MY GRANDMOTHER’S EARLY YEARS – By Ellin Curley

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!