At the Century Mark, Still an Inspiration
Yetta was the youngest of nine children and they all had chores. Hers was to empty the water basin beneath the icebox. This was circa 1914. Yetta’s family, new immigrants from Austria, were living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
One day Yetta forgot her duties. Water spilled all over the floor. The family mopped up the mess and the eldest brother--he’d assumed a leadership role after their father’s death--contemplated Yetta’s punishment.
Perhaps they should forbid her from visiting the library. Perhaps they should make her do more work.
“And then Freeda gets up,” Yetta recalls, “and she says, ‘Because of our little sister, Yetta, we have the cleanest floors in the city!’ ” Everybody laughed. Instead of punishing Yetta, they forgave her. And Yetta, now 89, never forgot how her big sister took her side.
That was vintage Freeda, always siding with the underdog. She did it as an activist in the garment worker’s union, fighting for fairness and safer working conditions. She did it when she joined the women’s suffrage movement and fought for women’s right to vote. And even now at age 100, Freeda is known for how she helps ailing and blind residents at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.
She reached the century mark Saturday. Today, scores of relatives and friends are gathering at the Cal State Northridge University Club to celebrate. This is the big bash. A smaller party was held 10 days ago at the Jewish Home for the Aging.
“You want to ask questions or you just want me to talk?” the diminutive birthday girl in the pink party dress asked when we were introduced. Her eyes and her smile were bright and happy.
Freeda talked. And talked. And talked. She’d smile as I asked questions she was unable to hear. Sometimes Yetta and Freeda’s daughter Caliawould interpret my questions in a louder voice. In time, the highlights of a biography emerged.
She was born Freeda Schlomowitz in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father came to America and pushed a fruit cart. The family soon followed, changing its name to Slater, simpler for Americans to pronounce. Thirteen-year-old Freeda sought work in the garment factories, but was turned away as too young by the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory. With false documents stating her age as 16, the legal age to work, she found a job elsewhere.
In 1913 she watched the Triangle factory burn, claiming the lives of more than 140 workers, mostly women, trapped inside behind locked doors. The tragedy energized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. For Freeda, the suffrage movement and the labor movement went hand-in-hand. Her first job paid her $1.50 a week, money she’d give to her mother, enabling Yetta and other younger siblings to attend school. Freeda learned that men doing the same job were being paid three times that amount. “So I began to complain, and became a suffragette.” She had also joined the union.
Freeda fought battles small and large, from wanting better paper for the bathroom to snooping on corrupt bosses. She proudly told how she discovered that her bosses were violating a union contract by sending work to a non-union site paying lower wages.
It was like a scene from a movie. Freeda was hiding in a taxi, watching her boss carry cuttings to his car. Freeda had the cabbie follow, and upon arriving at the non-union shop, she shut off the power and appealed to the workers. A foreman grabbed her, ripping her coat, and police arrested her. A judge dismissed charges, and the work returned to Freeda’s union shop.
A shop foreman used to tell her to get married and have babies, unaware that she had wed at age 21. With husband David Diamond, Freeda would move to Los Angeles, settling in the bustling Jewish community in Boyle Heights. She named her daughter Calia because she like California so much. The Diamonds also had a son.
Freeda and David owned a produce store in Boyle Heights and a cigar stand Downtown. Freeda was widowed after 43 years of marriage. She was married to her second husband, Nathan Bogad, for 18 years. Together they moved into the Jewish Home for the Aging. Nathan died 10 years ago.
At the home, Freeda was elected president of the residents’ council for a term and writes articles for the residents’ newsletter. She’s been active in choral and dramatic programs, and regularly visits bedridden patients.
“She has a very positive attitude about life,” said Caryl Geiger, an activities coordinator at the home. “She cares a lot. She gives of herself. I see very little self-concern.
“She’s tenacious. What she wants, she pursues. . . . And she’s able to accept assistance when she needs it. I think that’s a strength.
“She’s inspirational,” Geiger added. “I just adore her.”
One of Freeda’s great-grandchildren, 6-year-old Hannah, shares that opinion.
“She’s great!” Hannah said of the woman she calls “Baba.”
Why do you think she’s great?
“Well . . . she brings me M & Ms!”
Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.