In my home, high on a living room wall, is a photograph of a sweatshop on the Lower East Side of New York City around the turn of the last century, where a bunch of men sit in their undershirts, and electrical wires hang from the ceiling and swatches of cloth are strung all about.
Among the men is Max Strull, a refugee from Czarist Russia who was my great-grandfather. He and the other men worked 12-hour days in this miserable, cramped room, shvitzing through summers and threading sewing needles with numb fingers through winter cold.
They were part of an enormous wave of immigrants who landed in United States back then. They came here because they heard America was the “golden land.” The average American worker at that time made 22 cents an hour. There were two million child laborers, who made as little as 25 cents a day. The average life expectancy was 47 years.
Every family in America has been through tough times before this awful moment of ours, and gotten through it, and has similar survival stories to tell.
One day, this generation will have its own.
Every generation does.
Max Strull’s daughter was my grandmother, Ruth. I once asked her how much money her father made in the sweatshop.
“Three dollars,” she said. She remembered this distinctly.
“A day?” I said. I remember, also quite distinctly, her answer.
“A day, he should be so lucky,” she exclaimed. “For a whole week, he made three dollars.”
Ruth married Moe Loebman and had two children: my mother, Selma, and my uncle, Richard. My mother was four years old, and Richard just four weeks old, when Moe died from a kidney infection.
Months later, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression that lasted all through the 1930s. Nobody had any money, and nobody knew when the lean days would ever end. My grandmother struggled to hold things together with her two tiny children.
On the best of days, my uncle remembered being sent to the corner bakery for cookies. That’s when the welfare check arrived and they could splurge a little.
“You can get a half of a quarter-pound,” my grandmother would tell him.
All families, somewhere along the way, have been through tough times, and wondered if they’d ever get to the end of it, and wondered when that end would finally come.
This, too, shall pass.
My father, Lionel Olesker, was an 18-year-old freshman at New York University when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He dropped out of school and joined the Army Air Force the next day. There were millions in that generation just like him.
He was stationed on a base in Foggia, Italy. Though he rarely talked about his war, he told me once about a flight on Valentine’s Day, 1945. My father was a gunner. He remembered his co-pilot, a fellow named George Peck, and explosions all around, and flak bursting just outside Peck’s window.
The flak burst through, shearing off the top of poor Peck’s head. In the next seat, the pilot was knocked out by the blast. In the back of the plane, men scrambled about frantically as shrapnel burst through walls near them.
In the cockpit, the engineer and the navigator struggled with the body of young Peck, who had to be pulled from his seat so that someone could slip in and help fly the plane. My father remembered, when calm was restored, sunlight shining through all the holes in the plane where shrapnel had hit.
We get through the worst of times, he was saying. Dawn comes, and sunlight arrives.
We got through Korea and Vietnam, most of us, and we got through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Every generation has stories to tell, most of which break hearts, or lift them the way stories of selfless first-responders touch us today.
Who knows how long the coronavirus plague will last, and who knows how many lives it will take before better days arrive?
They will, you know. Years from now, the stories will be shared of family endurance during this increasingly depressing time. It will end. Nobody knew when the Depression would end, or the wars that followed.
One day, the sun bursts through the flak, if we hang tough enough. They did it before. Now, it’s our turn.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.