Sonia Goldstein is a lifelong activist for the rights of workers and civil rights causes. She was raised by activists, and has continued this by raising new generations of activists. She previously spoke at the 2017 Clara Lemlich Award ceremony at the Museum of the City of New York about a relative who was almost involved in the 1912 Triangle Fire disaster.
Interviewed by Annika Fagerstrom
My parents were both very committed to making a better life for themselves. They lived in the co-ops, which were built by the garment workers association. They couldn’t have planning on getting old, because they didn’t have the money. The garment workers built two houses because they believed workers deserved light, cross ventilation, and all that. A large number of them were Jewish, so they had a school for the children in the basement. And an auditorium, and so forth. They really all believed in making things better, and then workers deserved these basics.
My husband was a GI, and didn’t make much, so I went to work as well. I remember once coming home from work. This woman comes up to me, points at me, and says, “You’re Morty’s?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Good.” I don’t know her name, never knew who she was. And that was what living there was like. Everyone looked out for everyone else and everyone cared for everyone else. At that time May Day was the workers’ holiday, everyone got the day off. Everyone, the students got the day off from school, and all the workers did as well. There was a real appreciation for a better life. You know, they worked crazy hours, made very little money, and they focus on a better life for their kids. And for themselves. They had lectures, they had book clubs, they had all kinds of things that made them feel better about themselves.
My parents came into Washington DC, they met there. They never would have met in New York. My mother was the poorest person I know, in terms of her background. She was one of five sisters. My mom’s oldest sister, my mom’s the next oldest, was in the 1905 revolution in Russia and had to hide out. ‘Cause the Cossacks would get her, also they were Jewish, which was a double whammy. She died of typhus because she couldn’t leave hiding to seek medical help because then they would have gotten her. My mother was arrested at the age of nine for stealing a loaf of bread. And I asked her, ‘Why did you steal a loaf a bread.” And she said, “I couldn’t stand my sister’s crying anymore.” So, she was the oldest of the other three. And she told me a lot of story that she probably shouldn’t have but she had a breakdown when I was 10, and I took care of her, and she talked a lot then.
She wanted desperately to learn to read. She told me, “When you walk in the park with a book under your arm, everyone knows you can read.” This was the highest honor for her; her face was alight when she told me this. So, she, when my grandmother sent money for passage to New York, and when my grandmother went to the next town to get her from school, she didn’t want to go. And I have it on tape, she said to me, “So I gave up my life and went.” She came to this country. And she told her sisters, “everything is paid for so eat everything you can.” But then she was seasick the entire time. Life isn’t fair, sometimes.
When I was born, we lived in Baltimore with my grandmother. We moved to Washington from Baltimore when I was little, I only spoke Yiddish. My whole life was speaking Yiddish, I didn’t know any English. In Washington, no one spoke Yiddish and I was the only person in school who did. I was passed on condition from kindergarten to first grade. But, the first-grade teacher if you gave her the wrong answer you were rapped on the knuckles, so I knew better than to talk. So, they sent me back to kindergarten. All through school I thought I was dumb, all through school. Only later I found out, I had the goods.
I got married in 1947. We were involved in desegregating Washington. Washington prided itself on being separate. So, we had a housewarming party, which involved all colors because that’s who we were. And there was a spy in our group. And the vice squad came to our house, banging on the door, saying someone heard a gunshot. And they went to our closet and pulled out a rifle, which they had brought with them to plant. No one in our house had guns, no one could even afford them. So, they separated the men and the women, and took us down to the station. And I thought after, why did we answer. But there were no Miranda rights back then.