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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.


After Morris Rosenfeld

It 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.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/25/2011 12:38 pm

    Blazing parachutes,
    you jumped or were pushed off ledges high enough to frame (for an instant)
    the harsh foliage of your Golden Land.

    Oh, Sue, holy wow. This is incredibly powerful. Thank you for posting this.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/25/2011 3:06 pm

      Thanks! The image has been incubating in my mind/heart for decades. I’m glad it moved you…

  2. 03/25/2011 5:13 pm

    Sue – there aren’t the words – I’ve been overwhelmed by all that’s been said in the last couple of weeks about Triangle – including a reasonably well done documentary on PBS – but this distills it all in a way that brings tears to an old lefty’s eyes. Thanks.

    One thing keeps eating away at me: along with all the talk about the incredible things that the Triangle fire inspired there have been a number of stories about the decline of the union movement [particularly Ladies Garment]. I suppose that the movement was *so* successful that millions of workers were pulled up into a safer, more reasonable work place and a more comfortable sort of middle class at home. The incredible reactions to the terrible events in Wisconsin [Wisconsin of all places! Where’s LaFollette when we need him!] not withstanding the inexorable trend is in exactly the wrong direction. I have this feeling that, as we slide into a 19th century, gilded age kind of society, the bosses making hundreds of times what their workers are, and wages, conditions, health care, etc. are whittled away, maybe we’ll be in such bad shape that a new movement will finally have to emerge.

    For now, in part thanks to you, I choose to fill my thoughts with those earlier heroes who broke the cycle. And, I suppose I won’t be around to see the deterioration of of so much of what they worked for. I don’t have a very literal belief in heaven, but, if there is somewhere our souls go I’ll be content to break whatever passes for bread there with those “Beautiful, beautiful flowers.”

    Shabbat Shalom.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/27/2011 8:15 am

      Thanks. Tragedy & love seem to be the best (only?) true motivators for change. One of these days, I’ll get around to writing about the owners of Triangle. Yes, they were acquitted in a court of law — but what happened in their own hearts? I wonder.

  3. Julie Bloom permalink
    03/26/2011 11:50 am

    Another gem, Sue. I loved this the first time you shared this, and I love it even more this time. Some new thoughts came to me when I read this today—that we are made more human by insisting that the tragedies in our world give birth to conscience and consciousness. Those deaths you refer to birthed a consciousness that created a movement that to this day informs your own life.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/27/2011 8:13 am

      Precisely! I’ve often thought of the women & men who jumped as angels of a sort. Messengers from then to now who keep telling me it will be okay. Keep struggling.

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