lost. Youth fades there so quickly,' they would say.
If my people could not keep me from coming to America, strangers surely could not keep me from going to New York. So in the last week of September, 1912, I arrived in New York, with eight dollars in my pocket and just one address, given me by the SocialistTerritorialist party-that of their New York headquarters.
In truth, I was full of fear all the way to New York a girl all alone in the great city, not knowing the language. 'Nonsense, I am old enough to take care of myself.' I tried to quiet my own fears as I had tried to quiet mother's.
When I stepped out of the train at the Grand Central Station, not then completed, a few middle-aged ladies, travelers' guides from the Y.W.C.A., stopped me, asking if I wanted assistance; but I looked at them, not knowing them, with distrust. I went out on the street carrying my heavy suitcase, and made my way through the various porters who offered their assistance. Seeing my suspicious look, they showed me their badges so as to reassure me; but I went to a policeman, who put me on a street car, and I found the office on Delancy Street, where a few members of the staff received me kindly.
Luckily, I soon found a job in Brooklyn in a knitting-mill. I was to sew pockets on sweaters, the same work I had done in Canada. It was the height of the season. Ten dollars a week was considered good money. I found a room on Eighth Street, also a room-mate. I managed to live on five dollars a week
one dollar for my share of the roomrent, three dollars for food, and one for general expenses. The other five I began to save. I wanted to save enough money for a ticket for my brother, so that he might come, and together we might bring the rest of the family.
All went smoothly. I joined the previously mentioned Dramatic Club, satisfying one of my first ambitions - to act. Lectures, readings, all were open to me. The only thing that bothered me was my shop. It was so different from those in which I had worked before. The atmosphere seemed so common and vulgar. In Canada, I had worked with girls whose language I had not understood, while here I worked with Yiddish girls. Their frankness in
manner and speech would often make me blush, and I became the object of their teasing. The forewoman, an old shrivelled scold, would open her mouth ornamented with a set of golden teeth.
'Looks as if you was only yesterday out of short skirts. Hm! hm! Still waters run deep'; and she would follow me with such a hateful look. She saw the foreman paying respectful attention to me and envied me.
I had no time to take any notice of her spiteful remarks. Nothing existed but the pursuits to which I gave my evenings. From my entrance into the shop in the morning, I waited for the clock to strike six, when I left the shop and all in it behind me. Eating my dinner in haste, I would hurry to the Dramatic Club, or some place where I could have companionship with people who had similar interests.
Five weeks passed, five happy weeks. I had already twenty-five dollars saved. 'I shall soon be able to buy a ticket and send for my brother,' was my constant thought.
But Fate decided differently. On the Monday of my sixth week, when I came into the shop, my forewoman came over to me and announced, 'It has got slow; there will be no work for you. But what do you care for work!' she added laughingly. She left me with no further explanation.
I went over to the foreman to ask for a reason. He explained to me that work had turned slow; the boss kept only the quickest and cheapest hands, and the forewoman was the one to select them. So I unexpectedly lost my job.
What was I to do now? With my lunch, two rolls and some butter, in my hands, I returned home. New York with its slack season, New York and starvation, stared me in the face.
I refused to be discouraged. I came to New York with eight dollars in my pocket. Now I had twenty-five. Was
Plus $1.00 for room rent, $2.52 per week, subject to change as soon as I find work.
The next thing was, what should I look for? I knew no trade, the season for sweaters would not begin for some time. I bought a paper and looked through the advertisements. It was too late to go to look for a job that day, so I spent the day at home, reading. My room-mate, a young Russian of twenty-five, worked on dresses at that time. She earnestly advised me to learn that trade, because the workers were beginning seriously to organize themselves into a union, and expected to better their condition the next season.
The next day, I began to look for work. Day in, day out, I would go out and measure the city from north to south, from east to west, in search of work. I did not fail to apply at one of the advertised places, but in vain. I could find no job at dresses, because in the slack time no learners were taken on. In general, learners were seldom taken in that trade. I tried straw hats. The papers were full of advertisements for workers in that industry, but I would have to pay twenty-five dollars and work a month without pay. Flowers, corsets, box-making, everything was tried. As time passed, my courage lessened with each vanishing dollar.