Lithuanian-born social reformer
A selection from
LIVING MY LIFE
Narrated by Victoria Gordon
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The chairman announced the speaker. She was a woman in her thirties, pale and ascetic-looking, with large luminous eyes. She spoke with great earnestness, in a voice vibrating with intensity. Her manner engrossed me. I forgot the police, the audience, and every thing else about me. I was aware only of the frail woman in black crying out her passionate indictment against the forces that were about to destroy eight human lives.
The entire speech concerned the stirring events in Chicago. She began by relating the historcal background of the case. She told of the labour strikes that broke out throughout the country in 1886, for the demand of an eight-hour workday. The center of the movement was Chicago, and there the struggle between the toilers and their bosses became intense and bitter. A meeting of the striking employees of the McCormick Harvester Company in that city was attacked by police; men and women were beaten and several persons killed. To protest against the outrage a mass meeting was called in Haymarket Square on May 4. It was addressed by Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and others, and was quiet and orderly. This was attested to by Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, who had attended the meeting to see what was going on.
The Mayor left, satisfied that everything was all right, and he informed the captain of the district to that effect. It was getting cloudy, a light rain began to fall, and the people started to disperse, only a few remaining while one of the last speakers was addressing the audience. Then Captain Ward, accompanied by a strong force of police, suddenly appeared on the square. He ordered the meeting to disperse forthwith. "This is an orderlv assembly," the chairman replied, whereupon the police fell upon the people, clubbing them unmercifully. Then something flashed through the air and exploded, killing a number of police officers and wounding a score of others.
It was never ascertained who the actual culprit was, and the authorities apparently made little effort to discover him. Instead orders were immediately issued for the arrest of all the speakers at the Haymarket meeting and other prominent anarchists. The entire press and bourgeoisie of Chicago and of the whole country began shouting for the blood of the prisoners. A veritable campaign of terror was carried on by the police, who were given moral and financial encouragement by the Citizens' Association to further their murderous plan to get the anarchists out of the way. The public mind was so inflamed by the atrocious stories circulated by the press against the leaders of the strike that a fair trial for them became an impossibility. In fact, the trial proved the worst frame-up in the history of the United States. The jury was picked for conviction; the District Attorney announced in open court that it was not only the arrested men who were the accused, but that "anarchy was on trial" and that it was to be exterminated. The judge repeatedly denounced the prisoners from the bench, influencing the jury against them. The witnesses were terrorized or bribed, with the result that eight men, innocent of the crime and in no way connected with it, were convicted.
The incited state of the public mind, and the general prejudice against anarchists, coupled with the employers' bitter opposition to the eight-hour movement, constituted the atmosphere that favoured the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists. Five of them —-Albert Parsons, August Spies, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel —- were sentenced to die by hanging; Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were doomed to life imprisonment; Neebe received fifteen years' sentence. The innocent blood of the Haymarket martyrs was calling for revenge.
At the end of Greie's speech I knew what I had surmised all along: the Chicago men were innocent. They were to be put to death for their ideal. But what was their ideal? Johanna Greic spoke of Parsons, Spies, Lingg, and the others as socialists, but I was ignorant of the real meaning of socialism. What I had heard from the local speakers had impressed me as colouriess and mechanistic. On the other hand, the papers called these men anarchists, bomb-throwers. What was anarchism? It was all very puzzling. But I had no time for further contemplation. The people were filing out, and I got up to leave.
Greie, the chairman, and a group of friends were still on the platform. As I turned towards them, I saw Greie motioning to me. I was startled, my heart beat violently, and my feet felt leaden. When I approached her, she took me by the hand and said: "I never saw a face that reflected such a tumult of emotions as yours. You must be feeling the impending tragedy intensely. Do you know the men?" In a trembling voice I replied: "Unfortunately not, but I do feel the case with every fibre, and when I heard you speak, it seemed to me as if I knew them." She put her hand on my shoulder. "I have a feeling that you will know them better as you learn their ideal, and that you will make their cause your own."
I walked home in a dream. Sister Helena was already asleep, but I had to share my experience with her. I woke her up and recited to her the whole story, giving almost a verbatim account of the speech. I must have been very dramatic, because Helena exclaimed: "The next thing I'll hear about my little sister is that she, too, is a dangerous anarchist."
Some weeks later I had occasion to visit a German family I knew. I found them very much excited. Somebody from New York had sent them a German paper, Die Freiheit, edited by Johann Most. It was filled with news about the events in Chicago. The language fairly took my breath away, it was so different from what I had heard at the socialist meetings and even from Johanna Greie's talk. It seemed lava shooting forth flames of ridicule, scorn, and defiance; it breathed deep hatred of the powers that were preparing the crime in Chicago. I began to read, Die Freiheit regularly. I sent for the literature advertised in the paper and I devoured every line on anarchism I could get, every word about the men, their lives, their work. I read about their heroic stand while on trial and their marvellous defence. I saw a new world opening before me.
The terrible thing everyone feared, yet hoped would not happen, actually occurred. Extra editions of the Rochester papers carried the news: the Chicago anarchists had been hanged!
We were crushed, Helena and I. The shock completely unnerved my sister; she could only wring her hands and weep silently. I was in a stupor; a feeling of numbness came over me, something too horrible even for tears. In the evening we went to our father's house. Everybody talked about the Chicago events. I was entirely absorbed in what I felt as my own loss. Then I heard the coarse laugh of a woman. In a shrill voice she sneered: "What's all this lament about? The men were murderers. It is well they were hanged." With one leap I was at the woman's throat. Then I felt myself torn back. Someone said: "The child has gone crazy."
I wrenched myself free, grabbed a pitcher of water from a table, and threw it with all my force into the woman's face. "Out, out," I cried, "or I will kill you!" The terrified woman made for the door and I dropped to the ground in a fit of crying. I was put to bed, and soon I fell into a deep sleep. The next morning I woke as from a long illness, but free from the numbness and the depression of those harrowing weeks of waiting, ending with the final shock. I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own, to make known to the world their beautiful lives and heroic deaths. Johanna Greie was more prophetic than site had probably realized.
My mind was made up. I would go to New York, to Johann Most. He would help me prepare myself for my new task. But my husband, my parents —- how would they meet my decision?
I had been married only ten months. The union had not been happy. I had realized almost from the beginning that my husband and I were at opposite poles, with nothing in common, not even sexual blending. The venture, like everything else that had happened to me since I had come to America, had proved most disappointing. America, "the land of the free and the home of the brave" —- what a farce it now seemed to me! Yet how I had fought with my father to get him to let me go to America with Helena! In the end I had won, and late in December 1885, Helena and I had left St. Petersburg for Hamburg, there embarking on the steamer Elbe for the Promised Land.
Another sister had preceded us by a few years, had married, and was living in Rochester. Repeatedly she had written Helena to come to her, that she was lonely. At last Helena had decided to go. But I could not support the thought of separation from the one who meant more to me than even my mother. Helena also hated to leave me behind. She knew of the bitter friction that existed between Father and me. She offered to pay my fare, but Father would not consent to my going. I pleaded, begged, wept. Finally I threatened to jump into the Neva, whereupon he yielded. Equipped with twenty-five roubles — all that the old man would give me — I left without regrets.
Since my earliest recollection, home had been stifling, my father's presence terrifying. My mother, while less violent with the children, never showed much warmth. It was always Helena who gave me affection, who filled my childhood with whatever joy it had. She would continually shoulder the blame for the rest of the children. Many blows intended for my brother and me were given Helena. Now we were completely together-nobody would separate us.
We travelled steerage, where the passengers were herded together like cattle. My first contact with the sea was terrifying and fascinating. The freedom from home, the beauty and wonder of the endless expanse in its varying moods, and the exciting anticipation of what the new land would offer stimulated my imagination and sent my blood tingling.
The last day of our journey comes vividly to my mind. Everybody was on deck. Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity! She held her torch high to light the way to the free Country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We, too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America. Our spirits were high, our eyes filled with tears.
Gruff voices broke in upon our reverie. We were surrounded by gesticulating people —- angry men, hysterical women, screaming children. Guards roughly pushed us hither and thither, shouted orders to get ready, to be transferred to Castle Garden, the clearing-house for immigrants.
The scenes in Castle Garden were appalling, the atmosphere charged with antagonism and harshness. Nowhere could one see a sympathetic official face; there was no provision for the comfort of the new arrivals, the pregnant women and young children. The first day on American soil proved a violent shock. We were possessed by one desire, to escape from the ghastly place. We had heard that Rochester was the "Flower City" of New York, but we arrived there on a bleak and cold January morning. My sister Lena, heavy with her first child, and Aunt Rachel met us. Lena's rooms were small, but they were bright and spotless.
The room prepared for Helena and myself was filled with flowers. Throughout the day people came in and out —- relatives I had never known, friends of my sister and of her husband, neighbours. All wanted to see us, to hear about the old country. They were Jews who had suffered much in Russia; some of them had even been in pogroms. Life in the new country, they said, was hard; they were all still possessed by nostalgia for their home that had never been a home.
Among the visitors there were some who had prospered. One man boasted that his six children were all working, selling newspapers, shining shoes. Everybody was concerned about what we were going to do. One coarse-looking fellow concentrated his attention on me. He kept staring at me all the evening, scanning me up and down. He even came over and tried to feel my arms. It gave me the sensation of standing naked on the market-place. I was outraged, but I did not want to insult my sister's friends. I felt utterly alone and I rushed out of the room. A longing possessed me for what I had left behind —- St. Petersburg, my beloved Neva, my friends, my books and music.
I became aware of loud voices in the next room. I heard the man who had enraged me say: "I can get her a job at Garson and Mayer's. The wages will be small, but she will soon find a feller to marry her. Such a buxom girl, with her red cheeks and blue eyes, will not have to work long. Any man will snatch her up and keep her in silks and diamonds." I thought of Father. He had tried desperately to marry me off at the age of fifteen. I had protested, begging to be permitted to continue my studies. In his frenzy he threw my French grammar into the fire, shouting: "Girls do, not have to learn much! All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefüllte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children." I would not listen to his schemes; I wanted to study, to know life, to travel. Besides, I never would marry for anything but love, I stoutly maintained. It was really to escape my father's plans for me that I had insisted on going to America. Now attempts to marry me off pursued me even in the new land. I was determined not to be bartered: I would go to work.
Sister Lena had left for America when I was about eleven. I used to spend much time with my grandmother in Kovno, while my people lived in Popelan, a small town in the Baltic Province of Kurland. Lena had always been hostile to me, and unexpectedly I had discovered the reason. I could not have been more than six at the time, while Lena was two years older. We were playing a game of marbles. Somehow sister Lena thought I was winning too often. She flew into a rage, gave me a violent kick, and shouted: "Just like your father! He too cheated us! He robbed us of the money our father had left. I hate you! You are not my sister."
The effect of her outburst on me was petrifying. For a few moments I sat riveted to the ground, staring at Lena in silence; then the tension gave way to a fit of crying. I ran to sister Helena, to whom I carried all my childish woes. I demanded to know what Lena had meant when she said my father had robbed her, and why I was not her sister.
As usual Helena took me in her arms, tried to comfort me, and made light of Lena's words. I went to Mother, and from her I learned that there had been another father, Helena's and Lena's. He had died young and Mother had then chosen my father, mine and my baby brother's. She said that my father was also Helena's and Lena's, even if they were his stepchildren. It was true, she explained, that Father had used the money left to the two girls. He had invested it in business and failed. He had meant it for the good of all of us. But what Mother told me did not lessen my great hurt. "Father had no right to use that money!" I cried. "They are orphans. It is a sin to rob orphans. I wish I were grown up; then I could pay back the money. Yes, I must pay back, I must atone for Father's sin."
I had been told by my German nurse that whoever was guilty of robbing orphans would never get to heaven. I had no clear conception of that place. My people, while keeping Jewish rites and going to the synagogue on Saturdays and holidays, rarely spoke to us about religion. I got my idea of God and devil, sin and punishment, from my nurse and our Russian peasant servants. I was sure Father would be punished if I did not pay back his debt.
Eleven years had passed since that incident. I had long forgotten the hurt Lena had caused, but I by no means felt the great affection for her that I bore my dear Helena. All the way to America I had been anxious about what Lena's feelings might be towards me, but when I saw her, heavy with her first child, her small face pale and shrunken, my heart went out to her as if there had never been a shadow between us.
The day after our arrival we three sisters remained alone. Lena told us how lonely she had been, how she had longed for us and for our people. We learned of the hard life that had been hers, first as a domestic servant in Aunt Rachel's house, later as buttonhole-maker in Stein's clothing-factory. How happy she was now, with her own home at last and the joy of her expected child! "Life is still difficult," Lena said; "my husband is earning twelve dollars a week as a tin-smith, working on roofs in the beating sun and in the cold wind, always in danger. He had begun working as a child of eight in Berdichev, Russia," she added, " and he has been working ever since."
When Helena and I retired to our room, we agreed that we must both go to work at once. We could not add to the burden of our brother-in-law. Twelve dollars a week and a child on the way! Some days later Helena got a job retouching negatives, which had been her work in Russia. I found employment at Garson and Mayer's, sewing ulsters ten and a half hours a day, for two dollars and fifty cents a week.
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