Remember Elizabeth Hasanovitz, the Hebrew school teacher’s daughter who fled Russia for a better life in New York? (If not, you can read about her here.) She’s back, in the second installment of her memoir in the February 1918 Atlantic.
Elizabeth attempted suicide at the end of the last installment, ground down by her life as a seamstress. She recovers quickly and gets a job in a non-union factory, making the princely sum of ten dollars a week.
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.
She starts saving up to send for her younger brother, and her friend Clara helps out with a fifty-dollar loan. Even the conversation at work has improved.
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.
Once she pays her debt to Clara, Elizabeth starts thinking about the finer things in life.
I at once went to the Opera House, secured tickets for five dollars at twenty-five cents each, so that I was provided with opera tickets for the next few weeks.
She sees Enrico Caruso sing and Anna Pavlova dance. Her tickets are standing room*, and she often goes straight from work.
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.
Back at the factory, Elizabeth tries to get her co-workers interested in joining the Dress-and-Waist-Makers’ Union. The good conditions they enjoy, she argues, were won by activists in unionized factories. The other girls say, “You better shut up; if you don’t you will get fired.” She pays a visit to the union, and word gets back to her colleagues and her boss. They warn her that union leaders are nothing but grafters, after the members’ money.
Elizabeth decides to attend the May Day workers’ march.
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!”
The next day, in high spirits, Elizabeth sets out for work, humming a favorite Russian song.
“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.
That Saturday, Elizabeth receives her pay–and a dismissal notice.
It’s the slow season, and Elizabeth has no luck finding a new job. She wonders how she will provide for her brother when he arrives. She sits on a bench in Riverside Park, looking out at the Hudson and thinking very Russian thoughts.
Life, life—O Happiness, where is thy sweetness, murmured I, in such mortal anguish for life.
(To be continued.)
Elizabeth is still a drama queen. And she’s as snooty as ever. When her mother sends her a poem that her sixteen-year-old brother Nathan has written for her, she criticizes his grammar. She says of her friend Clara, who took her in after her suicide attempt and lent her the money for her brother’s passage,
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.
But, amid the flippancy of the fashionable magazines of 1918 and the dullness of the mainstream press, she’s a fresh, genuine voice.
(If you want to read about Elizabeth in her own words, her autobiography is available in several versions at Amazon. The issues of the Atlantic that it was serialized in (January – April 1918) can be accessed at Hathitrust Digital Library here.)
*in a parterre, maybe!
**So it was probably 1913.
***A different translator or editor apparently took over midway through the article, and Elizabeth in inverted sentences begins always to talk.