Back to Freda’s stories

The Chance of Opportunity

Freda Isaksen

My maternal grandparents came to England from Russia with their five children about the beginning of the twentieth century. 1 Of course they left their native country because of persecution and pogroms to find a better life. It was difficult for my grandfather to earn a living in a new and strange country with an unfamiliar language and customs, so they settled in the East End of London where there were many immigrants like themselves and they could befriend people who were living under similar circumstances and learn from one another how to exist in this new country.

There was certainly no money for education so the two eldest boys were sent out to look for work. Because they had no special skills and their knowledge of how to obtain work was limited they would stand at a street corner in an industrial area in the hope that a merchant would approach them and offer them manual labor. Indeed we see this very same method being used today in the Los Angeles streets by the present-day unskilled laborers.

An employer approached one of my uncles and told him that because he knew nothing about the trade, if he would work in his factory for six months with no pay he would thus learn a trade and promised that after the six months period he would then be eligible for a wage. My uncle accepted his offer. This was indeed slave labor but the greenhorn did not understand this so as the weeks passed the youth looked forward to the time in the future when he would be paid for his work and that time was getting ever closer.

At the end of the stipulated six months the merchant told my uncle that business had been very bad lately and he could not afford to pay him so he could no longer work at the factory. Of course the crafty merchant immediately went out and found another innocent immigrant to work for no pay.

The disappointed youth went home and told his parents he no longer had a job and they said, “You must have learned something in six months.” The boy told them, “Yes, I learned how to cut paper into specified sizes and fold and glue them to make paper bags.” The father gathered his family together and told them, “We will buy paper and glue and your brother will teach you to make paper bags and then I will go out and sell them.” So all seven members of the family worked diligently at the kitchen table cutting, gluing and folding.

This was the beginning of a successful business venture which advanced along with technology and prospered and supported four generations until the present day.

Footnotes

  1. The Trachtenberg Story, by Freda’s brother Jack, also mentions the origins of the family’s paper bag business. Freda’s Autobiography also gives some context to this story.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

Back to Freda’s stories