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|Figure 1 |
Painting on page 6: by Esther Hyneman, "Portrait of Two Women," oil on canvas, 30X36. "Pearl" on left, "Jenny" on right.
I met Jenny Markowitz and Pearl Fischer (both pseudonyms, by request, as are the names of personal friends and family members mentioned in this text, by request) in 1983, when I visited my brother in the mountain town of El Crucero (also a pseudonym) in Chiapas, Mexico. He and they—two Jewish women from the Bronx who had been living in Mexico since 1956—were working together in a Guatemalan refugee aid group at the time. The women were both artists—Jenny a photographer, Pearl an abstract painter. I became very close with them, particularly Jenny, and saw them often on my subsequent visits to El Crucero, as well as on their visits to New York. In 1998, Pearl died at the age of 85. Jenny is now 94 and recovering from a broken hip. She still lives on her own, with help, in the house she and Pearl shared for decades. At the age of 90, she saw the publication of a book of her photographs, many of which dated back to the 1960s. (Her work had previously appeared in many shows as well as in print.)
In 1990, when Jenny and Pearl were in their late seventies, I conducted an oral history with them over the course of several days at their house in El Crucero. The following is a version edited from that longer set of interviews. Envision them: Everything about Jenny is subdued and understated; she wears an old sweatshirt and sneakers and speaks softly, gazing at the floor or into the distance, [End Page 6] except for scattered moments when her demeanor briefly flares into vehemence and pointed conviction. Pearl, dressed in a vivid Mexican blouse and skirt, is dramatic, excitable, given to bursts of hyperbole, and enthusiastic about her role of storyteller. Both have tenacious Bronx accents, which do not abate even when the women are speaking in Spanish.
My mother died from an abortion when I was six. I don't know that she ever worked. I don't know what she did. My father was mechanically inclined, and he used to every once in a while invent something and run to Washington and get a patent, and nothing ever came of it. He invented some kind of a window shade held by spring tension, and he invented a reversible cuff. But nothing ever came of it.
I was born in 1911, in Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx. There was never any birth certificate—'cause in those days, it was not compulsory to have your birth registered. If I'd never left the country, there might still be no record of me. But in 1953, when I wanted a passport, I had to get a birth certificate. And the first thing I had to do was go to Lebanon Hospital. They had to find out the name of the doctor who delivered me, and get a certificate of delayed registration. He filled out this form for me, and he said, "What's your name?" I never liked my first name, Jenny—I never thought it fit me. So here was my chance to change it. But I couldn't do it. So, I gave him the name Jenny Markowitz. That's what I did.
My mother was from a town in Russia, in the Ukraine, called Yellasvetgrad. She and all her sisters were ardent feminists. My father was also from that city, but they never knew each other until they came to America. When my mother was an infant, there was a very large pogrom that took place in Yellasvetgrad. The whole family hid, and—it was so bad, my grandmother actually wished my mother might die so that she wouldn...