Anniversary of tragedy
A hundred years ago today – March 25 – the worst industrial accident in U.S. history took place on New York’s Lower East Side at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In the middle of the day, in a matter of 20 minutes, 146 (mostly young, mostly immigrant, mostly women) workers lost their lives from cascading fire, unrelenting smoke (think miles of burning fabrics) and flight from 7th story window ledges when there was no other means of escape. The doors were locked from the outside to prevent workers from leaving their machines for a few moments. The owners had fought both unionization and industrial health regulations. They were acquitted at trial, but galvanized the immigrant workforce whose bodies produced goods for a growing America.
Triangle has – more than any other single event – informed my life. I cannot explain it, but I can write about it. For more information on Triangle, including translations from the original reportage & poetry by Morris Rosenfeld (whose words I borrow), see this page from Jewish Currents, my favorite lefty-secular-Jewish magazine.
May all those who suffer and die for the greed of others, and all those who fought for their rightful place in this world rest in peace.
TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST KADDISH
After Morris RosenfeldIt began in the cutting room, a simple match carelessly thrown. A shouted warning. Flames lept from one bolt of cloth to the next, flames licking at seams that bound the slave stalls, twisting stairwells into unforgiving tombs, soldering cable and bone. On that day, the earth shuddered and you fell, young girls grasping at air, hearts pounding against the pull of death. You fell— Sisters mine, oh my sisters— And death received you with with an open heart. Blazing parachutes, you jumped or were pushed off ledges high enough to frame (for an instant) the harsh foliage of your Golden Land. You fell, breath scattered on the wind, and the blood of your bodies flowed through the streets. An avalanche. A river. Twenty thousand marched afterwards, a human tinderbox exploding the New York streets— Damned be the rich! Damned be the system! Damned be the world! You first spoke to me when I was still a girl, the child of a child of immigrants who stood that day on Greene Street and watched life turn to cinder. You drew me in, caressed me across time, your vertical escape down eight stories, hair on fire, my holy text. I have studied your chapters, read your verse in anguish, walked picket lines and argued with strangers because the firemen’s nets wouldn’t hold—
Beautiful, beautiful flowers—And you were smashed into a thousand thousand pieces. Because you fell, I have walked and argued and dreamt of flight, of stitching a long straight line onto the fabric of the not-yet-possible. And when I am convinced that human conscience is extinguished for good, you (angel and mirage) exhort me from your darkened corner: Who will continue to rise for us? When I am tired and disgusted and numb, still you plead your case: Who will redeem our ash from the fire? And so I rise. In your honor I rise, arrange another meeting and hatch another plan, write another unfinished poem, sign one more petition.My prayer is simple and my voice raised up—
Sister, mine, oh my sisters—Time will not erase what was done to you there.