First published July 5, 2017
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. March 25, 1911. For twenty years, I lived around the corner from this building, and whenever I passed by, I always thought about these poor young women; about their bodies lying on the very sidewalk where I walked. Their ghosts spoke to me even then.
I was thirteen, and my brother sixteen, when we left our family home and set out for the New World. It was a great adventure – both exciting and terrifying – but as long as I had my brother to care for me, I felt safe.
He and my parents had been saving money to send us both together. The plan was, they would continue to save and my brother would find work and send money home, until eventually they would join us.
My mother had a younger cousin who had been living in New York for several years. She was, by our standards, a “real American” already, settled with a husband, an apartment, and a job. They had agreed to sponsor us and take us in until we could make our own way.
My brother was a big strong boy, tall for his age. He quickly found work ferrying packages from suppliers to manufacturers, from manufacturers to the showrooms and shops. It had been agreed by all before we left that I was to continue my education for at least two years. My parents wanted me to also become a “real American”. They made my brother promise to keep me in school.
Our cousins were very welcoming and kind. They gave us a corner of their small apartment. There was just one cot, and my brother and I took turns sleeping in it while the other slept on a pile of folded blankets on the floor. I often let him have the bed, even when it was my turn because he worked so hard during the day and was so physically exhausted. I didn’t have the heart to make him sleep on the hard wooden floor. It was by the grace of his hard work that I was able to remain in school. Since I didn’t have money to contribute, I made myself as helpful as possible – cleaning, washing, cooking some simple meals, doing marketing and errands, mending clothing as I’d been taught by my mother.
When I was 14, and my English passable, my cousin found me a job at a small restaurant owned by her friend and her husband. The husband cooked and the friend waited tables, but they had a young daughter who needed attention after school while they prepared for the dinner customers.
It didn’t pay much but it was the perfect situation for me. I started in the afternoon, so I didn’t miss any classes. I would sit with the girl while she did her schoolwork, and my own English skills improved. Sometimes if they needed extra hands, I cleared tables or swept the floor or even chopped vegetables. Occasionally, they’d send me out for an errand.
They were good to me and I was determined to justify their faith in me. I worked hard and they came to rely on me more and more. For this, they raised my pay as much as they could afford. It wasn’t much, but it enabled me to contribute a bit to the rent and to my parents’ travel fund.
I had been working there for just over a year when we received terrible news. My father had become ill and within a very short time had passed away. My brother and I would not, could not, let my mother remain alone in the Old World. My brother took on extra shifts and I found additional work minding other children in the evenings. Within the year, there was enough in the fund to bring her to us.
In the days before her expected arrival, I was so excited I could barely eat or sleep. When we met her at the boat, we all burst into tears at the sight of each other, touching each others’ faces and stroking each other’s hair, reassuring ourselves that we were all real.
We went back the apartment and my mother and her cousin caught up on the family news, remembering old times, laughing and crying.
Later, the three of us squeezed into our corner, with my brother and I insisting my mother take the cot. It was obvious we could not remain in this situation for much longer. Fortunately, my mother was an experienced tailor and seamstress, and she was able to find work quickly. Within a couple of months we were able to move to our own small room on Hester Street. It was tiny, and the bathroom, down the hall, was shared by others, but to us it felt like paradise, an unimaginable luxury to be living with just our own family in our own room.
I finished school in my sixteenth year, and my mother got me a job at the factory where she worked, making ladies’ blouses. Initially I was thrilled to have a real job; to get a regular paycheck; to be an adult among other women like myself and my mother — new immigrants, filled with hopes and dreams for a better future – but the novelty wore off quickly.
We worked long hours, six long days a week in very unpleasant conditions. The supervisors treated us more like slaves than workers. But, with the three of us bringing home a salary each week, we were able to save money. The dream was for my mother to buy a sewing machine and have her own tailor shop so we could get out of that awful factory which seemed to suck more life out of us every day.
And then, one Saturday afternoon, there was chaos! A fire! There were so many flammable scraps and pieces around that it didn’t take long for the fire to be raging. The doors were locked as they always were. There was no escape.
I pressed to the window with my mother and the other women, barely able to breathe, terrified of being burned alive and equally afraid of jumping onto the unforgiving pavement below.
In the end, I jumped. My mother stayed. It didn’t make a difference. We, along with dozens of our friends and coworkers, all died that day.
My brother, alone and lonely, soon took a wife. They named their children after me and my mother, so our story would not be lost – a story of two women with dreams, unfulfilled.