Saturday, October 11, 2008

First-Hand Voices

Marie Ganz immigrated to the United States with her family in 1896 when she was just five years old. They settled in the Lower East Side.  She was able to attend school but soon had to leave in order to help support her family.  From that point forward, her education came in the sweatshops of the LES and the radical socialist groups that thrived in that part of the city.  It was her association with the "radicals" that led to her identity of an anarchist, bearing the nickname "Sweet Marie."

In 1920, Marie wrote and published a fascinating memoir: Rebels: Into Anarchy -- And Out Again.  It's available online in its complete form and I highly recommend.  Not only does it provide a vibrant image of the LES in the early part of the 20th century but it's a strong female voice that deserves a wider audience.

In most of the articles that describe the events of February 20, 1917 - the day that a group of 400 women marched to City Hall to demand action from the Mayor - it is reported that the police asked Marie Ganz to tell the crowd to go home (they allowed her to speak in Yiddish) and that they could send representation the next day.  Instead, an angry crowd renewed its cries of "Give us bread!"  This apparent defiance of police orders led to her arrest (though hundreds of women protested immediately for her release - and it worked).  It paints of picture of Ms. Ganz as an antagonistic agitator.  (It is important to note, that at this point, she had already been arrested once.)  Nonetheless, when I read Rebels, in the chapter "Hunger," I was only mildly surprised to hear a different story:

"...from the steps I addressed the crowd in Yiddish, telling them to return to their homes and be patient for a day longer.  But they grew more and more excited as I spoke, and the officers must have thought I was trying to incite a riot, for a policeman stepped up to me, laid hold of my arm, and said quietly, "Miss Ganz, Captain Dwyer has ordered me to arrest you."

I wonder - is the very different story captured in the papers the "truth"?  Or was it distorted through language barrier?  Class barrier?  Gender barrier?

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