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Meeting Marie

March 6, 2017

This locket was my gift from the cast of Give Us Bread on opening night. Engraved upon the back are the words:  

 

                             "The time has come!" - Marie Ganz. February 1917.

This was a testament to my fascination with and admiration for Marie Ganz, the young radical who, at the age of 26, had helped to galvanize the immigrant women of the 1917 food riots.  In 2008, I found myself immersed in her story thanks to her remarkable memoir, "Rebels: In and Out of Anarchy,” written with journalist Nat Ferber (who would later become her husband). It was a classic immigrant story told afresh as an intimate portrait of a young girl in New York City at the start of a new century. It also gave the most complete and emotional testimony of the food riots and the immigrant women who would take to the streets - protesting and boycotting - to demand fair prices in order to feed their families. This was the inspiration for Give Us Bread.

 

To create the play, I had done extensive research from 2008 to 2009.  We would piece together this nearly forgotten history through archived New York Times articles, mentions in The Forward (the Yiddish newspaper), a few academic articles and even a reference to a pushcart being toppled in Brownsville, Brooklyn in a cookbook (!) along with a precious handful of photographs from the actual events. And of course, the memories of Marie Ganz.  At the time, we couldn't find a photo of her. Despite her detailed memoir, she remained something of a mystery, all mention of her vanishing after the riots.

In February 2012, the granddaughter-in-law of Marie Ganz reached out to me, having heard of Give Us Bread. I was stunned! Soon after, a new Google searched revealed this photograph:

 

Nearly five years later, in anticipation of our upcoming Concert Reading of Give Us Bread and the centennial of these historical events, I met Marie’s daughter, Lenore Ferber Kahn, and grandson, Bill Kahn, along with Bill's wife Debbie who, as careful caretaker of the family's history, had brought us all together. 

 

It was a truly remarkable and emotional moment. 

 

What a pleasure it was, sitting with them and listening to stories about Lenore's extraordinary childhood growing up in Europe, Hollywood and Greenwich Village and learning about her remarkable mother. We looked through family photo albums where I was able to see photographs of Marie through the years, starting with her as a mother with a toddler-aged Lenore. Then, photos from ocean liners during the years when Marie, Nat and Lenore traveled and lived abroad. Throughout the conversation, Lenore would share stories, often inspired by the photos or the books that her father wrote. She made it clear that while her father was well-known in the States, it was her mother who was a celebrity overseas because of her past as a radical. She recalled her mother's striking golden blond hair (difficult to tell from the black and white photographs). Lenore gleefully explained that the nickname of "Sweet Marie" came about because while in prison in 1914, Marie helped to organize the prison staff, encouraging them to unionize.   


During our conversation, I showed them a photo of the food riots that had recently been made available online (courtesy: Granger).  As soon as Lenore and Bill saw this photo, they pointed out Marie - “That’s her!” they said emphatically. (I have identified her with a green dot on her shoulder in this photo).

 

 

Based on that identification, we were able to confirm her identity in the photograph of a rally in Rutgers Square (now Straus Square) on February 20, 1917, before she led the crowd to City Hall. (This is the photograph I wrote about previously; she is actually the woman to the right of the woman in the large brimmed hat.) That was a thrilling moment!

 

Here is an image of Marie in that tell-tale hat, being arrested at City Hall for inciting the crowd:

While I am excited by the access to these rare new photographs of Marie as we continue to understand her place in New York City's history, I am mindful that her identity was truly so much more than the anarchist that I had been introduced to in 2008.  She was known just as much for her kindness as for her indignation against injustice. A fierce advocate for the poor and working class, she was both stubborn yet humble - rarely speaking about her life as a radical before becoming the loving mother and grandmother she is remembered as.  Meeting Lenore was remarkable because she is a direct link to this history and the legacy of her mother, a legacy that lives on in Lenore, Bill and his wife Debbie, and their sons.

 

I am privileged to have met the family of Marie Ganz and honored to be able to share more of her story with you.

 

 

 

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