The Factory

 

The Factory

By Tsilye Dropkin

Translated from Yiddish by Anita Norich

 

When the young man from Broadway came to town and built factories, young and old, large and small came from the surrounding hills looking for work.
 
Some came to earn enough for a dry piece of bread and some for a dress or a pair of shoes. Mothers who owed money for bread and milk came, as did newlyweds who wanted to help their husbands support the family. Old, homeless women came who did not want to live off their sons or see their daughters-in-law glare at every bite they took. Young boys and girls who lacked money for candy, movies, and cigarettes came, too. All went, trudging carefully or rolling down the mountains.
 
The young man from Broadway sat in his new office and measured every newcomer from head to toe. (He wanted women workers.)
 
Young blossoming girls and wives who had matured too early looked at him blankly, with glossy eyes, willing to work for practically nothing. “You’ll earn more later,” he said, not raising his voice. It was as if he himself didn’t believe what he was saying.
 
Machines began to buzz from seven in the morning until six at night.
 
Powerful industrial belts filled the factory with a tumultuous cadence, sounding as if millions of people were playing jazz. Their driving force worked not only on the machines, but also on the people sitting at the machines. Elbows moved up and down quickly lightning fast with alarming momentum. They did not need much experience to become fast.
 
The huge belts reverberated in the girls’ thin veins and the mothers’ neglected muscles with such a quickening, spasmodic rhythm that they all became quick hands at their work.
 
“People learn quickly when they work for me,” bragged the young man from Broadway.
 
The “hands” often came hungry, asking the foreman to lend them a few cents for something to eat or, sometimes, enough to travel back home.
 
At the end of the week, there was nothing left.
 
The young man from Broadway put a stop to the loans and raised the wages of the better workers. Those who were not as good began to leave the shop, unwilling to work for nothing. The young man from Broadway wasn’t bothered by that. Whoever needed to, would come to him. Good workers would remain, bad ones leave. Why should it bother him?
 
Men often came in the evening to accompany their wives or girlfriends home after work.
 
Marta’s husband, though, did not want her to work in the factory at all.
 
“Leaves home, doesn’t cook supper, the children wander around, and she goes to work.
Why is she doing this, impudent woman that she is? She wants a dress. She no longer likes her old wardrobe. She needs silk stockings, like the wife of the coal magnate.”
 
Marta’s husband is a coal miner. He works hard all week, often sleeping in the coal mines.
When he comes home, he wants calm, a clean house, a filling meal. And Marta has run off to the factory.
 
Marta is a small, pretty woman. She hates going to church every Sunday in her old dress. She has already mended it twenty times. How much can she stand?
 
Her husband thrashes about and curses if she says one word about a new dress. For drink, though, he manages to find money.
 
Marta and the young neighboring women make their way from the mountains to the factory.
 
The snow that morning, lying under the sunbeams like a shining bedspread on the mountains, becomes black from the hundreds of footprints the “hands” make on their way to work.
 
With whom does she leave her three little children? Yes, it’s her old mother, who cleans, washes, and cooks for her son-in-law, her daughter, and the children.
 
Marta comes home tired but undaunted. She kisses the little ones and sits down at the table with her husband, waiting for her mother to serve them.
 
She is too tired to move a finger and sits as if rooted to the spot.
 
Her husband sees her like this and spits. He is terribly angry, thrashing about, unable to eat, pushing the children away.
 
“I can’t sit at the table eating with dirty children. Children need a mother.”
 
Marta hears him but is barely listening. The factory whistle, the machine belts call to her in the morning. She cannot give up all the bustle.
 
Once, thinking about it all, her husband says, “Listen, Marta, you’re earning money now. Maybe you’d give some of it for bread?”
 
Marta understands and shudders. “No, no. How can I? I’m saving up for a winter coat. I’m going around practically naked.”
 
“As you like. But if you go out to work, I won’t be here when you get back.”
 
 Marta decides to stay home.
 
*
 
For two days, she works hard in the house. Everything went to seed while she was a “hand” in the factory. She puts everything right and rests a bit.
 
Sitting at the window, she sees the quiet mountains and a terrible dread comes over her. She bangs on the table. “No, I won’t stay home!”
 
At home, Marta feels like an alcoholic who tries to stop drinking but is constantly drawn to the bitter drop.
 
The next day, she is back in the factory.
 
The owner is pleased. She is a good hand.
 
“Why didn’t you come, Marta? What is it? Does your husband forbid you to come? What right does he have to do that? These days, women have equal rights.”
 
Marta listens avidly to his words. She works during winter, ignoring her husband entirely.
 
He yells, fusses, but still he gives money for bread. He pities the children.
 
Meanwhile, Marta works hard all winter and buys some clothes and shoes. By the summer, she has saved enough for a warm coat.
 
Her elderly mother weeps. She walks around in torn shoes, unable to leave the house in winter.
 
“I’ll bring the children to you at work if you don’t buy me some shoes.”
 
Marta curses, cries. What do they want from her? Everyone complains: her mother, her husband, Marta herself. It’s hell.
 
Marta suddenly remembers how calm and quiet it was at home before she went to work in the factory. It’s true that she had no silk stockings or new dress, but the children were clean. Every corner of the house was bright. A devil has taken hold of her since she started at the factory.
 
The neighboring girls have also changed. They have become brazen and they have dozens of boyfriends who come to them in their cars and take them away for whole nights.
 
Marta sees everything going on around her. But she cannot give up the factory.
 
*
 
And soon there’s another problem worrying her. Her old mother talked things over with a few neighboring women and they’re taking her to the factory.
 
“Older women,” they say, “sit in a separate corner with scissors and clean up the sewn things, removing dangling threads.”
 
Marta’s mother takes a pair of scissors from the house, drags herself to the factory, and sits down with the old ladies.
 
Marta nearly faints. She runs over to her mother. “What did you do with the children, Mother?” she yells, beside herself with fury.
 
“I left them with the neighbor,” says the old woman fearlessly, beating her chest. “I’d rather work here than for you. I don’t want to eat your husband’s bread anymore.”
 
Marta clutches her head.
 
Meanwhile, the foreman hears loud voices coming from the old ladies’ corner and runs over to see what is happening.
 
Marta is no longer there. She is back at her machine, swallowing her tears.
 
The next day, Marta does not come to work. But on the following day, she is already back. Her mother, scissors in hand, is also there. She sits in a corner with the other grandmothers, her head spinning because of the din made by the machines.
 
“You’ll get used to it, old lady,” says a younger grandmother to her.
 
And the scissors gleam in the women’s brown, wrinkled fingers.
 
“Who’s taking care of the children?” asks the younger grandmother.
 
“A neighbor.” She has promised to share her wages with the neighbor.
 
“And what does Marta’s husband say?”

“He drinks. He has never drunk so much. Oh, it’s such a sin.”

         

Translation copyright © Anita Norich 2022

Tsilye Dropkin (the author) (1887-1956) was an acclaimed poet, prose writer, and painter. Born in White Russia, she came to the U.S. in 1912 and, with the exception of the years during the Great Depression, spent the rest of her life in New York. Dropkin began writing poetry in Russian, but by 1920 she was writing in Yiddish. Her work is often heralded for its frank exploration of the relationships between people and their erotic and emotional lives and passions. Only one book of her poetry appeared in her lifetime (In heysn vint / In the hot wind), but she also wrote a novel serialized in the Forverts in 1934 (Tsvey gefiln /  Two feelings) and ten short stories that appeared in Tsukunft in the 1930s, including “The Factory.”

Anita Norich (the translator) is Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and is currently serving as Academic Advisor to the Center for Jewish History Fellowship Program.  She is the translator of Two Feelings by Tsilye Dropkin (forthcoming 2023), Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn (2022) and A Jewish Refugee in New York by Kadya Molodovsky (2019). She is also the author of Writing in Tongues: Yiddish Translation in the 20th Century; Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Literature in America During the Holocaust; and The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer.  She translates Yiddish literature and lectures and publishes on a range of topics concerning modern Jewish cultures, Yiddish language and literature, Jewish American literature, and Holocaust literature. 



 

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