One of Them. Ii
Two weeks later, I had got strong enough to go to work. As I did not want to work in the presence of my former employer, I did not return there.
One of Clara’s friends, a cutter, took me up to the place where he was employed. It also was a non-union shop. There were quite a number of shops that remained unorganized, the workers refusing to go down, trusting the bosses’ promise to better their conditions without the help of the Union; like sheep led by wolves, who make them believe that the shepherd deprives them of liberty; that he docs not allow them to run in the spacious fields and gather the best grass for themselves; that without the shepherd they would enjoy more freedom. The foolish sheep, influenced by the wolves, would run away from the shepherd, only to be eaten by the hungry wolves who had purposely led them away from protection. They perished — victims of their own stupidity.
It was the height of the season, labor was scarce, the boss was obliged to grant all the union conditions, in order to prevent his workers from leaving his place. The system in that shop was very different from that in my first place. Later I learned that each shop has its own system. I felt like a beginner again.
The forelady, Yetta, bless her heart, was a kind and gentle person. She gave me all the necessary instructions, so that I got used to the work quickly. Week-work prevailed in the place. I expected to get seven dollars a week to start with; but how great was my astonishment when in my pay envelope I found ten dollars! Destiny seemed to play with me. I was so happy that evening when I brought my pay home. Breathlessly, I ran to break the news to Clara, and holding the envelope tight in my hand, told her to guess how much. She could not guess. The highest she could think of was eight; but when I placed the envelope near her eyes, she shouted with joy, —
’Here, here! You are a regular dressmaker already!’
‘Why, how dare you think otherwise?’ I answered in the same tone.
It was not the money that made me feel so happy, it was my worth that I thought of. I could not have expected to get ten dollars a week after having only a few weeks’ experience. My former boss, claiming to be a good friend of mine when I made five dollars a week, used to remind me that he did not think that I was worth even that much. Though a friend, he took advantage of a learner, as nearly every other manufacturer does.
Now that I was able to make ends meet more easily, my mind was at peace again. I began to think of my home and decided to send for my younger brother, a physically strongbuilt lad of eighteen. He, I thought, having a good trade, will soon be able to earn money, and both of us will help the rest of the family. Here again my friend Clara! She gave me a loan of fifty dollars, on payments of three dollars a week. The money I sent home for my brother’s ticket. I went on improving in my work from day to day. Very shortly afterwards I was employed in the sample-room to work on samples from time to time, and so I became a sample-maker.
Things once more went on smoothly. The strength of youth conquered. My cheerfulness returned. Again I went among my friends, entertaining them with song and infecting them with my joyousness. Even in the shop I felt happy. My neighbors were very kind and gentle, each one helping the other out of difficulties in her work.
At lunch-time I was always among the workers; very few would go out to lunch. Bologna, salome, corned beef, the Italian’s egg-plant fried in a lot of olive oil — all spread such a mixed, unpleasant smell over the shop. The few girls at my table would sit together, exchanging food with each other
— a cherry chocolate for an apple, a piece of orange for a banana, a corned-beef sandwich for some whitefish, and many other varieties. I would take part in the conversation, but I never shared in the exchange of food. Their kind offerings to me I refused, for I had nothing to give in return. My lunch consisted of either a cheese sandwich and milk, or an egg and milk. The pint of milk I bought every morning had to be used up, so I had a small bottle and would always bring the rest of the milk for my lunch.
‘No wonder you are so white, living on milk so exclusively,’ they would often tease me.
I told them that I liked nothing else, though often their pickles and smoked delicacies would awaken a sharp appetite in me.
Their conversation, very different from the vulgarities of the girls in the sweater shop, was much pleasanter. Very little talk about ‘fellers,’ swell evening pumps, lace petticoats that the six dollar wage-earners were constantly discussing, in the sweater shop. Here we talked about questions of the day, world-happenings, music, art, literature, and trade questions. One fault I found with them — their indifference to being members of the Dress-andWaist-Makers’ Union. They would belong, they all agreed, if they worked in a union shop; but they would not trouble to unionize this shop.
Now that I was provided with work again, I had time to think a little of myself. It was a long time that I had not had any kind of recreation. Before, I had not had any money, and then I was too busy to think of it. I longed so much for a good opera or drama, for they were the only places where my mind felt at ease. As food was necessary for my stomach hunger, music and drama were necessary for my mental hunger. Not being able to see or hear of our world’s masterpieces, I had to find satisfaction in reading them. My fantasia would often stage such wonderful sceneries, that when I happened to see the thing after I read it, I would often feel disappointed, for the impersonation on the stage would be much poorer than in my imagination.
At that time the Century Opera Company gave operas at popular prices. When I had my last debt paid up to my friend, Clara, I at once went to the Opera House, securing tickets for five dollars at twenty-five cents each, so that I was provided with opera tickets for the next few weeks. I had also secured tickets for the Manhattan Opera Company, where the world’s greatest dancer, Pavlova, danced at that time. For Caruso I paid the highest prices. He would often cost me a few lunches and dinners that I saved from, in order to have enough money for a standing ticket. Sometimes I would go right from work, without any dinner, to stand in line for general admission. If it happened to rain, my dress would be soaked through and through, and with wet clothes I would stand through the performance, changing from foot to foot, while there were often plenty of empty seats in the orchestra. Very often I would pay with a cold the next day. But the magic of the music was so great, that I forgot my cold as soon as it was over, and went again when I had another opportunity.
The opera house was the only place where I envied the rich. I did not envy their expensive clothes, nor their many valuable, useless diamonds; I envied their comfortable chairs, which were reserved for them, standing the most of the time during the performance empty. They would more often come in the second act, and leave the house at the beginning of the last; some of them would yawn all through the performance. Of course, the greater part of the audience sat listening to the opera with great pleasure. But many sat as if fulfilling a duty in listening to the music.
Besides the theatre, I also attended the different lectures about modern literature that I was so fond of. My favorite authors were Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Prshebishevsky, Gorky, Andreev, and many others.
At home, in Russia, I always had time enough to read. In the small town where I lived, there was no library. There was a small unimportant library in the public school, but only for the scholars, not for the public. With the exception of the cities, where there were good libraries, the government thought it unnecessary to install libraries. Our town was big enough to keep two monopol (stores of vodka), — that drink being a cause of ruin to the people, — but not for a library to enlighten the people’s minds.
A group of us young girls and boys got together, and with our own money, after a long time of hard struggle, created a small library, hoping to increase it from time to time. Not being able to get a permit from the government, we had to keep it in secret. But the chief of police soon learned of it. He immediately made a visit, searching for forbidden literature. The result of his visit was the destruction of our library, at that time two hundred roubles’ worth, and the arrest of many of our members. The worst thing of all was, that he sold our books, obtained through such hardship, to his officers, for ten, fifteen cents a book, and we could never get them back. We were left without any literature at all. This was only a part of the many discouraging experiences I had in my native home, Russia.
Russia! How hateful the word sounds to me! The ignorance in which Russia is keeping her people, the many obstacles she puts in the way of my nation, particularly the limitations of the civil rights for us, the desolation of our lives, and private ownership, that Russia is practicing so often, lights a fire of hate for her in our hearts, that burns for a lifetime.
When our library was destroyed, we began to think of some other way of getting literature, for we could not get along without it.
Many of us began to subscribe to weekly magazines, which gave very good classics as premiums in addition to the magazine. Some subscribed for the monthly magazine, The Modern World, in which many of the modern writers participated. A few of us had friends in the city, who supplied them with books through the mail. We would mostly read and discuss together. That helped us in widening our ideas and understanding of what we read. If any one happened to visit the city, he or she would attend as many lectures as possible; also the theatre; and they would come home with a supply of impressions, — with the criticism of the lectures and performances, — and share it with the rest, who sat at home waiting impatiently for literary, dramatical, and musical news. Hard as it was for us to get what we wanted, still we succeeded in reading all the best classics, Russian and foreign as well, also a great deal of the modern literature. Our teachers,1 who mostly came from the city, would be astonished at our wide knowledge in the literary world. As a matter of fact, we, who met with such hardship in getting literature, knew much more than most of the city students, who had the privilege of the best libraries.
Since I left home, I have done very little reading. The struggle for my existence, the worry about work, the trouble in the shops which I passed through, occupied my mind and time.
Now that I was more or less economically better off, I gave myself up entirely to reading. I often visited the Public Library. I was not used to get everything as easily as I could get it in the New York Library, and it made me feel happy. If there is anything to pay this city credit for, that is her libraries and museums of art and history.
Two evenings in the week I went to the Opera, the rest of the evenings I spent either in attending lectures, or reading, or at union meetings. But that did not satisfy me. I realized that it was necessary for me to study the English language. I also realized that the shop was no place for me. The shop as it is under the present system is good for no human being to work in, for it does not comply with the human necessities.
It is not only the experience of my own trade I speak of. I come in contact with people who work at all kinds of trades, and each one’s life is worse than the other’s. I saw no future for me sitting in the shop. It is impossible to lead a decent, comfortable living, such as a human being is entitled to, for the earnings they get at the present time. In order to get some better kind of a profession, I had to study English. But how was I to do it? After work, I felt too tired to study. I made several attempts to do it, but had to stop it as soon as I began, for I was not strong enough to stand a day’s work and an evening of study.
My friend Clara accompanied me to the theatre — to the last bench of the family circle, so high that the people on the stage looked like dwarfs. Here we sat silently waiting for the music to start. My friend Clara made several attempts to raise a conversation, but I tried to avoid it; it was hard for me to talk. I was tired of telling her the same old stories over and over. She more or less made peace with her surroundings; economically she was much better off; as an expert dressmaker she worked in a steady private establishment, for a decent salary. Besides the work, she found satisfaction in belonging to different clubs, while I got tired of those clubs. They were too dry for me. Her spiritual development was on a much smaller scale than mine, and she would easily be inspired by things that did not interest me at all. My temper was a more revolutionary one, and I was more sensitive.
’You must learn to take things easy,’ she would say.
‘No, Clara, you are wrong; would the people not take life so easy, we would have a much better world than such as we have now,’ were my arguments to her.
At last the music started. I was all transformed into attention. I bathed my soul in the wonderful sounds of the music, trying to wash off the heavy melancholy that possessed me, and kept on gnawing, gnawing my heart and soul.
Who has once heard that opera surely remembers the sweet music and beautiful words of the aria from the third act in Tosca: —
Everything around was asleep;
Absorbed in thoughts alone I wandered.
Oh, celestial happiness,
As a wonderful dream all passed away —
and so on. I felt a thousand angels dancing around me when the world’s greatest artist, Caruso, began the aria in his wonderful voice. How I wished it would never end! How I dreaded to be brought back to thoughts of my present miserable life! On our way home, I was very silent. I thought of the successful artists whose early life I read about; who knows — perhaps if I would once have a chance to show my abilities — I had a good soprano voice — but I immediately caught myself on that daring thought.
But I am very emotional. Many people at home in Russia would advise me to select a stage career; myself, I had the highest wish to become an actress, but my parents would not listen to it — they had the worst opinion of an actress; they saw no art in it.
Being in New York, I often thought of it, but I was afraid to try, for I knew nobody who could give me an introduction to the stage, and I, not knowing the English language, could not succeed in trying all alone without anybody’s help.
‘I am growing impatient to walk with you all the way home so quietly; say something: how did you like the opera?’
My friend Clara was used to have me share my inspirations with her as soon as we walked out of the Opera House; sometimes she would walk with me for hours, listening to my conversation about music, drama, and art in general. I had nothing to say; I felt too pessimistical.
Although the conditions in my shop were just as good as in the best union shops, and we had everything except the recognition of the Union, still, I was anxious to have it organized. I confess, it was puzzling to me, at first, why the boss objected to his people joining the Union. As long as union conditions prevailed in the shop, why not allow the workers to belong where they would? Some of the members in the shop were union members. On my question, why they did not have the shop organized, they would answer me carelessly, ‘We should worry so long as we have union conditions.’ I suffered by their ignorant answers. I recalled the thousands of young girls who had so bitterly fought their fight only a few weeks before, and I argued with my co-workers.
‘Don’t you know that we have got everything just because so many thousands of girls fought for it? You yourselves stated that the standards were much lower here before the general strike was called. You only got increases when the girls in the other shops won them. Do you think that our boss, no matter how kind he is, would reduce four hours a week, if it were not for the strike? We workers must all do our share. It is not fair to stay aside and let others fight and spend their money to keep up an organization when we all get the good benefits from it. There must be reasons why the boss does not want a union shop. I am not criticizing our boss, I admit that he is a fair man; but don’t you know that for the desire of making more money, the bosses, even the best of them, will exploit their workers to the utmost. That is why we must be organized, so that we can stand up against them. In unity is our strength. We must belong to a union, in order to protect ourselves against the ruling hand of capitalism.’
But the workers cared to know next to nothing about it. Some of the girls would answer me rudely, —
‘You better shut up; if you don’t, you will get fired. There was another girl in the shop and she tried to agitate for the Union and she was discharged.’
I would often talk to Clara about my desire to organize the shop. She also warned me not to do it. ‘The dull season is approaching; you have not any money saved up to face it, so what will you do in case you are fired?’
But I could not rest. I felt like a criminal, to work in a trade that is organized, and not belong to the ranks. I could not have imagined that there still were so many people who did not understand the value of organization. But I soon found the reason why.
As a rule, a worker in a shop brings up his or her friends or relatives; that friend or relative another friend, and so on; so that, in most cases, the shop contains workers who are closely related to each other. The consequence is, that, if one seems to be misinformed about unionism, all of them get the same idea. If one of them is warned by the boss to keep away from union people, mostly all of them obey him.
Particularly among Italians, the bringing up of friends is practiced. Realizing that with lack of knowledge of the trade-union movement, I could help very little to make them see my point of yiew, I decided to report to the Union, hoping that they would send some one to unionize the place.
When I went to the office of the Union, I saw the head organizer, and told him about my shop. He appeared to be interested, and explained that the organizers were only too glad to help out those who wanted to be helped; that for years they had been trying to enlighten the workers’ minds, to awaken them to self-consciousness and help them organize into a union.
‘Without a union, the bosses drove their workers like slaves, they did not fear the individual; if any one protested, he or she would be heartlessly thrown out of the shop. But when a protest comes from all the workers, not only from one shop, but from all shops equally, the bosses must listen to them and treat them justly; if they do not, then the workers strike. It is very sad to admit that there are still workers who do not care how they are treated. Instead of demanding their rights, they keep trying schemes to win the bosses’ favor in order to get a dollar raise.’
He spoke the truth. There are many workers who would do anything, even injure a fellow worker, in order to get a raise.
Somehow my boss learned that I had complained to the Union. Any one else in my place would have been fired without explanation; but I worked for ten dollars a week, and worked mostly on samples, while a samplemaker’s minimum wage was fourteen dollars. That is why the boss first tried to speak to me and warn me.
In the morning, when I came to work, the designer, a very gentle woman, always previously welcoming me with a smile, seemed to be angry.
‘Why, Lizzie, I am surprised with you, such a sensible girl as I thought you, to act so silly.’
I guessed what she was at, but said, ‘What is the matter?’ acting as if I knew nothing.
‘Tell me, are you dissatisfied with your position ? Is there anything wrong with this place?’
‘No,’ I answered, ‘I’m satisfied and I think the place is all right.’
‘Then what is the sense in going to the damn Union?’
‘“Damn Union”! How dare you?’ I wanted to reply, but I controlled myself.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I see no harm in it.’
‘It is for your sake I warn you. I’m only a friend to you. Don’t you know that the leaders of the Union only care for your money; they do not do a thing for you. They are grafters, that is all they are.’
I smiled again. Poor soul, she was so sure of what she said.
In the meantime, the boss came in, called me aside, and with the authority of a professor, he began to lecture me.
‘Look here, little girl, I’m a man who is fair and square as possible. I always treat my workers as good as I can. Everybody is pleased with their positions; are not you? Did I not try to give you all chances for advancement? ’
‘Yes, you did, and it was very nice of you; but you did not raise me in accordance with my advancement,’ I answered.
‘Oh, you’ll get a raise next season. You don’t expect me to raise you the first season? Put to the point: you have no idea what grafters the leaders are. There has been no strike which has not been sold by them. They get the poor working-people’s money, and use it for their own benefit. Now, I am sorry for my own people. Why should they waste their money earned through hard labor? The Union is only a bluff, there is nothing to it, it is no use for the workers. Now, if you want to be a sensible girl, do your work, do not mix in others’ business. You can stay here, and I ’ll raise you a dollar a week when next season begins; now I can’t. You see the dull season is coming already. Another week, and there will be very little work to do.’
I thanked him for his kindness and sat down to work. Now I understood why people in that shop feared the Union. They were fed with the same kind of lectures continually. No wonder they had the idea of Unionism in general, as a place where the workers were cheated. How was I to change their minds? How was I to explain to them that this was only a trick of the bosses to poison the workers’ minds? Later, when I worked in other shops, I heard the same story told to the workers by the bosses.
In order to learn the accomplishments of our unions in the last strike, I went and joined the Union. In the shops where a high grade of dresses are made, the season often ends at the beginning of April. On the coming Saturday, at one o’clock, the boss informed his workers that, on account of the approaching dull times, he was compelled to reduce their wages two or three dollars a week, demanding however the same full week’s work.
What were the workers to do? Here they were like sheep led away by a wolf from the shepherd. They had listened to the boss when he promised them all they desired, in order to keep them from the Union; and now, when the busy season was over, he took advantage of the workers who had no union to protect them, and reduced their wages, being sure that in the dull season they would stay for less.
Did the workers at last realize it? Some did, and left the place: those who remained were too ignorant to realize it.
When I came on Monday to work, everything seemed so different. No more the former gentleness; the foreman was more particular about the work, more exacting in his demands. It was slower, so he had more time to watch everything. Even the nice Yetta was not so gentle, but I knew it was not her fault. She had to obey the instructions of the boss.
The first of May was approaching. The Union made all preparations for a grand march.
The first of May had two meanings for me. As a schoolteacher at home, I always celebrated that day by going off to the woods, with my pupils, and merrily spent the day in songs and games, that celebration having for its sole reason the greeting of the best day of spring. And so sweet were the memories of those bygone days!
The second more important meaning was the ‘International Labor Holiday.’ I decided to stop work, even if the boss should try to compel me to work. In vain did I try to inspire my co-workers with the significance of the First of May. They refused to give up a day’s wages for such a sentimentality.
The day fell on Thursday, a bright warm spring day. The many thousands of young girls, in uniforms of white waists with red collars, all in line, were ready to march on. The sun illuminated their pale but happy faces as they walked through the avenues and streets. Looking up at the skyscrapers where they slaved all year, their shiny eyes would gleam with pride and hope, as if they would speak and warn the world, ‘Behold you who keep us in the darkness, no more are we to slave for you! Together we stand now, men, women, creators of wealth, and together we shall stand to fight for our rights! ’
I kept my holiday, joined a small separate division of girls who gathered from different non-union shops and, like myself, perhaps risked their jobs for observing the holiday. I spent the rest of the day happily with my friends. But for that day I paid with many, many miserable weeks that followed.
The sun’s rays, creeping into my tiny room on the top floor, joyfully played on my face when I awoke early the next morning. I lay in bed, leisurely stretching and relaxing my poor legs, tired from marching. I was still full of the events of yesterday. My heart beat with warmth as I lay enjoying my sun-bath. The clock struck seven; time to get ready for work!
Humming a favorite Russian song, I quickly dressed, took my ordinary breakfast, a roll and a cup of milk which seemed so tasteful that morning, and down I marched to the shop. It was a glorious morning. The little buds on the trees in Madison Square were just opening up into beautiful bloom and spread such a pleasant fragrance around. The small fountain in the centre bubbled, bubbled, splashing out right and left. I stopped for a moment to welcome the cold sprinkle on my face.
The great mass of workers who were passing by all seemed light-hearted. It was the beautiful morning, the warm sun, the awakening of the green, that spread the good humor on their faces.
I liked the world and wanted to greet everybody and everything, ‘Good morning, good morning!’ — ‘A fine morning!’ — ‘A glorious morning!’ — ‘Well, how did you like the march?’ — ‘Was it not splendid?’—‘Indeed, it was wonderful!’ was heard all around as the workers met on their way to the shops.
‘Good morning,’ said I merrily to the foreman, who happened to be the first to meet me when I entered the shop.
‘Good morning,’ came an angry sound from his nose.
‘It is too nice a morning to be angry,’ I teased the foreman.
‘If you think that you can make a living on nice mornings or May holidays, why do you come to the shop?’ he asked severely.
I understood that something was wrong, and that my good humor would not gain the foreman’s favor, so I quietly went over to my machine, and bent my head over my work.
Meanwhile, the girls began to fill up their places at the machines. Some would stop near me, while passing, and ask how the march looked.
‘It cost me a day’s wages to know, and I think that it is too expensive to tell,’ was my reply to all of them.
‘Good morning, Miss Union-lady.’
I jumped up, instinctively feeling that it was I who was addressed.
A sudden laughter spread over the shop from the workers, much amused by that greeting.
On the other side of the table stood the boss, calling me angrily. With a sudden foreboding of some evil happening, I walked over to him.
‘Look here, miss, you know that I think that you are too smart for my place.’
‘What is it?’ I interrupted.
‘What is it? Just as if you did n’t know! I don’t want you to make trouble in my shop. What business have you to bother my workers? You made some of them stop from work when I was in a rush to finish out a lot of dresses.’
‘Why, you complain all the time that there was nothing to do and your workers sit idle. How did you happen to have such a rush all of a sudden?'
‘Oh, you get on my nerve! I am not going to stand it any longer,’ he said disgustedly, and walked away.
On Saturday, I received my pay and was discharged. So I lost my job for celebrating the first of May.
Now that I had to look for another job, I made up my mind to get a place only in a union shop. I thought that in the union shops the bosses just carry out every clause agreed to in the Protocol; but I soon found out that the workers had to fight for every bit that was coming to them according to the agreement.
The dull season had already begun, and it was not easy to find a job. Those who had their shops kept their positions: no new help was needed. In the shops where a cheap line of dresses or waists were made, the busy season lasts until July. I might be able to get a place on a cheap line of dresses. I had worked on a good line of dresses, that require more skill and care; I could expect to earn but little on the cheaper grades where speed was required more than skill.
At that time some members of the Coöperative League had kept — and still keep, a few apartments together. I learned from the people who lived there that it cost very cheap. As I had not enough money to live on, I moved into their coöperative house. Indeed, the expenses were small: $3.50 per month for a room, — two people in each, — and $2.50 per week for two meals a day, mornings and evenings.
Reeking with sweat, my head aching from the July heat, I wandered around until I found myself on a bench at Riverside Drive. The thought that I had to go out early in the morning to look for another position, and fearing that I might strike a job similar to my previous ones, made me so unhappy that I felt I could much easier jump into the Hudson than look for any more work; and work I had got to get, for I was so short in money that I hardly had enough for the little expenses we had in the coöperation. It was for the last six weeks that I had no more than two scanty meals a day. I had to provide for carfare and could not spare a dime for a lunch. Now my younger brother was soon to come from Russia. I had to provide something for him when he comes.
The sun already hid her last golden rays. Twilight set upon the Hudson. I still sat on a bench and had no notion to move. It was a very warm evening. Everything around was so beautiful! It seemed to me a paradise-like, in comparison with my room, where the air was so choking in the July month. Boats — all kinds of them — swam up and down the river. The noise of the motor-boats allured me to the waters; it made me feel homesick. There on the river surrounded by willow trees we would row and sing. Sometimes our happy young voices would be heard for miles and appreciated by the old folks, who sat resting peacefully on the benches near their homes. How sweet those days passed! Now I sit here broken-hearted, disappointed, and tired out.
‘Life, life— O Happiness, where is thy sweetness!’ murmured I, in such mortal anguish for life. A heavy melancholy took possession of me and dragged me, dragged me down to the waters where the many little fires of the Palisades took their evening dips in the dark, quiet waves of the Hudson River. I forgot everything. The choking shops, my home, everything passed away. I saw the spacious river below, I saw the graceful trees around me, and I was a little happy. Would not my stomach remind me of hunger, I would not have thought of leaving the park, so comfortable. I had had nothing to eat since early morning, and made my way towards home.
I walked along Riverside, looking into the windows of the colossal hotels and beautiful private palaces. No light was seen in any of them. The places were left by the people for their summer resorts. It’s a pity that such comfortable houses were empty the most of the year. Their dwellers flew around the country, from one resort to another to spend their time. They never worried for their to-morrow’s bread, they never feared to lose their jobs, they never wandered in the parks with hungry stomachs. They had people, thousands of people, somewhere in mines, or factories, or stores, who starved for them, who hammered the gold for them. The only worry those dwellers have is how to spend the gold created by such hard labor of so many thousands of people, who part with their happiness and so often with their lives for the pleasure of those few idlers, who spend their life in continuous vacations and eternal luxury. How many people of the East Side, how many families of the cooped tenement-houses, enjoy these comfortable dwellings and lovely air of the Riverside Park and Hudson River?
Thought I, here the houses stood all locked up, of no use to anybody. They would only reopen for a month or so, when their landlord happens to come from Europe to make preparations for the next journey. Oh, how unfair, how unfair the present system of life is! thought I. Here am I, who want to work, who would gladly sell her hands for a decent wage, but gets nothing, and those who never think of work have too much.
Did I envy the rich that evening? Oh, no! I hated them, I hated them; for to me they seemed worse than highway robbers — robbers who fear nobody in the world, who rule the world with their iron power.
Two years in the golden country! What did I accomplish? A weak stomach, headaches every other day, a paler face, inflamed eyes, and my nose — my nose began also to complain. It wanted a doctor and I could not afford to pay any doctor bills. To a dispensary I had no time to go, and I would not, even if time I had, for they ignored the patient there too much. One dollar made a world of difference. For a dollar the doctor would gently open the door for the patient, would offer a thousand of smiles, take his time, and examine the patient thoroughly. In the dispensary one has to waste some time and all day to get his turn; and when at last one gets the chance to see the doctor, the latter treats him so indignantly and sends such looks, that it makes one feel as though one did not come to the doctor for advice but to spoil his good moods.
If my mother only could know, if she could only know! But never should she know! It is enough for her, when she had to part with us. As she wrote once to me, ‘Another child left, another wound in mother’s heart! Oh, where are my children, my little birds? Was mother’s nest too small for them? Oh, if I only was a free bird now, if I only had wings, I would fly, fly, through night and day, through storm and sunshine, through oceans and forests and find my children, who left mother to find a better life, to build better nests. For so many years I struggled; in the long stormy winter nights, I watched over you, cherished you. With my tears and prayers to God I obtained your lives when death stood many a time at your bedside, waiting for mother to give you up. Never did I give you up. You were my pride, you were my light in the dark life of my struggle against poverty. And you gave up mother so easily! You left your home with no regret! You left your mother to her tears! Oh, where are you now? Are you happy, are you warm, are you fed? If I could only embrace you once more, feel you near my wounded heart! Other people have the pleasure to hear you talk, to hear you laugh, to hear you sing! Are you still singing, my little daughter, or was your voice forgotten under the heavy burden of the new life?’
That letter made me hysterical for a few hours when I first received it, and long afterwards whenever I reread it, I could not control myself from crying. There is so much tragedy in each word of that letter. The tragedy of all the Jewish mothers, whose children escape from where they suffer. They escape from the Russian brutality, from the Galician poverty. The youth do not want to bow their heads as the parents do, to stand for so much misery. Oh, so much! Youth wants life, happiness. In the hunt for a better, more free life, they part with their dear parents; they part full of hope to be reunited in a better land in better circumstances. But more often the hopes are crushed, the lives are broken. Not all are able to reunite, and they remain parted far, far away from one another. The eternal anxiety for one another tears their hearts and souls in pieces. Neither the children in America nor the parents in the foreign lands can ever be happy when they are parted.
‘Never should she know!’ I repeated to myself; and to comfort her I immediately sat down to write a letter to my mother.
‘Much beloved Mother, — First of all I want to inform you that I am in perfect health and happiness, wishing to hear the same from you.’ Here I stopped. ‘Wishing to hear the same from you?’ Goodness, I surely do not wish to curse my mother! I tore the letter.
But what shall I tell her? What shall I write to her about? I started another one.
’My best of best Mothers, — With delight I read your last letter. I was so happy to learn that everything at home is in order. Please, mother, don’t cry. It worries me terribly. We are not dead, we are alive. We’ll try our very best to have you all with us in the nearest future. Oh, how happy I shall be when I ’ll have you all with us. Sorrow will be forgotten and the guardian angels will spread their wings over us and watch over our happiness, and never, never again will we part! Tell the children that I will answer their letters some other time. Nathan’s poem, which he dedicated to me, was very hearty, but I don’t like his grammar in it. This was always his weak part. Tell him to pay more attention to the Russian grammar. You know, mother, I do think that he is an able little fellow. He is only sixteen now, and if he has good opportunities, he’ll make success.
‘With pride you tell me mother that little Eva is my double — that physically and mentally she resembles me. I want to hope that she should be much better than I have been and more successful.
‘ How is Sarah? Is she diligent in her studies? Is Dora stronger now than she was? Have you any letters from Israel, or he writes only when he needs money? Poor fellow, for two more years he must serve his country.’
He serves the country which rejected all his applications to enter any educational institution. His highest ambition since childhood was to enter a school of fine arts. The little portraits that he painted were very promising, but as a Jew only one in a thousand could ever have a chance to enter such schools, and mostly those who had the money; so that he, my brother Israel, never realized his wish. At present, when I write these lines, he is back home from the war with a wounded leg.
‘Please, mother, send me his address. I want to write a letter to him. About us you should not worry. We are all right.
‘My best regards to all the children and father—to him I’ll write tomorrow. I have so much to tell him! Our correspondence discussions were stopped for quite a long time, and I want to begin again. Is he still working so hard?
’Mother dear, take care of yourself, father and children. Yours with love,
(To be concluded)
- We had private teachers, for as I have already mentioned, we were not admitted into the educational institutions. — THE AUTHOR.↩