Camera Rolls: 313:35-39
Sound Rolls: 313:18-20
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Jennie Silverman , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 11, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
I worked as a dressmaker, a sewing-machine operator, for a number of years—
Excuse—please start again.
Oh, I'm sorry, you have to talk to Susan, not to—
Oh, I thought you—
No, no, [coughs] I worked as a sewing-machine operator in the dress trade before the 1933 strike, and that's the big event, at least to us, it was the biggest event in the history of the, of the Union, and to some extent, in the country. I was earning twelve dollars a week as a skilled worker, and it was a Union shop, which was very insulting to us, but there was no way to enforce the contract. The Union was, our Union, the International Lady's Garment Worker's Union was in pretty bad shape. Three years before it had been split by the that-time Communists in the Union who tried to take over, and when they failed, they split and organized their own Union, and any trade unionist knows that there's nothing worse for labor than two Unions in one, in one industry. Things were pretty bad, and I lost that job where I was earning twelve dollars a week, and the Union was in as bad shape as the individuals. I remember Mr. Zimmerman saying to us, manager of Local 22 of the ILG, that, we must pay our telephone bill because if the phone doesn't answer then there's really no Union as far as the world was concerned. It was a very decent Union, up to the time of 1926. That's a little back further than I go, but I was aware, and-
Can I ask, what did your shop look like, and how many people were in it, and how much did dresses sell for?
Yeah, the, with our history of the triangle fire back in 1909, our factories, and then there was a big drive to clean up, literally to clean up for better, cleaner work rooms. The industry had a record of a high-percentage of TB among its patients, [laughs] among its workers, and there had been a great effort made to keep the shops clean. Even at that time they were in pretty fair conditions, as far as the physical plant was concerned, but, making a living, that was an altogether different story. And in the deep Depression, I wanna tell you about a couple of miracles that produced our 1933 strike. First, things were so bad, that one of the managers of the Union, made an appointment with the manager of the Union who was the leader of the split-away forces, because by that time there was a split in the Communist Party in the fight against Stalin, and they expelled a large group of members including myself, I was a member of the Young Communist League. So this manager of the, at that time Local 22 ILG, Mr. Blustein, asked somebody to invite him and Mr. Zimmerman who was from the breakaway Union, but now expelled from the Party, to meet, and he said to him, "You know, you have no Union, and we have no Union, and times are very bad, come back to us. Let's work together." That's a very rare thing in any fight. So we did, I think, all the ten of us, or nine, went back to the Union, but it did mean that much, that there was, not unity all around, but at least a number of the forces working together.
Can I get you to digress just a little bit from that, can you tell me just a little bit about your neighborhood, OK?
Well, it won't be in sequence, but all right. I was twelve years old when I came here, born in the Ukraine-
I'm sorry, in 1933, could you start in 1933? Tell us who lived there?
I haven't even thought about that. Oh! Yeah, came the Depression, and with twelve dollars a week, only when there was work, and you could hardly pay the rent, so my husband and I moved into my mother's apartment and sewed for every other couple or person. We just didn't have money to pay the rent. Big problem about money for food, and I borrowed eight and a half dollars, from my sister, no less. She asked me for it back and by then, I guess, I had a job, I had holes in my shoes like [Stephenson ?]. You remember the pin showing [Stephenson's ?] shoes, only, he was a busy man, we had holes in our shoes because we didn't have money to have them repaired, and when you got a job you repaired your shoes, you didn't make enough to buy a new pair. It was pretty awful, the Union did the same as we did individually about rent, it had been a fairly good Union although not anything like as big as what happened after the strike. There were a number of headquarters, Local 22 had its own and it was the Dressmaker's Joint Board made up of four Locals that had another loft in the Arcade Building between thirty-third and fourth, and when we didn't have anymore rent to pay, as soon as any lease was up, that group, that Local, would move in with another one. Then when the strike came, and the headquarters in the Arcade, one flight over a Chinese restaurant, we were literally frightened that the building would cave in. There were such crowds as we'd never, never believed, nobody had any idea how many people worked in the dress industry, and we very quickly got out of there, by that time we could pay the rent.
Could you tell me, how did work conditions get worse during the Depression?
The dressmakers had made a very fine living, from what I know, before the Depression. In 1922 we got the eight hour day, and my older sister was a dressmaker, and by golly our American cousins couldn't believe she was earning seventy dollars and more a week. Then things just went down, down, and down, and I guess everybody's aware of the 1929 Crash. I don't think any of our members committed suicide, but many bankers and business people jumped out of windows, sixth floor, eighth floor, it was, it was frightening, truly frightening.
Were there more sweatshops during the Depression?
When people make a little money, originally the sweatshops, and that goes back to 1910 or more-
Yeah, we can just jump ahead to the Depression, and the sweatshops-
Yeah, the, [coughs] the sweatshops were [sic] people worked twelve or thirteen hours a day. The stories are that some of them just went to sleep on the bundles of cloth, and woke up, and went back to work. That's when we built, when the Workmen's Circle, which is a fraternal order, built a TB sanitarium, and the story is told about a medical conference, an international medical conference on what do you do to prevent TB. A Socialist doctor got up and said, "Abolish the terrible working conditions." Cloth, as it's cut, creates a great deal of dust, and if you're in that dust, I guess the Board of Health wasn't after them at that time, to keep the factories clean. In my day, the floor was swept every day, religiously, it wasn't even anything we had to fight about. The inside of the factor wasn't that bad any more, that fight was made before, but there was very little work and the competition was so bad, and the industry's organized in such peculiar fashion, you have jobbers who don't employ any workers, just a designer, perhaps, and maybe a cutter. They send their work, their dresses to be sewn into contracting shops, so if you organize the contractor's workers the jobbers wouldn't give them any work, and you couldn't strike the jobber because he didn't employ any workers. That was a development when they began to make fairly cheap dresses, like, I worked in a factory where we made what we called $3.75 dresses. That was a dress that would sell to the store for $3.75, and then maybe to the customer close to double, like six dollars. It was a time, I guess, when the money still had that much value because the same garments years later cost a great deal more, but that's an industry problem. But organizing was difficult because of the way the industry is organized, and because in a Depression, when jobs are so rare, people won't easily come out on strike, but we did have a strike in 1930 and our people went out on strike, we settled, but the feeling was that the Union agreement had very little validity because of the structure and the fact that times were so bad.
Can you tell me that story—
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OK, so sharing, sharing this knowledge.
So. We waited to get a job to fix our shoes, and to have money for lunch, and the auto-mat was the big thing in those days and quite the cheapest. I was a vegetarian, but I didn't know enough English to know that clam chowder was not for vegetarians, so I put my coins in, got my soup, and then recognized that it isn't kosher, I didn't know what kind of meat it had in it, but I didn't eat it and went hungry the whole day. Generally, people used to bring a sandwich with them, it's cheaper at home, to make it at home, even, than even in the auto-mat. The Union was a magnet, whether we worked or not, we would meet and sort of commiserate with each other, and then if somebody had money to buy a sandwich he'd split it with another one who didn't. I think, at present, some people are beginning to understand what that kind of thing was, but this being my first depression, your hopes sink so low, that you don't think you're ever going to come up again, and it's a terrible, terrible, terrible feeling. I don't think anybody understands it or I did before it happened to me. You feel worthless and stupid, and, and useless, it's an awful, awful way to feel. However, in that terrible time, somehow a number of the Union people got together, those who partook in the split, and we said we'd just have to get together and build a Union, and this is how we built. In Brownswell there was a Union office, a branch office, and so we called a forum through the press, a Jewish- of course, it was in the Local 22, which was practically all Jewish by that point, and then there was the Italian Local, which was 89, and I'm not as acquainted with their inner workings, but I'm sure they weren't far different. So we called an open forum through the press, and people came to the meeting, a great number of them, we were quite surprised, and we tried to raise each other's morale and think in terms of—we asked people to join the Union, probably didn't have money to pay their dues, but there was a bit of the spirit raised. We met in Brooklyn, in Brownswell, which is Brooklyn, and other parts, and then in the Bronx, and it was sort of like trying to think of the light when you're in a very dark room, scared. It helped to get together with others, and to feel like you're making some attempt to influence those conditions. And then came the—then Roosevelt was elected, and as much as most of us—the Unions at that time were built by Socialists who were different from the Communists, but were Socialists before the Communist regime and Stalin, they were very decent people who got together to better their conditions, to build Unions. So we did, and—
Why don't we jump ahead, to the National Recovery Administration, and can you even tell me, how did you as a worker feel, when the NRA was passed?
It's hard to believe it now but it was true, most of the Jewish trade unions, trade union leaders in the needle trades were Socialist, or agreed with the Socialists, they didn't need to be especially active, but that's the way they thought, and politically, they wouldn't vote for either capitalist party. The Communist Party used to run a slate, Socialist Party used to run a slate, and Norman Thomas ran for President any number of times, and that's-
I'm sorry, we're not actually going to be covering the election, we're going to be covering after the election, so the National Recovery Act, OK, so if you can-?
In all this darkness of feeling in the trade unions, when Roosevelt was elected, it was, it actually was like a rebirth.
It was almost enough for a President of this great nation to take account of us foreigners, which is what all of the union members were, practically without any exception, and acknowledge that things are bad, and that workers are permitted to organize,.
** I was arrested twice for being on the picket line in the days when there were injunctions issued against picket lines in a strike. And here was somebody, not somebody, the President of the United States, saying it's okay, you can organize. We were told other picket lines carried pictures of Roosevelt. We didn't quite do that, but the government set up, I guess the labor board, the NRA was issued, National Labor Relations Act, and they suggested, organized, I don't remember exactly how, but they got the industries, not our industry alone but we were the biggest industry in the city or in the state to get together the employers and the labor leaders, to write a code for the industry. The code said we would have the forty-hour-week, of course, during the Depression nobody knew how long you worked, if you had anything to do, and you were asked, I remember being told, being—hinted, winked at to step away from my machine after seven o'clock because the law prohibited women from working after seven o'clock. So here we are, both sides, the employers and the workers and the feeling was very high against the employers, obviously, to sit down and write a code for the industry, and that would be a part of the law, which was, I guess a revolution, I don't know how else I could explain that. As I said, we didn't walk with signs of Roosevelt, but he was on everybody's lips, he was the Messiah, he led us out of the wilderness.
Now, how did you want to be treated, that you—well, let me ask you a different question first, um, why was the timing so important, and why was this the perfect moment to go on strike?
In our small union, in our small shrunken union, and this is again the Jewish labor group in New York, there were leading people in the Union, the Communists had left and never came back, not, that's right, never, they had to come back and join individually, but that's another story. They...in our leadership were represented Socialists, the Right and the Left, Zionists and Labor Zionists, and...I'm trying to think who else, and of course the Lufstannites[?], we were the group that had been expelled from the Communist Party and had gone back to work in the ILG. Those people were able to work together so well, that it amazes me to this day, because when people organize they organize because they're fighting other people, and here these labor people had enough sense, and enough good will toward each other that they were able to work together. Now, in the Union, in the industry at that time there was the longer season and the shorter season, and the shorter season was very short, and Union contracts, even though they weren't worth very much, were always written in the longer season, and the NRA came out in, whatever, June, July, and in August, Mr. Zimmerman, who seemed to appraise the situation better than anybody, said, "This is the time for us to strike." Here we were, without money to pay the telephone bill, and the others said to him, "But this is the short season, we've got an agreement still in force," to which he said, "You show me any shop, any factory we have an agreement with, and I'll show you that they've broken the agreement." He said "If we don't strike now we may not have another chance, and if we win, we'll have no problems."
Now why was this the perfect moment?
You need to tell me it was the perfect moment because...
This was the perfect moment, and he saw it at that time, later everybody agreed, because the NRA was just issued, and you might think it was prophetic of him to know that the NRA would be ruled unconstitutional. But there was a feeling in the air, the only other thing I can compare to it was when the end of the Second World War, when Eisenhower came down Seventh Avenue, back from the, back victorious.
What was that feeling in the air, can you describe that?
That was it.
What was the feeling, can you, like, put words to it?
Yeah it was—we suddenly, we suddenly began to see some light in all this terrible darkness of individual privation, it's a thing, it's a thing that isn't appreciated enough even by the psychiatrists. You're just feeling lower than low, you have no hope, you have no energy, anything you do, you do just—
OK, you can start.
I'm trying to think where—so, with all of these people, with all the different opinions, they came to agree that it was proper, and that we had to strike while the iron was hot, and we decided to go on strike. And the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , I was a member of the Executive Board at the time, we got up at five o'clock that morning, I guess we couldn't sleep, anyway, and we reported to the Union office to pick up this wonderful strike call in red, general strike, and we had to be out on the street with the strike call as people were coming into work. Some wouldn't even go up, usually you call a strike for ten o'clock in the morning. There were a couple of halls in Manhattan that the Union used in a previous strike situation, they're not here anymore, one was Webster Hall and one was...time, I forgot it. Bryant Hall.
Can you say them together?
Yeah, one was Webster hall on forty—sorry, one was Webster Hall and the other was Bryant Hall. But this day, even though we felt we made the right decision and we were going along with the, with the tide, [coughs] there were just so many thousands of people, it was unbelievable, it was unbelievable, we had no notion how many people worked in the industry, because the Union, even in the best times, had been a small union of the higher-priced garments, because there the skill, the skill was higher, and those people, and the profits were higher, so they were able to get a better price, but those were so few that I later wondered how they were able to have a union at all when there were so many who were not organized. Well, that day they just came, and came, and came, and we asked City Hall to give us a place to put our strikers, and—
OK, you can start.
Did you want about distribution, or did you get that?
I'll come back to that, but—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] And so, we were taking this gamble. And the day came, of the strike, and we the active ones, the members of the Executive Board and what little tiny staff and paid offices there was at the time, we reported to the office six o'clock that morning, took our leaflets of this beautiful call for general strike, and got on the street to distribute it at the subway stations. There is an area that is called "the dress market," and there are markets for other industries, but that's where, you know, that's sort of our territory, and that's where dressmakers gather, and people wouldn't even go up to work, the street was full of people, it must have been a nice sunny day, that's how I remember. The two strike halls that we used before, they, they, they couldn't house a tenth of the people that were coming out, and so the Union, always on good terms with the City Administration, as far back as I remember and I guess further, this was a Union town, the city workers are organized and they always had a favorable attitude toward us, the garment industry. And so, our people appealed to City Hall to give us a place to meet, and they gave us the 71st Regiment Armory, on Park Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street. Now there's a good high-school in its place called Norman Thomas, Norman Thomas high-school. It comes back to me how we were, the workers lived, the workers lived either in the Bronx or various parts of Brooklyn, I don't think anyone lived in Manhattan, and they knew the way by subway to their home or to their factory or to the union office, which were all in the same area, and I remember once coming to the East Side by taking the wrong train instead of the West Side, and being completely lost. I had never seen that part of the city, I mean, east of Fifth Avenue didn't exist, or of Sixth, and here we were asking thousands of people to come to Park Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, and we hoped they wouldn't lose their way, sort of symbolic of how everything changed. We spread out, got to know more of Manhattan, New York as we called it, the Boroughs, we didn't, we didn't consider, um, that was Brooklyn. The worst place to try to hold meetings is in an armory, but we didn't complain, and it, it was a whirlwind of a week, unbelievable, unbelievable. Everybody was getting acquainted with everybody, it was just a great big holiday. I've got to, I've got to add this, there was a sound truck outside the Armory, by the Communist Union, saying to people, as we were getting close to the settlement, the strike only lasted a week, saying to them "Don't believe your leaders, they're traitors, you will get nothing like what they tell you in the factories," and that's all. I don't think they gave them another out, it was one of those completely crazy out of time and out of place situations, and the amazing thing, one more of the miracles, is that nobody paid any attention to them, absolutely none, and these were people who hadn't had touch with the Union, maybe never heard of it, maybe heard and heard negative things about it. Yeah.
Can you tell me, what was the importance of the strike?
What did it do?
We went from there.
So, so all of us, all the executive board members including myself, we were in the Armory, holding meetings with individual shop's workers and telling them what the Union is and what will happen to them and why they should join, and you would think that they already knew, because they came. The genius of the NRA was, that the employers told them to go and join the Union, because of the way this thing was run, which was just, just unbelievable, I wish, I wish it were here again. That, for the employers to be organized and to have some kind of contact with each other and do away with some of the cutthroat competition, this was the whole package, the employers, the contractors, it's part of our industry, and the Union, the workers came through our Union.
What did the Union get out of the strike?
Now, we not only got back what we had had, which wasn't being observed by anybody, we got the thirty-five hour week, and being young enough, and there others, felt that, you, you just couldn't resist this fantastic time and the feeling that you had a part in it, that you were doing this to better the conditions, which meant mostly pay because, as I said, shops were not in such terrible bad shape. I remember myself thinking, that, well, I remember as a child when the eight-hour-day came into being, and now we were getting the thirty, that was the forty-hour-week, and now the thirty-five hour week, I could see it just rolling across the continent to the Pacific, and that all of industry was going to step up to this wonderful position of being in control of your wages, you, you can talk to an employer without worrying you're going to be fired for it, that was our first amendment, our first condition. A worker had to put in a one week trial period to assure the employer that his work was suitable, and after that, he couldn't be fired for the life of the agreement except for something like theft of whatever.
What was the Jewish saying you were telling me about, about the thirty-five hour week?
Can you tell me that and explain it?
Now, it's, it's, the dress industry's mostly an industry of women, but there are, and there were then a number of men, and for some of them, who had come from Czarist Russia, thirty-five hours was kinda peculiar, and in Yiddish they'd say [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , "Thirty-five little hours, what are we gonna do, go home and fight, quarrel with the wife?" [laughs]. For the women, and the activists, it was just great, we had no problem with we do [sic] with the time, there were evening classes and evening dramatic groups, out of one developed, gave a White House performance, went to Broadway for years, they're still playing it now and then.
And all of the actors were members of the Union who did this as an evening recreational activity.
What were the Wobblies?
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] to be, to have a good word said for them.
Can you tell me about La Guardia's support for organized labor?
Well that's, he got the bill against injunctions passed when he was in Congress, so that goes back, but if you want to-
How about in New York City and during his early administration, do you remember anything?
Oh, he was just a good guy, we never, we never had bad relations with City Hall, really. It's one of the reasons we were able to put this, these buildings up, to this day. They're thirty years old, at this day, but—[laughs]
Do you remember any, like, positive things that happened with La Guardia during his first couple of years?
He was just a lot of fun, I really don't remember. [laughs]
He used to read the comics over, there was a news-strike so he read, that's the kind—
Not that we didn't take him seriously, but that was the kind of thing...and then a man came in who looked exactly like him, dressed in a big, with a—how many gallon hats do the Texans wear? He was walking up City Hall, the steps, and I think that's when La Guardia saw, and he was furious, which everybody was amazed at, but he was that kind of guy. He ran to all the fires, and these are the silly things you remember, yeah. He swept corruption out of City Hall and Tammany, Tammany Hall. Oh, you're not in New York. [laughs] But you've heard of Tammany Hall. Am I talking?
Yes, keep going, yeah.
Oh, can you tell me about your neighborhood, let's go back to that, the different immigrant groups that left there, who came when? Mostly in the '30s, OK?
You're throwing me off.
Nothing to tell?
If I say, if I say when we came to...I think I'll do it right.
Strangely, I was twelve years old when we came here, and my uncle, who owned a grocery store and a large back room of the grocery store, which was meant for stock. And this, whatever, two family wooden house in east New York, on Montauk and Blake Avenues, and since my mother came here a widow with five daughters, only two old enough to go to work, we set up house in the back store, in the back room of the, of my uncle's grocery store. It was a large room, so we had two double beds and a table, with enough chairs for, um, to sit down and have a meal, and a stove, and I remember an iron sink for which my uncle apologized, because everybody was having white sinks, and my mother laughed. Where we came from, in this small Jewish town in the Ukraine, not only was there no sewage, there was no kind of plumbing, and the water-carrier brought you water, for a fee.
You told me that your neighborhood here looked like a shtetl, or looked like a shtetl, what did you mean?
What did you mean by that?
I'm getting around to that. And, this was such luxury, you turned the faucet, the handle, and you got running water, and they were apologizing to her. But in many ways, America, New York, it's a big place-
I'm sorry, we're cutting because of the sirens.
I remember one of the questions we were asked over and over was, "How do you like America?", and at the age of twelve I thought that was so silly [laughs]. I mean, what did we know of America, what did we, how can you say what you think of a country, but I guess people were a little clumsy about those things, but in many ways, it wasn't that different for us. In our town we didn't have a restaurant, we didn't have a hotel, well, there was a, a whatever, an inn, for people who came in by wagon to sleepover one night, usually. It was a very lovely, quiet area, east New York was, there was not a hotel, there was not a restaurant, I think there was, I'm quite sure there was not a doctor. The houses were no more than two stories high, maybe three, and the mix was, and it was so normal and natural that I sometimes long for it, was largely populated by Jewish people but also Italians, and also Blacks. It all seemed perfectly normal and natural, people lived in harmony. You went to the grocery, you went to the candy store, and a lot of them, I might say, unless they worked in the garment industry probably never left. It was much later that they built one of the great movie theaters there. It just wasn't that, it just wasn't that, that different, that part of us, what was different was that we weren't afraid, of course, I personally was, and I would never say "no" to an adult. My aunt asked me to go out in the evening and walk three blocks to get something in a drugstore because that one was open late, and my heart was beating a mile a minute all the way there and back. You did not go out at night where we came from, because of the War, and the Revolution, and the pogrom, it, there was just no normal time, but other than that, it, it was really not that big a step. I want to get back to the, to the strike. From all that terrible gloom, people went back to work after one week's strike, and earned seventy-five and eighty dollars a week. We, the active people, were told to stay on, because you couldn't possibly process so many people in one week, and they all of course joined the Union. So just as soon as the strike was called and a shop would come in, the people from the shop, we would write up a roll for that factory and then check it off that they had come in. This was because of old habits, you wanted to make sure nobody snuck out and went to work, but I guess there was no danger of it here, but we did need the records and it took time to process them. Every dressmaker had to have a union card. So we stayed on for a week longer, and I don't remember whether we were paid twenty or twenty-five dollars for that week, they didn't really have the guts to ask us to work for nothing. [laughs] Which, all of the union activity for the active people was always volunteer. Yes, they used, we used to get paid one dollar for the evening when we had an executive board, but of course a lot of us were above that, we wouldn't accept the dollar either. So, that was what we were paid that week, to stay that additional week to get the records in order and to register, send people back to work.
OK, thank you, can I jump to a different track, can you tell me, um, you told me what false pot-roasts were, a false pot-roast, is-
Oh, yes, well that goes back to the Ukraine, you want that?
Oh it was the Ukraine? I thought it was during the Depression.
[laughs] [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] but my mother didn't cook [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
Right, can you, could explain-
A false pot-roast?
A false pot-roast, and what it is? That'd be great.
All right. Are we on?
My mother was a great cook, and we had very bad times, but we never felt we were poor, which was a little difficult to understand, you've gotta take my word for it. When there was no money for food, for much food, my mother'd say she'd cook a false pot-roast, so you say what can be false about a pot-roast? She'd cut the potatoes into different kinda chunks, I guess that looked more like chunks of meat, and cooked them in a nice, thick brown gravy, and that was a meal, and there's a whole lesson to be learned there of how you approach poverty and problems, and if I may venture an opinion, I think that if once you were doing well, it is easier to keep the, keep up a front, and hope for better times. Must be a lot worse for people who are born in poverty, they have nothing to look back to for better times, like we did in the Union.
OK, can you also tell me one other thing, in the pre-interview you were saying that in the Depression we had no backbone, we couldn't stand up straight.
Oh, I did, I did that, not quite in those words, but we did quite a bit...
And the Jewish saying about if everybody has the same problems, so would you mind giving that back?
OK, a great part, I guess, of, I was going to say mental health or whatever, is in how your parents perceived bad times, and you learn from them. It can make a lot of difference. Now, there's a good Hebrew saying that, when you're part of a large disaster, your own personal part isn't as hard to bear. And I guess time does help to heal things, not completely, but it does.
Can you give me the um, the Yiddish saying, and the translation of it?
That's a little hard, maybe I can get it. It's a Hebrew saying, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , which is saying that if there's a general disaster, a flood, a pogrom, or the war, that if a whole group is in it, the individual hurt, what the proverb says is, is halved, is cut in half, and every time I read about mudslides with schoolchildren killed-
It feels so awful not to be able to find work when you wanted, and not having money for anything you needed, including a pair of shoes. I don't think I owned more than one pair of shoes at a time for years and years. I got even later, bought more shoes, but it was pretty awful. And in addition to losing the material things because you don't have money to pay for them, including food...it doesn't seem right to me, but I know that that's what it did to me. I mean, I don't think people should feel guilty if they can't find work, but I remember how terribly, terribly I felt...It's like you lose your voice, you internalize it, you don't think that anything you say has much validity, you don't argue for your point of view. You sort of hunch down, you don't walk as erect. It is so humiliating, and it's as if everybody looks down on you, except, that is what makes it a little easier to bear when you've got your friends in the same position. But we all felt like that, I don't remember that we blamed anybody. We were just so miserable that we couldn't do anything to improve our condition. Things were so bad, that I think that's when welfare was beginning to be paid for the first time. For the most part people sold apples in the street. That was the way they were supposed to live through the Depression, but we were a proud bunch, and I remember that same Mr. Zimmerman, and Mr. Blustein, they went to the City, and they demanded or asked for some kind of work for us, and they...in those days, there were dresses that were called "house dresses," and they were paid by the dozen, they were sort of glorified aprons, and they weren't hung up on a rack in the store, they were folded and that's how you bought them, and it was way beneath our dignity, I mean, we were skilled dressmakers. I guess only because our people wouldn't let up, they sent us to work in one of these house dress factories, and if that didn't take your dignity away I don't know what would. But we worked, and we got paid for our work, and it couldn't have been much, I don't remember what it was, but that was falling pretty low, except for no work at all, so the Union leaders, those I mentioned and others, the active people, we got in on that project, and it was an ordinary, an ordinary garment factory, only they were making those garments. It wasn't in the same way as the artists that were given work to paint, and the others, but I did get in on the FERA project which preceded the NRA, that was a trial balloon, they just had to do something before all these people lie [sic] down and die, and they, the government, organized this FERA, Federal Emergency...that was the one with the Relief Association. What that offered was a...review? What's another word for it, a review for teachers and counselors, to refresh their...it really made no sense, but the important thing was you got paid eighteen dollars a week.
Can we cut?
OK, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
Those hungry days seemed to have lasted forever, and I guess none of us sold apples, which was supposed to be the way to pull yourself out of the Depression. I participated in this FERA project, which was a program to let teachers and counselors who perhaps hadn't taught in a long time, to take this refresher course, and the only thing that had any meaning is that we were getting paid, and, I hadn't been a teacher but they took me anyway. It wasn't as good as getting a job, but by golly it paid for your groceries, and groceries were very cheap, I remember borrowing a dollar from my sister who came to visit, because I wanted to go down to the grocery and buy something I could feed her and myself with, and it was one of the worst moments in my life, to borrow. One of our traditions, my family, anyway, was not to borrow, and to this day I have not got loans, the only loan I made was to pay in for the apartment that I live in, and I thought, well, even if I die, the apartment's there, I won't die a debtor.
OK, can you tell me how, did you feel that this federal program bailed you out personally, can you just, can you say how you felt?
OK, so, some of us still had our sense of humor- some of us committed suicide, it was so tough on people- but those of us in the trades seemed to have made it, and so I had worked on the relief project making house dresses, and then I was taking a refresher-
Wait, I'm sorry-
The importance of that relief to you?
So, enough to put new soles on the shoes and eat a home-cooked meal, that had something besides potatoes in it, these, [coughs], these things helped, but they were all for short periods of time, it isn't as if you can go on this work project and stay on it for a year, and so when that gave out, you were back where you started from, but you didn't sink quite so low. I guess you always feel, sometimes it's gotta blow over, my uncle told us when we came here and everything seemed so good as far as making a living was concerned, was that, but the 1907, there was such a terrible depression, that that's one of the, the holes in the capitalist system, you go along for a long time and then-
I'm sorry, can, can you tell us about your friend's sister's-
My closest friend, in addition to having to feed herself, had a sister who was a single mother with a child, and it just, it just happened that way, and so she decided to ask for welfare. When they set up this welfare thing they had, they appointed investigators and then people who were in charge of the investigators and you had a whole new bureaucracy. After agonizing over this, she finally decided that she would go on relief, and so our friend who worked in the administration with the investigator said to her, "I'll tell you when I'll send the investigator to you, and have cabbage cooking." I guess that was the great sign of poverty, and she got on welfare.
How did she feel about that?
Can you refer to it as FERA and not welfare?
No, no, it wasn't FERA, FERA was this-
Home relief, it was.
Can you refer to it as home relief?
That's right, I didn't remember that.
Yeah. So, I had one friend on home relief, we were a very sad lot, and that's why the NRA and the strike in 1933 was from Hell to Heaven, when, when I think of it now it still sounds so dramatic, it still feels so dramatic...and that's how things went.
How did your friend feel about being on home relief?
Whether we worked on the relief project or my friend who was on home relief, it is a terrible way to feel about yourself, when you know, when for the first time in your experience it wasn't enough to want to go to work. You wanted to, and you tried, and there just, there just weren't any jobs, and it makes you feel pretty small, it makes you wish you had somebody to put your head on, and cry. Your head on somebody's lap.
Did she feel bailed out at the same time, I mean, rescued by this?
Can you tell the story of the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
She told that one-