To Make a Dream Come True: Rose Gershman

To Make a Dream Come True: Rose Gershman

Stories of Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

 Gershman

ROSE GERSHMAN: STORY OF A LABOR ORGANIZER

A view of the Russian Revolution comes from Rose Gershman.  She was born in a town in Westphalia, where “Jews and Gentiles got along beautifully.”  She got her education from “liberal teachers,” who organized a Saturday night school for working people.  This emphasis on education for the worker was one of the principal efforts of the revolutionary movement.  It was thought that not only would education improve a worker’s chances of getting a job, but education would provide a means of inculcating the worker in the ideals of the Revolution.

Both goals worked in Rose’s case.  She worked in factories as a child in Russia and took part in pre-Revolutionary strikes. She brought workers’ demands to the boss, she says, because as a child she could not be arrested by the Tsarist police.

During the waves of massacres that followed the strikes, Mrs. Gershman fled to England, and freedom.  England was a common stopping-place for many Eastern European Jews.  Some stayed there permanently; others continued on to America or elsewhere after a period of many months.

Once in America, Rose Gershman continued as a labor organizer.  Her story of organizing women in the factories is a vital part of the saga of the Jewish labor movement in the United States.

A Young Orphan

I was born in 1891 in a small town in Wesphalia, a very beautiful small town.  It was about a thousand families altogether between Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish people were the majority but we got along beautifully.  We had a very nice friendship among Jews and Gentiles.  A lot of respect was given to each other and the little town itself was a beautiful city.

My parents weren’t rich; they were working people.  But my mother was a great balabusta.  She made everything the best and beautiful. She taught the children to read and write Yiddish, the girls, and so it went on until I became ten years old.  My father died.  It became a little hard, a mother alone with children.

Leaving Home for the City, a Job, and an Education

My father’s sister wrote a letter to my mother, “how about send to us two children and we will take care of them.”  My brother went, but not one of the children said they would go, and I said to mama, “Mama, I’ll go with Nathan, my brother.  I’ll come back if it wouldn’t work out.”  She said, “My child, you are so young.  Wait another few years.”  I said, “Mama, now’s the best time.  I’m ten years old; I can accomplish something.”

I was one year with my father’s family.  I was eleven years old.  They apprenticed me to a dressmaker and I went to work as a dressmaker and I was very happy.  In those days for Jewish children, school was not for poor people, working people wasn’t accepted—the Cheder, and that was all.  The rich people could afford to go to gymnasium, but not the poor people. 

But in that same time when I came there and started to work, suddenly liberal teachers from the schools, two schools, three schools, they organized a Saturday night school for the working people.  I was happy. I always wanted that and I joined that school.  Saturday from six to nine I went to school.  Only one lesson a week we used to get, but my teacher saw I wanted to learn; I can learn. 

A Young Labor Activist

In the morning I had to work again and I worked and made my lessons late.  Then started the commotion about Potamkin, if you heard, it’s historical.  The people started to strike there. Labor started to organize from all parts, all places. There were about five workers with my dressmaker. So we joined them and we went out on strike.  We didn’t strike on the street because it wasn’t allowed.  We went home, we sat until they settled the strike.  I was twelve years old.  The grownup workers, they weren’t allowed to bring to the boss the demands, but I was underage—they would be arrested—I wouldn’t, because I was underage; I was twelve years old.  So it went on. We struck about ten weeks but it was settled.

The Tsar tricked us to find out who was the organizers, who were the strikers. They gave out a proclamation, free speech, free assembly.  In other words, freedom. We could do whatever we want.  And we tried. We went out on demonstrations.  Such happiness!  Ah, the streets were full with working people, happy.  And for about a month we were all happy.  What was the proclamation by the Tsar?  It was a scheme to find out who is who.  And all the demonstrators were arrested.  And then pogroms started.

Escaping the Pogroms

But I knew a family going to England, a very fine family, with one of the girls I worked with. They said they will take me.  They will put me on their ticket as another child.  I went with them.  They came to Leeds, a city not far from London and I found work there, also in a factory.  I made ten shillings a week and that was a lot of money that time.  I paid my board and rent to the family and the rest of it I sent tot my mother, she should pay off the money she borrowed for me to go to England.

So it went about a year.  Then my sister and my brother sent for me to America. And I got work.  The boss said, “You know, little girl, how much your pay will be?  Three dollars a week.  Seventy-five hours a week.” “All right.  I hope I’ll work out and I’ll get more. I have to live and pay rent to live.”  He said, “Yes, you will.”

Well, I didn’t feel so happy but it’s all right.  I just came.  Then, a week later I got a raise, fifty cents, and a week later fifty cents.  I hoped I’ll get more later on.

Joining the Union in America

A young man came over to me and said, “Little girl, we’re organizing in the shop.  We intend to go on a strike. So I said, “I’ll strike with you.”  So it didn’t take long and he took me in the union and I liked it very much. They’re striking, they’ll get better wages and it will be better, less hours.  I was sixteen then.  We had a general strike in the garment workers.

During the three years, I became an organizer because I was already class conscious.  It was very hard to organize the girls, the finishers.  They said, “Maybe you will be able to do it.”  Well, I tried it.  I made friends with my girl friends.  I was an operator, they were finishers.  I was the only girl that operated on a machine.

In 1919, President Gompers from the American Federation of Labor, he came to us to speak to us and made arrangements for a strike.  The executives went and I went with them.  I went and we decided when to call the strike, I arranged halls.  In a day or two we had called the strike, the general strike, the garment workers, and we struck about ten or twelve weeks and we won the strike.

When the women’s suffrage came by election day, I remember I became a citizen in 1925.  Since then I keep on voting, always voted the Democratic ticket.

To sum up my life, there is nothing I would have liked to do that I didn’t do.  I have great satisfaction with my life.  I feel I didn’t do more for myself than I did for others and that give me full satisfaction.

 

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