Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Our Jewish History

Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in New York City history: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The fire resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in United States History.

Do you know about it? Did you know that most of the 146 victims were Jewish? Women? Did you know that the owners of the tenement factory also were Jewish? And that they got off scott free?

I'm guessing most of you said no. I'm writing about this because we spent an entire class period in one of my courses devoted to the fire and its role in Jewish education and whether it has a role in Jewish education.

I learned about the Triangle Fire way back when in history class during discussions on labor law and tenement factories and the immigrant experience, but it didn't have a Jewish angle (and it wouldn't have, me living in Nebraska at the time). But I'm surprised to meet so many Jews (my dear husband Tuvia included) who have never even heard of this horrible event in Jewish history.

A mockup image of where the fire started.
What happened? In a nutshell, young girls were the most common figures in shirtwaist factories in the early 1900s. Many of these young girls were Italian and Jewish immigrants who were the first and only members of their family to come state-side. These girls would work in sweat shops, 14 hours a day or more, in order to save and send money back to bring the rest of their families to the states. So many of these girls were Jewish, because many of these tenement factories were in Lower Manhattan, near the Lower East Side, which was a hub of Jewish life in the early 1900s. Most of these girls left shtetls and traditional Jewish lifestyles and were forced to work on Shabbos. It was the great compromise of many Jewish immigrants, and it changed forever the landscape of religious Jewish identity.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on what is now the NYU Campus in New York City at 29 Washington Place. The building still stands and it is the Chemistry Building currently, and there are three plaques on the building memorializing the event -- have you seen them? On Shabbos, March 25, 1911, the sweatshop was full of workers, someone dropped a cigarette into a pile of cloth, and a fire blew up on the upper floors of the building. The doors were locked, the fire ladders only reached the eighth floor, and 40 people ended up leaping from the building to their death (and a comparison was drawn on 9/11 to this very event). The death toll was 146, and most of them were Jewish young women.

After the event, there was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, and the labor community was changed forever -- labor laws were enacted, and the fire went down in history as a turning point in U.S. Labor Law. And then? Poof. We forgot it happened. We forgot it was a Jewish disaster, and we forgot that Jews helped shape labor law in the U.S. through a horrible loss of life.

There were stories reported in the Yiddish newspaper after the event that an adjacent floor had negotiated with their floor boss to leave at noon before Shabbos each week, and so they were saved from the fire. There was another story about one of the worker girls who felt like she was betraying her family back in the Old Country, so she skipped work and watched the building burn from the street, in horror. Miracles? Coincidence?

Seeing the pictures is horrifying, because I walk on that street, where those bodies fell, at least four days a week.

Here's my point: This event was huge and so important in American Jewish history. I think, too, that it is possible that it impacted the worldwide Jewish community in an untold way. Just think: More than 100 young Jewish girls, working to send money to their families in the Old Country, die in a fire. The flow of money stops. This means the families of a 100 or more girls do not make it to the U.S. as soon as they would have -- or, possible, ever. I wonder how many families perished in the Holocaust who would have made it to the U.S. otherwise? This hasn't been studied, at all, and I wish someone would look into the impact this event had on the worldwide community.

The owners, both Jewish, were acquitted. No one ever truly paid for the murders.
Here's my question: Did you learn about this in your Jewish education? Whether at Sunday School or Yeshiva or day School? Do you think this is relevant to the Jewish educational experience? Should this even be taught through a specifically Jewish lens? And, most importantly, do you think this event can be categorized as a uniquely Jewish event?

Food for Thought: Someone mentioned to me that because the fire happened while Jewish women were working on Shabbos, Yeshivot might not be willing to teach the topic. However, wouldn't the fact that so many were saved by making the choice not to work be a boon to teaching in an Orthodox, Shomer Shabbos environment? 

Also: The previously unknown names of six of the victims have been released. Several of them were engaged to be married. One of them was a man.