Mar 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. 


Chana said...

I learned about it in yeshiva - including the fact that many of the workers were Jewish. But I never knew the owners were Jewish or that the fire was on Shabbos.

Elle said...

Chaviva - firstly the new layout is fantastic. It's worlds above the last in my humble opinion ;)

Secondly, I just learned about this from a documentary I watched on it a few weeks back. I had never heard of it previously. Have you watched anything about it? it has interviews with a lot of people... very interesting. and very very sad.

Elle said...

I forgot to add, no I don't think it's a uniquely Jewish event. From a historical standpoint - non Jews died as well. It was all the poor people who had to work in the factors which suffered MANY tragedies like this one. This just happens to have big one (if not the) biggest tragedy.

From a Jewish standpoint - yes it should be taught b/c it's Jewish (recent) history. But it shouldn't be taught from a antisemetic standpoint. It wasn't antisemetic in intention - it was merely a horrible end to the selfishness of a group of men that happen to cause many lived included several Jews.

Elle said...

I had a baby crawling all over me while I typed that - if you can make out what it said then kudos to you! lol

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I didn't learn about it in school, but I think I'm going to cover it with my Sunday School students this week. Not sure how, but I'll think of something.

Sheyna Ariel said...

I just recently learned about this in my college history class, and we had a whole discussion assignment on it. I was wondering what your post would be after you posted the video. I never thought of it from such a Jewish perspective! Thanks for your post!

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Chana That's so interesting that you didn't get info about the owners or the Shabbos bit. Although, the latter could be because it was yeshiva.

@Elle Thanks for the layout comments :) By the way, I wasn't suggesting that this has anything to do with antiSemitism at all -- because it doesn't. More that the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a Jewish tragedy, because the bulk of those who died and were affected were Jewish. Yes, some Italians lost lives, and that, too, is tragic, but the bulk of victims being Jewish means that this should have been a huge wave emotionally for the Jewish community and it should be taught as such.

@girlseeksplace If you do cover it, I'd love to hear how you approach it.

@Sheyna Ariel Thanks for reading! I'm glad you got info on this in class, though. It gives me hope, hah.

Unknown said...

As a Yeshiva graduate I'm pretty surprised I had never heard about this. Very informative...I'll make sure to share with my fellow tribe members (and honorary tribe members). Thanks for the information.


Atlanta Roofing said...

The Triangle Fire was a wakeup call for the United States, and this documentary is a reminder that we need to tighten up workplace safety protections, we need to support unions, and we need to prevent another Triangle Fire.

Deb said...

interestingly, I heard about this fire not in school (yeshiva) but from my father, who heard about it from his parents (it was before his birth), who told him about it being on shabbos, about girls being forced to work, and the horrific loss of life of both Jews and non-Jews.
It always bothered me that it was never discussed as part of my education.
My father did know that the owners never paid any penalties, because that was a source of resentment to the Jewish community of the lower East Side at the time, and he heard it from his parents.
So sad.
thanks for this post.

JudyB said...

Thank you for understanding that Triangle is part of Jewish history -- just as it is part of labor history and women's history. I think the Jewish community is strengthened when we realize our immigrant and working class heritage is something to be proud of and to learn from -- not just something we were glad to get away from as we became more prosperous in America.

Barbara Albin said...

I don't remember where or when I heard this story, I know it was over 50 years ago and it always haunted me. I have read several books and even made sure when my sons were growing up that they read the children's version of the story. I don't think that it is unique to being Jewish, as it could have happened and will happen again, if we don't make sure that the workers are protected. You have written a wonderful ariticle. Thank you. Barbara

MiriamS said...

why were the doors locked? sounds like Walmart.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@MiriamS Good question ... it kept the workers inside and kept them from taking breaks, stealing lace or other scraps of clothing, etc. It was a means of keeping the workers in line, unfortunately.

@Deb I can imagine that it truly was a source of resentment. It's interesting because the factory owners were immigrants, but were not as new as many of the Lower East Side immigrants were. I can't imagine that kind of immigrant-vs.-immigrant rivalry.

@Barbara & @Atlanta Roofing Thank you so much for stopping by. Your words ring true -- we must learn from the past!

@Judy Amen!

Anonymous said...

The Curmdgeonly israeli Giyoret says:

Well, no help from this quarter. My husband went to Solomon Schechter schools and was well-informed about the fire. He says he doesn't remember any point being made about the Jewish identity of the victims, but just assumed this was so as most of the garment district workers were Jewish. He does not, however, remember whether he learned this in school or from his parents, as history was always a mainstay of dinner table conversaton.

I do remember learning about the fire in N.C. public schools in 9th grade American history. No mention of the Jewish identity of the victims, though they did tell us they were immigrants. I also assumed that most were Jewish because that was a majority of the garment workers.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Anon Interestingly, my husband -- who spent 15 years at Solomon Schechter -- had never even heard of the fire, so I'm guessing that your husband probably picked it up from his parents :)

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

I will have to ask my sister-in-law, who remembers everything.

David Tzohar said...

Sorry but the fact that the victims and the owners were mostly Jewish doesn,t make this incident part of Jewish history. Their being Jewish was totally irrelevant. I actually did hear a lot about this since one branch of my family were active Jewish Socialists (Bundists) a movement that has since totally disappeared.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

David ... I couldn't disagree with you more.

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