- Sweatshop Cinderella A film by Suzanne Wasserman
“Yezierska had a deep relation to the past. It was an inspiration for her. The past bewitched her and ended her life. Yezierska was lost in the past.” With these words, Susanne Wasserman begins her documentary film about writer Anzia Yezierska (188?–1970), echoing the writer’s own statement of many years before: “Nothing is real to me but the past” (“Saint in Cellophane,” unpublished story, 1928).
The film’s sources included interviews with women who knew Yezierska personally during her lifetime and with historians and writers who were influenced by her works, photographs of immigrant life in the Lower East Side of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century and of Yezierska in various periods of her life, and scenes from the silent film Hungry Hearts (1922), based on Yezierska’s book by the same title. One of the most interesting sources is the single recorded interview with Yezierska, made in the 1960s, when she was in her eighties. In between, Wasserman weaves in images from Yezierska’s earliest years, through which she refracts her own nostalgia and her perspective as a professional historian, in light of Yezierska’s stubborn adherence to the past. The documentary’s polyphonality creates an intriguing view of Yezierska’s life and work as a woman, a Jew and an immigrant, and above all as a writer who experienced the American dream and its collapse.
Yezierska’s life story is widely documented. She was born in a small village in Plotsck, Poland. Her family emigrated to the United States, probably in the early 1890s, and settled in the Lower East Side of New York City. While her eight siblings continued their studies, Yezierska had to leave the school and go to work, first as a sweatshop worker and then in a laundry. At the age of 16, rebelling against her father’s traditional lifestyle and contemptuous attitude toward women, she left home and moved into the Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls. She wrote of her search for identity as a young woman seeking to reshape herself as a true American: “One day I want to be somebody, to make myself somebody . . . Who am I? What am I? Where is America?” (“America and I,” 1923).
Continuing to support herself by menial work, Yezierska attended Columbia University’s Teachers’ College. She studied home economics from 1901 to 1905 and worked [End Page 196] as a teacher in primary schools between 1908 and 1913. She married and divorced twice and gave birth to a daughter.
Yezierska started to write fiction in 1913 and published her first story, “Free Vacation House,” in 1915. Her fiction was published in various magazines, including Harpers, Century and Good Housekeeping. Her story “The Fat of the Land” was published in Edward J. O’Brien’s Best Short Stories of 1919, which was dedicated to Yezierska.1
In her semiautobiographical fiction, Yezierska depicted her protagonists’ struggle for education and their yearning and efforts to be Americans. Like Yezierska herself, they deny themselves food and housing for the sake of the education that immigration to America has made accessible to them. Becoming educated women also symbolizes their release from a backward society and from the oppression of women associated with their immigrant parents’ Orthodox way of life.2
But adopting America also meant adopting a new aesthetic taste, as well described by historian Alice Harris-Kessler, one of the speakers in the film. “I make myself an American,” wrote Yezierska in her novel Bread Givers (1925), “with my clothing, with cleaning the dirt under the nails, with a clean and quiet room, wearing a simple dress in a navy blue.” In this story about a young working-class woman who rebels against her Orthodox father, Yezierska writes passionately and bitterly about her family, about an America that rejected her, and about her tremendous desire to be a real American. She describes vividly, in graphic detail, the poverty of the immigrant family and the harsh conditions in the immigrant neighborhoods. As she recalled years in the recorded interview...