Memories from the Great Depression
When I was in college, our history professor asked us to interview a grandparent who had lived through the Great Depression and write an essay. The assignment is what caused me to fall in love with memoir writing. Here is the essay I wrote, based on my Grandmother's telling:
My grandmother, Irma Brail, was thrilled when I called to ask her about living through the Depression. She was so excited to share her memories with me and even called me back the next morning to tell me some other details she forgot to mention during our conversation. She lives in Vancouver now but grew up in a large, three-story house in downtown Winnipeg with her three brothers and my great grandparents, Isaac and Rose. In addition to this house, they had a summer cottage which they were forced to sell when the Depression hit. However, she has fond memories of that summer house and was especially close to her cousin, Jack, who used to come to stay with them. When I was born, she asked my mother if she could name me after him, so I was called Jackie.
After they sold the house, the buyer couldn’t make the final payments, but my grandfather didn’t evict them because otherwise, they would have no place to go. My grandmother said the family paid him back all the money with interest and he became very wealthy. But if my great-grandfather hadn’t helped them in that way, they would have been destitute. When I remarked to my grandmother that this was very generous of him, she said that people were closer and helped each other more in those days.
Both of my great-grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother Rose came from Hungary, and my great-grandfather Isaac immigrated from Russia. Isaac plied the trade he learned in “the old country”—making shoes—to great success in Canada when he invented a particular shoe to correct clubfoot. He was a gentle man who had surprisingly strong hands and could cut through shoe leather like butter.
In downtown Winnipeg, most economic activity centered around two tall buildings called the Winnipeg Stock Exchange and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. On the day of the crash, and for several days afterward, people could be seen jumping out the windows to their deaths. “But those were mostly the wealthy, big businessmen,” my grandmother said. “They gambled everything and lost.”
Even though my grandfather’s business was pretty recession-proof, my grandmother said lots of people had to double up in apartments. Her friend, my aunt Bessie, said of this time, “We ate what we had and sang the rest of the meal.”
“People didn’t need as much back then,” my grandmother said. “And everyone shared what they had.”
Her brothers and their friends used to walk the five miles to school—even in forty-below weather—to save the nickel car fare. “And they all turned out to be big, important men,” she said. “One of them became an Alderman, and another is the Chancellor of the University of Manitoba."
When times got bad, my grandmother recalled that people came knocking at their back door, and her mother would go into the kitchen and make them sandwiches. They felt like whatever they had, they needed to share.
“There wasn’t even welfare in Canada until after World War II,” she said. “Homeless, unemployed people were forced to work in road gangs under terrible conditions for ten cents a day.”
She said that the Salvation Army mostly ran soup kitchens or ‘bread-lines,’ and people didn’t really expect anything from the federal government. She continued that they hadn’t heard about the New Deal in the States. “I heard Roosevelt on the radio once, but most Canadians didn’t have radios in their homes.”
After the crash, my grandmother remembers, factories and industries tried to make up their losses by laying off workers and lowering the wages of those who remained. The O.B.U. (One Big Union) staged the Winnipeg General Strike, which “was like a revolution. People were turning over streetcars, and there was shooting in the streets. On the day the strike broke out, my father had to wait in the back of the store until 2 AM and sneak back home through alleyways.”
Her friend was babysitting at the time when a bullet came through the window and injured one of the children.
The strike lasted for six weeks and entailed plenty of violence and bloodshed but, as a young child, my grandmother said she “felt protected by her family.”
The family was the cornerstone of my grandmother’s reality and extended to the community as people took in borders, doubled up, and helped each other however they could.
“People managed,” she said, “We didn’t need as much then, but we didn’t suffer. It was a happier life. There was warmth. Nowadays, if people had to live like that, they’d probably kill themselves, but it was a happier life.”
The general strike lasted for six weeks and resulted in more federal labor equity and opportunity oversight, and economic relief for struggling families. But, in hearing my grandmother’s words, it’s hard not to think that while we certainly gained something, we lost something significant, as well.