My Grandmother’s Knitting Needles
By Emma Rosenthal
“What the woman who labors wants is to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has it, the right to life, and the sun, and music, and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” -Garment worker Rose Schneiderman, August 1912
Her hands moved like mercury. The click clack of the needles, back and forth, the yarn spinning from the ball on the floor into the moving swarm of hands and needles, emerging as form, as hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters. “Watch and learn,” she would tell me, and I tried but all I saw was the miraculous transformation of a ball of yarn into cloth. She had grandmother hands, bumpy where the veins stood out, loose soft skin.
“Before a girl could get married in my village she had to prove that she was patient enough for the task,” she told me. “They would give her a bundle of tangled yarn,” she would say, as we would struggle to untangle wool, or rope or extension cords. She told the story as she wound yarn into balls for knitting. “If she could not untangle the yarn, she could not get married.” I remember that story every time I have something to untangle. I would never settle for a village marriage, but patience is a skill applied to any task worthy of completion.
By the time she was five she had lost her entire immediate family. It is not clear if they died of illness and starvation, or were killed in pogroms, massacres committed by Polish or Russian authorities against the Jewish peasants throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Either way, it was governmental policies towards the Jews that killed them, living in the region that was Poland one day, Russia the next, bombarded by Cossacks, government sanctioned thugs that rode in on horseback killing and destroying everything in their sight, slashing open the bellies of pregnant women, raping children, killing the livestock, burning homes. She remembered being thrown into a root cellar by her aunt when she was only six to hide from the Cossacks, hidden among the carrots and parsnips, potatoes and rutabagas while death, destruction, ravaged in the streets above her. At six, she landed on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, with her aunt and nephews, on the false passport of her dead cousin. They came to join her uncle in New York, in America, where there is such abundance that they shovel gold in the streets. What she found was the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Delancy Street, Hester Street. A three room, cold water walk up flat on the fourth floor. There was no bath, the toilet was in the hallway, shared by all the families on the floor. She slept in the kitchen.
She decided to go to work. At age nine she went to the factory by day and school at night. Now she had three different identities, as common to the immigrant experience as cheap labor and cloth dust. She was of course, herself – Anna Kaufman – daughter of Aaron Moses Kaufman and Choma Reingold. Her passport gave her the identity of her dead cousin. And now she had a third set of documents, for work, identifying her as a thirteen year old. She found employment in an umbrella factory, making the tips of umbrellas.
She worked there for three years. By the time she was 12, she was able to make every part of the umbrella and was now a shop forelady. It was that year, 1909 that a strike broke out in the garment industry. The strike, led mostly by Jewish and Italian immigrant teenagers, was named the Uprising of the 20,000. Not a machine whirred, not a wheel turned. The strike that began on November 22, 1909, lasted almost four months, through the winter and ended on March 8, 1910. She wasn’t a leader in the strike, but she left her lofted position of middle management and walked out with the other workers in one of American history’s biggest strikes. “I didn’t want to be a scab,” she told me.
Such a different world, where a 12 year old girl knows the sanctity of a picket line and the importance of righteous bread.
“Watch and learn,” she would tell me, her hands moving like silver as yarn became cloth. “Watch and learn.” She would tell me.
I still can’t knit. I never have crossed a picket line.