Sarah Laidman

September 15, 1908 - September 19, 2004

 

Sarah was born in Brest, Russia. At the time, Brest was on the Polish side of the Russia-Poland border. It was annexed by Russia as the Germans moved into Poland in 1939. Five-year-old Sarah and her parents, Louis and Ethyl immigrated to the United States in 1913. They steamed to the port of Baltimore, and then to Cleveland where other family members lived.

Sarah has said that she was born in 1908, but library records have her birth date as September 15, 1907. It may have been necessary to be sixteen in order to be employed at the library in 1923. She was a year younger than her peers at school.

Sarah loved the library and spent most of her spare time at the Mount Pleasant Kominsky Station of the Cleveland Public Library. The librarians "adopted" the little girl who could barely speak English, and loved books.

She attended John Adams High School. At the library, Sarah quietly watched and learned. On November 12, 1923, she began work at the Mt. Pleasant branch as a Page in the children’s department. They cited only her language and lack of exposure to culture as her shortcomings. Despite this, she passed her library tests in history and literature in November, 1927, with scores of 86 and 96 respectively.

In 1925, librarian Edythe Prouty hired her to work at the new main library as a Junior Assistant in the Stations Department. She was a hard worker, riding the streetcar downtown every day, returning after dark on many nights. Sarah represented the Cleveland Public Library at East Side hospitals and the Warrensville Workhouse.

When the depression came, Sarah kept her job: "They weren’t paying me much, anyway," she said. For a time, she supported her parents, her sister Mary and brothers Sam and Stanley.

Sarah passed the U. S. Citizenship Test at the Federal Building on January 14, 1927. As a teenager, "I was scared stiff," she remembered,

Patients and prisoners were charmed by the dark haired girl with big, brown eyes. Often, Sarah carried stacks of books with her on the streetcar for her "customers." When the load was particularly heavy, she borrowed her father’s Dodge. She almost had to stand to reach the clutch. "It was the jazz age, an era of great writers: Hemingway, Ferber, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, du Marier. I read as many as I could. It was the library’s policy to be discreet," Sarah recalled, "I tried to recommend appropriate reading."

She asked to spend a night in the women’s jail – to increase her understanding. Ethyl would have no part of it, so Sarah stuffed her Yiddische Mama into the Dodge and took her off to jail. When Ethyl saw how Sarah had made friends among the matrons, she gave her permission. "After that, my mother sent cookies, rolls and other home-baked goods for me to pass out along with the books. It made me even more popular. She was a wonderful baker."

Sarah made life-long friends at the library, including Sarah Brockman, first assistant supervisor of the stations department.

In 1933, Sarah married Albert Laidman, an electrician with Republic Steel. The young couple slipped away to Ashtabula to marry quietly.

An anonymous "poison pen" letter to the library pointed out that Sarah was married to an "employed man" and should be immediately fired. It is significant to note that her library bosses felt so strongly about their employee that this document ended up "buried" in her file.

Sarah finally quit her job at the library after 20 years. Her friends gave her a "retirement party" and Sarah concentrated on raising her two children, Laura and Harvey, and assisting Albert in his Electrical Contracting business: Laidman Electric. Her marriage to Albert lasted 40 years. He died in September of 1973.

Sarah’s inventiveness and common sense made her a facile host. When friends "dropped in," the coffee pot began to bubble and the dining room table bloomed with "sweet rolls," bagels, cheese, spreads and preserves canned in the basement with her sister Mary. Members of the "Brisker and Grodner Benevolent Society" could always depend on a "good feed."

Imagine the obstacles faced by a young immigrant girl, her language and cultural problems, threading her way through a maze of complex rules and customs. Sarah’s contribution to the Cleveland Public Library was more than hard work. She was a pioneer in what we now call "Community Outreach." She delivered the library to the people. She touched many lives.

 

-end-

(Thanks to the staff at the Cleveland Public Library, especially Timothy R. Diamond, Head of Planning & Research.)

6/20/2002

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