Clara Lemlich, A Unknown Revolutionary

Posted: January 24, 2013 in Uncategorized
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This is a copy and pasted paper I did for  class, Urban Sociology . Since I did write this for a college course I ask this not be copied and pasted ,reused or edited at all. Please do not re-purpose this for any of your college school work. I do not condone plagiarism. If you are reading this, i did not edit the typos and misspellings( i wasn’t a believer in proofreading as a student it seems LOL). But, this was one of my favorite reflection pieces for this course. Hope you enjoy!

“If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise”
– Yiddish Oath




                                                                                                                                 Di shvue

Brider un shvester fun arbet un neyt
Ale vus zaynen tsezeyt un tseshpreyt,
Tsuzamen, tsuzamen, di fon iz greyt,
Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt!
A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt.

Himl un erd veln undz oyshern
Eydes veln zayn di likhtike shtern
A shvue fun blut un a shvue fun trern,
Mir shvern, mir shvern, mir shvern!

Mir shvern a trayhayt on grenetsn tsum bund.
Nor er ken di shklafn bafrayen atsind.
Di fon di reyte iz heykh un breyt.
Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt!
A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt.

The Oath

Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle
All who are dispersed far and wide
Come together, the flag is ready
It waves in anger, it is red with blood!
Swear an oath of life and death!

Heaven and earth will hear us,
The light stars will bear witness.
An oath of blood, an oath of tears,
We swear, we swear, we swear!

We swear an endless loyalty to the Bund.
Only it can free the slaves now.
The red flag is high and wide.
It waves in anger, it is red with blood!
Swear an oath of life and death!

“Third time is a charm” says the cliché and it certainly is with my third time visiting the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. This visit opened my eyes and gave me a profound understanding of social issues and public attitude in the 19th century. It also put into perspective the radical changes that have occurred since and also exemplifies the remnants of generations before us.  What particularly drew my attention was a fascination women name Clara Lemliech.

Tenement buildings typical held 3 families that were unrelated whom all shared one common interest- garment working. The Civil War in 1863 jump started the garment business.  Those living in tenement buildings typically have a dual purpose for the apartment- living and working.  As you can imagine, the tenement buildings were severely crowded to the point where people will sleep in shifts. The specific tenement apartment we visited housed 14 people whom all slept in shifts. The doors were always left unlocked and mostly ajar because there was always a free flow of people moving about.

As a result in working in such cramped small conditions one could develop the “black lung” which causes a lot of spitting. The spittoon was invented around this to prevent spitting on the garments and the spread of diseases.  Upon looking and listening to the daily routine of the garment workers, our tour guide asked us if we thought this was a sweat shop.  Some people promptly responded yes, however, I responded no because I felt sweat shops were in more strenuous and horrendous condition especially in the late 19 century.  Not that I believe working in a garment industry out of a tenement building is a walk in the park, but considering the time period and conditions it would seem that working in a tenement building would equate to what we know today as a mom and pop store or neighborhood store. Businesses that are privately owned not mass production or corporately owned.  However, in 1890 there were no labor laws.
It wasn’t until 1901 the Tenement House Act declared for health reasons there needed to be a separation of work and home. If one wanted to keep working in their apartment one must have a permit.  Also, a fire door and a window must be installed in each apartment.

During this time frame we learned there weren’t adequate health conditions in the work field and the home field.  New immigrants suffered greatly in overcrowding. Also, they relished the public sphere because it was a place to get away from the crowdedness of work and home life.  From my visit to the tenement museum I learned of fundamental social reform such and unionization and health inspections and other safety regulations like fire escape. This generation revolutionized conditions that we benefit from today. People like Clara Lemlich contributed to our existence today.
Clara Lemlich was a revolutionary of her time. In 1940 Clara led the “uprising of 20,000”.  In attending a community hearing she approached the microphone and stated “I want to say a few words.  I have listened to all of the speakers. I have no further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feel and suffer from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike.”  After about five minutes of the crowded erupting enthusiastically,  they all raised the right hands and pledged the old traditional Yiddish Oath  “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise” and voted for a general strike.  While protesting, Clara was jumped and beaten badly suffering from several broken ribs. However, she persevered and marched on. It is reckoned that the “Uprising of 20,000” lasted 14 weeks and was the longest protest in history.  Being an activist and former women studies major I questioned the tour guide how come I’ve never heard about this before. He said because Clara Lemlich was later blacklisted from the garment industry union for having ties to communism. Upon research, that theory is true. However, her revolutionary work did not stop. Clara dabbled in all kinds of movements even part taking in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.  Even until her dying day Clara fought to organize. In her residency at a nursing home she prompted the management to join in boycotting grapes and lettuces with the United Farm Workers and prodded the workers there to organize and unionize.

I feel immigrants in the late 19 century had terrible living and social conditions. However, they worked long and hard for improvements. New immigrants today, although they do not have it easy, have a significant advancement in conditions in which they live and work. I know many undocumented workers who do live in cramped conditions and work long hours and are underpaid.  However, I know a specific person who graduated from college with a degree and cannot find a job with their degree because they are undocumented.  I feel that is the only advantage immigrants had in the late 19 century- everyone was undocumented to a certain extended and can come to this country and start a business. However, now with immigration and illegalization not everyone can come to this country and make something for themselves. True conditions are way better however the opportunity is less available.

  1. sethsnap says:

    Great job Tasha. I think it’s important that we remember what our forefathers went through to help build our country.


    • Thank you Seth! I agree it is important to known our history and be grateful for all the liberties we now take for granted. Everyone is so quick to say “it’s my right” but it hasn’t always been so and there is so much inequality out there that our generation needs to fight to right.


  2. Katie Renee says:

    This is a great article! Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  3. diannegray says:

    Excellent article, Tasha 😉


  4. Kozo says:

    Wow, Tasha. I have never heard of Clara Lemlich. Sounds like someone needs to write a biography on her. hint, hint. I love the story about her boycotting grapes in her nursing home. What a firecracker.


  5. C. R. says:

    Great article Tasha!!


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