Yesterday marked the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. 146 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, were killed by a fast moving fire inside of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
They came to this country to start a new life. Some of them knew America as der goldene medina (the golden country). America was the land of opportunity where one could grow beyond the emotional and physical barriers that kept them stagnant in their countries of birth. Instead these workers lived on slave wages, went home to overcrowded tenement apartments and worked in sweatshops and factories where the physical working conditions could only be described as inhumane.
The events leading up the factory were industry wide strikes. The strikers, many of whom were female, were striking for better pay, a safe work environment, a reasonable work day and their rights as women. To these women, the Suffragette movement and the idea of working in a safe environment and earning a reasonable paycheck went hand in hand.
Until the fire, the government had a hands off approach to industry. It was only after 146 workers became lambs to the slaughter did the government finally step in.
I honor the memory of these men and women. When the stepped onto the boat to come to America, they were unaware of the fate that lay before them.
In the language of my ancestors I say z”l. In the language of the country that I call home, I say rest in peace. You are gone, but never forgotten.
March 25th, 1911 is the day that forever changed the American work force.
It started as a warm spring day. That morning, the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory made their way to work as they did everyday. By nightfall 146 of them were dead.
The majority of the victims were women, between the ages of 16-25. They were Jewish and Italian immigrants, working for very little pay and working without the benefits that many of us take for granted today.
David von Drehle’s 2003 memoir, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America personalizes the story. He starts several years before with previous strikes by employees seeking better pay and improved safety standards. The chapters that take the readers through the fire and providing details in the lives of those who lived and didn’t live are climactic and heartbreaking. The final chapters go through the trials where the owners were accused of manslaughter and the lives of the owners after the fire.
I’ve owned this book for a few years, no matter how many times I read it, I have to have box of Kleenex nearby. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. The details of the fire and how many of the victims died is so vivid. The reader can feel the heartbreak of the families who are lining up to identify their loves ones. Many of the victims were burned so badly that their families could not identify them.
One of the reasons that I enjoy this book is that it connects me to my roots. My ancestors, like many immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s and worked in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. They led strikes for better pay and better working conditions. They are long gone, but it’s as if I am getting to know them and the world they knew.
I highly recommend this book and make sure you have a box of Kleenex handy.