Ilana Brito recently brought her mom, Iris Lupu to the Lower Manhattan StoryBooth to share memories of Ilana’s saba and safta, which is Hebrew for grandfather and grandmother – Nathan and Berta. Her saba and safta managed to escape Eastern Europe during WWII and made it to a kibbutz in Israel. Nathan’s beloved cousin moved to the U.S in 1959 and when he returned to visit Israel, he said “Berta, America is for you.”
After 18 years in Israel and now with two children, her saba and safta moved to New York City. Iris says Berta “had no education, she had no money, but she had perseverance, she had energy and she had chutzpah…and she actually got an empire going.”
Once in New York City, through advertising in local German newspapers, they found jobs in a sweater factory, where they worked for many years until their retirement. Her saba fixed machinery and her safta sewed sweaters. After retirement, her saba brought leftover schmattas, which is Yiddish for rags, home from the factory. Her safta began sewing sweaters in the basement. This is how it started.
“She’d be sitting there, in this mass of sweaters with lint in the air. It was so thick.” remembered Iris of her parents’ basement.
Ilana remembers going to see her safta in what she and her brother would playfully refer to as “safta’s sweatshop.” “At the end of the hallway there were two rooms – the room on the right was just ridiculous. It was just filled with scraps all the way to the ceiling.”
“The other room is where safta worked…She would sit at her desk with her little machine…” She would work in a room covered in sweaters, schmattas and lint, sitting at a small table with a little black and white TV in the corner, listening to game shows. Iris remembers always hearing her mother’s magic number, “I have ten thousand sweaters lined up on the wall.”
Her saba and safta began selling the sweaters at flea markets. According to Iris, “The first sweater was hard to sell. You waited till that first customer would buy the sweater and afterward, it was like magic.” Ilana recalls her saba’s sale’s pitch, “It’s only $6 dollars. If you don’t like the sweater, you can wash the car with it.”
They traveled the tri-state flea market circuit and they got customers. Lots of them. Ilana and Iris remember the markets, vendors, friends, and those many customers. They sold sweaters even in summer. “It always felt like found money” says Ilana and as they laugh, think back and smile, remembering them in their second life, after retiring, selling sweaters.
Iris looked at Ilana and laughed, with her hands in the air, told her daughter “Best money ever and it didn’t matter how much we made.”