Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/S. Brill

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This page is connected with English 105 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill- Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Jewish shop storefront during the Great Depression

Overview[edit | edit source]

S. Brill was born in Russia in 1897. He married in 1905 and moved to Germany. He then moved to America and accumulated a vast amount of wealth. The Federal Writer’s Project interviewed him at the age of 60 after moving to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where he had lost everything.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early life in Russia[edit | edit source]

S. Brill was born in a small Jewish Russian town. His father was a constructor and did well until he took a job that destroyed him with stress. He died when Brill was 12; this is also the age Brill began to work for his sister and her husband. He worked there for several years before he began to despise the job. Brill then train hopped to Odessa. In Odessa, he worked for markets and learned rules of trade. He learned to speak several languages persuading customers into the stores. Brill worked in markets until he was 21. A friend told him he was in the wrong business. His friend explained how he resold discarded stock from jobs for profit. Brill and his friend did well at this trade and spent the earnings on worthless extravagance. After years of fun and pleasure, Brill finally settled down and married in 1905. During the same year the pogroms in Russia escalated so he and his wife fled to Germany.

Short haven in Germany[edit | edit source]

Brill and his wife found safety in Germany. Brill worked in a cigarette factory. He and his family got by financially. Additionally, there was limited Jewish disdain in Germany at this time. His wife however, was unpleased by the little distance between Germany and Russia. She planned their move to America and asked a relative in Norfolk, VA to send her tickets. After eight months in Germany they made the 16-day voyage to America from Bremen. During the voyage Brill experienced first hand the difference between Jewish and Gentile relations in America. The living condition for Jews was less luxurious than a Gentile’s upon the boat.

Later life America[edit | edit source]

Upon arriving in America, Brill’s sister-in-law offered him a job at her shop. However, Brill worked there temporarily. Brill transitioned between shops. Once while working in a shoe shop, a man entered blabbering anti-Semitic slurs. Brill responded with physical retaliation and rendered the man unconscious. Brill’s shop keeping eventually ended. Brill again had an acquaintance in the business of re-selling old stock. He began working the same style trade he did in Russia and eventually accumulated 70,000 dollars. He lost all of his wealth due to investments and The Great Depression. In 1933 he moved to Elizabeth City, NC where W.O. Saunders, a member of the Federal Writer’s Project, interviewed him. At the time of the interview, he was 60 years old and poor. However, he was content. He had a great life, family, and health in America.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Poverty During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

A major social issue throughout this time was poverty. Many people in America during this time lost everything, including Brill. However, the South was affected in a particular way. The Great Depression made the poor south poorer. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal began to increasingly provide federal aid to the South. Ownby states “The New Deal brought about … a growing bureaucracy to deal with economic and welfare issues, and extraordinary levels of federal funding”[2]. Roosevelt attempted to industrialize the South and progress it to where it was not a burden. The South was considered “…far and away the most underconsuming part of the country” being explained by the “low purchasing power of the rural South pulled down that of other Southerners and other Americans”[3]. Because of the low level of commodity, the south was in an economic pitfall that harshly affected those in trade such as S. Brill. The economic pitfall also meant that Brill lived in a time of industrial progression in the South.

Anti-Semitism[edit | edit source]

Anti-Semitism reached a climax during Brill’s lifetime. Freeman states, “Anti-Semitism in the United States was also proven in national public opinion polls taken from the mid nineteen thirties to the late nineteen forties. The results showed that over half the American population saw Jews as greedy and dishonest.”[4]. Brill states in his interview about the man that blatantly and publically slandering Jews. Jews however, did not only experience verbal abuse. Many Jews became outcasts and faced inequality. Many public places did not accept Jews. Stores, universities, employers and many others openly restricted Jews from entry and acceptance. Some Jews were even openly physically abused. Jews were treated like second tier citizens during this time.

Historical Production and Federal Writers Project[edit | edit source]

What is the Federal Writers Project?[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal gave work to many blue-collar workers. People who worked in the arts such as writers and painters were starving and hungry for work. This is what Federal Writer’s Project offered. The FWP hired jobless author’s to compile interviews of American life. Davidson and Lytle explain “Primarily, the project sought to compile cultural guides of the 48 states, using unemployed writers and journalists to collect and edit the information.”[5]

Problems with Historical Production[edit | edit source]

One major issue with Historical Production is the fact that those interviewing the subjects were not trained reporters. Leonard Rapport explains that too many people “accept these life stories as if they were tape recordings of words uttered forty years ago"[6]. The interviewers for these narratives saw themselves as creative writers with imaginations prone to focus on certain aspects. S. Brill’s narrative transitions away from being a life story at the halfway mark. W. O. Saunders then focuses on S. Brill’s view on America and Hitler. Saunders’ creative imagination had interest on focusing on the life of a Jew during this era. This apposed the main objective of the FWP, which was to interview the life of an American. The interviews were meant to be life stories, not interviews of the subject’s opinion on social aspects related to their individual lives. He focused merely on the life of a Jew in America, a narrow scope in what was supposed to be a general focus on an Americans life.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Brill, S. “Merchant, Jewish Native of Russia”. Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  2. Ownby, Ted. “Three Agrarians and the Idea of a South Without Poverty”. Reading Southern Poverty between the Wars, 1918-1939. Ed. Richard Godden and Martin Crawford. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2006. 1-21. Print. p.15.
  3. Carlton, David L and Coclanis, Peter A. "Introduction: The Report In Historical Perspective." Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin's, 1996. 1-37. Print. p. 8.
  4. Freeman, Lauren. "Antisemitism in the US during the Holocaust." Antisemitism in the US during the Holocaust. N.p., 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. p. 1.
  5. Davidson, James West., and Mark H. Lytle. "The View From The Bottom Rail." After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York: Knopf, 1982. 179-183. Print. p. 179.
  6. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review. 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 6 April 2013. p.8.