Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cecilia Greenstone Arnow

Image from Children of Ellis Island This was Emily Arnow Alman's remarkable mother.
from erraticimpact
Cecilia Greenstone: Born in Bialystok, in Russian Poland in 1887, Cecilia led an unconventional life from an early age. Her father owned a cigarette factory in their hometown, and Cecilia would frequently be left in charge in her father’s absence. By the age of 12 she had gotten caught up in the Socialist spirit of the times and had succeeded in organizing the cigarette factory’s workers. Though the factory did not last, Cecilia’s career in social work and issues had already begun. Cecilia, fearful of the pogroms, joined the Socialist Zionists and would frequently protest on the streets. Soon the Russian government accused the group of being anti-government and the police began to raid their meetings in battles that became increasingly violent. In 1905 the family fl ed for America. After arriving in New York, and turning down job offers until she could speak English, Cecilia went to the Astor Place Library (which would later become the headquarters for HIAS) determined to learn English. Spending hours on end at the library, she taught herself not just English, but also Hebrew, German and Yiddish, and eventually learned to speak seven languages. This feat brought her to the attention of the head of the Hebrew Division, where she became an assistant to the librarian. She later worked as a translator for the famed Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff. It was while in this position that she came to the attention of the New York Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW,) an organization that worked hand in hand with HIAS. Founded out of concern for the hundreds of thousands of single and unaccompanied young Jewish women who came through the port of Ellis Island, the NCJW feared that these young women might be “mislead into immoral lives, and other girls will be subjected to great dangers because of the lack of some directing and protecting agency at Ellis Island.” At the time, it was not uncommon for young, newly arrived female immigrants to be taken advantage of, and many fell into lives of crime and prostitution. It was the job of the NCJW “to make sure that the ‘uncle’ who was waiting to meet the immigrant girl was truly her uncle and not a procurer.” “To rescue human dignity from this nightmare – that was the single thought my co-workers and I had,” recalled Greenstone in 1962. “To show them that in all the hard sorrow of their lives, they did not stand alone, and they did not have to succumb. To show them that if one person misuses or betrayed them, another would not; that their violated dignity could not be healed on the street, in theft, in drink, in drugs or suicide. To show them dignity could only be restored by that which a human does for oneself.” Beginning work in 1907, Greenstone would eventually work six days a week at Ellis Island, assisting single women, mothers and children through the immigration process. She personally intervened in countless cases where young women, who had been rejected by the health inspectors, were scheduled for deportation. She helped those, who because they could not speak enough English to answer inspector’s questions, were labeled “retarded” and set to be deported. She arranged for kosher food to be delivered to patients at the island’s hospital, and she established Shabbat and holiday services on the Island for Jewish immigrants. In 1910 alone the NCJW dealt with over 60,000 women and children, most of whom were helped by Cecilia. In her spare time she taught English classes and arraigned socials, theater outings and events that would bring newly settled immigrants in touch with American life. She helped to arrange marriages for young women whose suitors were moral and upstanding citizens, and she helped young women find work. Her motto: “ jobs, not charity.” By 1912 she was promoted to head agent for the NCJW on Ellis Island. A 1913 letter to an official at HIAS reads in part that “Miss Greenstone spends every cent of her salary to help the immigrants on the island… [She] renders her service without any regard to time or effort to any girl or woman who needs her service.” In 1914 Cecilia was asked by HIAS to travel to Riga, in Russian Latvia to inspect a new facility that had been built by the Russian government to house Jewish immigrants that were awaiting passage to America. Given the special commission as a “delegate” to Russia, Cecilia traveled to Europe aboard the Kursk. It was an uneventful trip, but a day before they reached Liverpool, England declared war on Germany, and the path of the Kursk was diverted. Cecilia became a witness to the first naval battle of World War I. By the time she returned to America, the number of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island was dwindling. With the war in Europe the number of immigrant arrivals dropped, from 875,000 in 1914 to 28,000 by 1918. After the end of the war, restrictive new laws limited the number of Jewish immigrants, and Greenstone was no longer needed at Ellis Island. Greenstone later married and had two children, but always continued her career in social work, first at Hamilton House, then Henry Street, and later through the depression years and the second World War at the Grand Street Settlement. She later worked as a social worker at the Sons and Daughters of Israel Home. She died in 1971 at age 84. “She was a liberated woman in Russia,” recalled her great grandson Jesse Peterson, “running a cigarette factory, marching into a hail of bullets with the young Socialist Zionists and emerging as the matriarch of the entire Greenstone family. This was not a woman who would accept second-class status in any culture or country, and throughout her career, she fought it, both for herself and her fellow women. In America, she took up the same struggle against injustice that she had fought on the streets of her native Russia, but here, rather than protest; she would fight injustice as a social worker, caring for one victim at a time.”

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