Clouds Blur Fire’s Meaning
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Clouds Blur Fire’s Meaning

As centennial of Triangle blaze nears, historians debate event’s Jewish character.

It is just weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York City’s worst workplace disaster prior to Sept. 11. But instead of providing clarity, the time since the March 25, 1911 tragedy, and the array of commemorative events being held this month, has raised at least one befuddling question: to what extent was the fire a specifically Jewish event?

After all, the majority of the fire’s 146 victims were Jewish immigrant women, and it was Jewish organizations, from B’nai B’rith and The Yiddish Forward, to workers’ unions dominated by Jews, that brought the fire to public attention. But leading historians of the fire still disagree vehemently over how much the Jewish character of the event matters.

“Within the Jewish and Italian communities, it still does have a unique resonance,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of 20th-century American history at Dartmouth who has written extensively about the fire. “But to the country and to the world at large, it [has been] less significant that the victims were Jewish and Italian than that they were young girls.”

The fire, set off by a match thoughtlessly tossed away, and exacerbated by the fact that the factory’s exits were locked, killed 146 mostly teenage women in less than 20 minutes. But factory deaths were common then, if not that numerous at one time, which has led scholars to believe that the most salient feature that forced the event into the national consciousness was the age and gender of the victims. “If they were just Jewish men, or grown men, it probably wouldn’t have had the impact it did,” Orleck said.

Many were girls barely 15 who had jumped to their deaths from the nine-story factory in Greenwich Village. A public funeral was held two weeks later, with several of the victims so badly burned they were impossible to identify. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers joined in the public mourning ceremonies, which gave momentum to the slate of workers’ rights legislation that followed, from collective bargaining rights to safety codes and minimum wages.

But some argue that the Jewish identity of the victims was critical to the government’s response. “The garment industry was very much identified as a Jewish one,” David Von Drehle, a journalist for Time magazine and author of “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (2003), a widely admired popular history, told The Jewish Week. “The fire was a galvanizing event for Lower East Side Jewish immigrants, and Tammany Hall decides to grab [it] to attract this new constituency.”

Von Drehle explained that, at the time of the fire, the traditional Irish and German base that supported New York City’s Democratic Party — nicknamed Tammany Hall — was slowly eroding. Descendants of mid-19th-century immigrants, many German and Irish Americans were wealthy enough by 1911 to settle outside of the city. In their place came an influx of poor Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, which Democrats, up until the fire, had largely ignored.

While there is little direct evidence that city politicians exploited the fire for the Jewish vote, Von Drehle argues that there is circumstantial evidence. The day of the fire, Tammany Hall leaders were debating whether to put Isidor Straus, the wealthy Jewish founder of Macy’s, on the ballot for U.S. senator because he might attract Jewish voters. “‘How do we appeal to Jewish voters?’ was under discussion by Tammany officials on the day of the fire,” Von Drehle said.

But other historians argue that the exact opposite is true. City officials, they say, deliberately downplayed the Jewish nature of the event for fear of aggravating already simmering ethnic tensions, and for fear of being seen as socialists, whom Jewish immigrants largely supported.

“Political leaders really did not want to see it become a Jewish event,” Jo Ann Argersinger, a labor historian at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and author of “The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents” (2009), told The Jewish Week. She emphasized the fact that, at the public funeral for unidentified victims, city officials prevented any Jewish groups from burying them in a Jewish cemetery. Though they were almost certainly Jewish, city officials made sure the burial happened at a non-sectarian burial ground in Brooklyn. “There was clearly an attempt to make sure it was seen as a secular event,” Argersinger said.

Richard Greenwald, a labor historian at Drew University and author of “The Triangle Fire: The Protocols of Peace and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York” (2005), agrees with Von Drehle’s premise: that the garment industry was largely seen as a Jewish one.

But a massive strike led by women activists in 1909, followed by the Triangle fire two year later, transformed this formerly ignored group — Jewish immigrants — into an important constituent with issues politicians were ready to acknowledge. Yet it was not as Jews that they mattered now, but as workers. “The Triangle fire was a real turning point because it changes the perception of these issues” —fire safety, minimum wage, collective bargaining — “and it became a worker’s problem, not just a Jewish one,” Greenwald said.

Argersinger also noted that Jewish leaders championing workplace reform were themselves wary of giving the fire a distinctly Jewish cast. Though Jewish labor activists like Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman often addressed their audiences in Yiddish and suffused their calls for justice with passages from the Bible, they actively sought out non-Jewish workers for support. “They wanted to get all groups in the union,” said Argersinger, “so to a certain extent they wanted to downplay their Jewish origins.”

Greenwald disagrees. “I haven’t seen evidence of it in my own research, where the unions tried to downplay their Jewishness,” he said. Many of the union leaders “were part of the Jewish community; they [didn’t] deny that. But when they’re speaking about the workers’ rights, they’re speaking about workers as a whole.”

Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at NYU who has also written about the fire, suggested that feuds within the Jewish community might have precluded any attempt for a more prominent Jewish-centered response.

She says the fact that the two owners of the Triangle factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were Jewish is often ignored. They were acquitted of manslaughter, but they were publicly vilified for keeping the doors in the factory locked, a practice they said was necessary in order to prevent theft.

Also ignored, she said, is the fact that the earlier generation of German Jewish immigrants were often at odds with newly arriving Eastern European Jewish immigrants on everything from religion to politics. “What really strikes me is that this was an intra-Jewish conflict,” Diner said. “The Jewish community is still not comfortable talking about that.”

Distorting the way the fire is remembered is the fact that it did not remain in the center of public discourse for long. Von Drehle points out that it was not until the 50th anniversary that anybody really commemorated the fire at all. “For a long time it kind of fell down a memory hole,” he said.

In 1961, David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGU), commissioned a detailed history of the event, which was written by Leon Stein, editor of the union newspaper Justice. The book, “The Triangle Fire,” focused on the labor abuses that made the tragedy possible, and came out the same year that a huge public ceremony was held to commemorate the fire, which included New York Mayor Robert Wagner and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

But Von Drehle notes that Jewish groups and even the ILGU were giving the fire limited attention by the 1930s. In a history of the union written in the 1930s, he said, no more than a paragraph was written about the Triangle fire. And, he said, the first major history of New York Jews, Moses Rischin’s “The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914,” published by Harvard University Press in 1962, “had almost nothing on the fire on it.”

But this year appears to be different. Some say that the steady demise of union popularity, suggested by the current woes in Wisconsin, has made it possible for other groups — Jews, women, Italians — to gain a more public claim on the history. “As we’ve seen the deregulation of unions over the last 30 years, the fire has taken on a darker tone,” said Nan Enstad, a professor of labor history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Today,” she added, “the fire is everybody’s to claim.”

Dozens of Jewish institutions have made space for public commemorations this year across the country, from Yiddish concerts by the Boston Workmen’s Circle, to a play about the fire at the Rochester JCC. Still, some say that commemorations aimed at the general public are ignoring the Jewish component.

In a blog post about the recent PBS documentary on the fire, “Triangle Fire,” the deputy director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, Ellen Rothman, took issue with the scant attention given to the fact of the victims’ overwhelming Jewish identity. “We don’t want this to become all about Jews,” Rothman said in a later interview. “But how many more seconds does it take to say that Clara [Lemlich] spoke to workers in Yiddish?”

She went on, “I’ve worked in public radio; I know you have to simplify the story. But when you strip the film of gender, ethnicity and even socialism … you end up telling only half the story. And to me, the story loses a lot of its power.”

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