A reader has asked that I post the picture of my paternal grandmother that I described in yesterday’s post. It is contemporary with Andre Hachette’s portrait of Sarah Lievine and is a silver gelatin portrait taken and hand tinted by Elias Halperin, who was the husband of my grandfather’s sister Menuka Wolfowitz Halperin. The image is dated June 9, 1911.
The date is significant, because my grandmother, Mary as they called her, had quit her job at the Triangle Waist Coat factory a few months earlier. On March 25, 1911 in a sad and gruesome tragedy the Triangle Waist Factory, now the NYU Brown building on Washington Square, went up in flames. The owners had locked the rear doors, so that the girls, who worked there, were forced to exit by the elevator in the front of the building so that they could be checked for stolen cloth. Within eighteen minutes the entire factory was engulfed in smoke and flames killing everyone left inside. Fortunately, for me, my grandmother was not one of them.
Mary married my Grandfather Louis Wolf five months after this picture was taken. The wedding was held at “The Brides Residence at 54 Ludlow Street” in Manhattan.
I have blogged before at how wonderful it is to have silent faces look back at us over a century. The have a message for us. When the face is unknown, we catch a glimpse of their lives and create a story for ourselves. When we know the person and know the rest of their lives, those eyes are filled with the wonder of expectation.
My grandmother was born in 1886 in Lomza, Poland. She came to America in 1910 at age 24 full of hope and expectation. My grandmother always seemed a timid person to my sister and me. But she must have been an incredibly brave person to make that journey alone.
My cousin Ken Figa told me a story that has always haunted me. When his grandfather, Jack Figa, my grandmother’s youngest brother, was asked what it was like to leave his family behind, he said tearfully, “I kissed my mother goodbye on the dock and I never looked back.”
I hope that Ken doesn’t mind my telling that story, because it’s very important. Millions of stories like that define the great immigrations that are America. I always love to look at that picture. It always makes me think that (to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow), we are not descended from fearful men and women. They were doers and they did what they did for us. They had great expectations and they expected nothing less from us. Anyway, that’s what Mary’s photograph means to me.