The Saga of Bessie

Where was an orphaned teenage girl to go? Her co-worker, Dora Wurtzman, came to the rescue. Dora came from a family relatively small for the time: saintly mother and father, two daughters and two sons. Bessie moved in with them the girls tripling up in bed. And Bessie absolutely became a member of that family.

Basha, dispossessed, goes to work in the shops. Sunday through Friday, 12-16 hours a day for, who knows, $2.00 a week. But on Shabbos, in the luxury of Bashalah’s leisure, the children roll over her in bed, Celia calling, “Bashalah, Bashalah, du hast shoen geneek schlaffen”, words she used eighty years later,
crying after Bessie died: Bessie dear, Bessie dear, you’ve slept long enough. Wake up darling sister and play with us.

The sweatshop is in some ways a home away from home-a place not only to earn the daily bread and struggle for workers’ rights but also a place where meals are taken, friendships formed and developed and sometimes with boss as surrogate father. In those shops where she worked Bessie develops what is to become her most precious quality – the ability to form strong, binding relationships. The day off, the blessed Sabbath, had real meaning. One day off out of seven twelve-hour days.

If the Sabbath was a day of rest and prayers, as it was for Bessie, the evenings were meant for fun, freedom, dancing and joy. A healthy, fun-loving girl, Bessie waited out the Sabbath in prayer and in caring for her little sisters and young brothers and then, around 10 pm. off she went, drawn by the music of the klezmer sounding through the streets to skip the light fantastic, dancing on and on through the wee hours. Five hours of dancing merely whet her appetite, and soon Bessie began to frequent dancehalls midweek evenings too.

Until one day Mama’s boss had a heart-to-heart talk with her. Koorvah! Whore! “Bashale, think what you are doing with your life-dancing two, maybe three nights during the week and Saturday too. You’ll make a name for yourself. You want a “name?” Think child; think what you are doing. You are a yessoimaleh, an orphan. There is no one to protect your good name but yourself. You and you alone must take care of your reputation and protect your future. Mama’s dancing nights are over.

2 thoughts on “The Saga of Bessie

  1. Susan Volk

    Sam Rubel of Rubel Ice and Coal was my great uncle on the Shapiro side of the family. His daughter, Honora, was my favorite aunt.

    Contrary to your description of my grandmother, Rose Posner, as being cold, she was an amazingly warm, caring and loving grandmother. She taught me how to bake when I was six years old, and gave me all of my great grandfather’s recipes. I use them to this day. When I was 4 years old, I expressed the desire to fly in a plane. So, my grandparents took me to LaGuardia airport and flew me to Providence to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney for the day. When I was 8 years old, Grandpa Max and Grandma Rose took me on a vacation to California for 3 weeks. They took me to Lake Tahoe so I could learn how to snow ski and then to Los Angeles and on to Disneyland. My grandfather was wheelchair bound by that time, but he never let that interfere with our relationship and memorable outings. Later on, they both were extremely supportive of my career choice in the arts and helped me in talking my parents into letting me attend the University of Pennsylvania for a masters program in Material Culture. I still remember my vacations and time spent with my loving grandparents as if it were yesterday. My husband, Jeff Volk, loved spending time with my warm, caring and loving grandparents. We spent many vacations with my grandparents at their Palm Springs home and have amazing memories to pass on to our daughter.

  2. Susan Volk

    I would like to introduce myself. I am Max and Rose Posner’s eldest grand-daughter. I am also Samuel Rubel’s, of Rubel Ice and Coal, grand-neice (In the beginning of your post, Rubel Ice and Coal was mentioned in a ditty about someone robbing my ancestors’ business).

    In defense of my grandparents, Rose and Max Posner were two of the kindest, loving, charitable and generous people to ever inhabit this earth. I have many fond memories of my grandparents from my earliest recollections commencing at the age of two years old. The other fact that was left out of your recollections of Bessie Posner and her relationship with her son, Max, was that my grandfather supported Bessie and many other Posner family members financially his entire life.

    As a young girl, and right on through the early years of my marriage, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ home. Even though my grandfather was wheelchair bound and bedridden by his Parkinsons disease, he never let it stop him from interacting with and taking his grandchildren on outings…trips to the Bronx Zoo, annual trips to Ringling Brothers Circus and to the Macy’s board room to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with the Chairman, outings to see every Broadway musical and all of Elliot Feld’s new ballet productions. And of course, my grandmother was right there by his side enabling and encouraging him to do all of these activities.

    At a very young age, during my sleepovers at my grandparents home, my grandmother would bake and teach me all of the recipes her father handed down from his bakery in Brooklyn. It was a time for us to bond and talk about life.

    As the eldest grandchild, my grandparents often took me with them on their travels, and trips to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney in Providence. I remember when I was four, I expressed the desire to fly on a plane. So, Rose and Max called my Aunt Marion and flew me to Providence for the day so I could experience a flight on an airplane! When I was eight, my grandparents took me to California for 3 weeks to visit my Grandma Rose’s two sisters and my California cousins. During that trip, we went to Lake Tahoe and Grandma Rose enrolled me in ski school at Heavenly Valley so that I could realize my dream of learning how to ski. Even though my grandfather was in a wheelchair at that point, we still went to Disneyland so I could meet my hero, Mickey Mouse.

    My grandparents were great role models for me. They valued family, education and charity to others. They were the warmest, most supportive people I knew and were instrumental in helping me achieve my life’s goals.


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