Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Love in Death

Many of the young women and men who died in the Triangle Fire, were engaged to be married. One woman had just had her engagement party the night before the fire, before she died. Another worker burned beyond recognition was identified by her fiance by the engagement ring still on her finger.

At the time of the fire on March 25, 1911, Washington Square Park was crowded with people enjoying the early Spring day. The first reporter to the scene William Gunn Shepherd had been at the park right beside the Triangle Fire Building when he smelled the smoke and saw the fire. He along with hundreds of others witnessed dozens of girls jumping to their death. In those few moments, he saw a love story play out which he described in horror:

"As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.

Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to thewindow. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward-the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.

Thud-dead, thud-dead-together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.

We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity, but her thud-dead came first."

After we walk our 146 sweatshop workers home on Sunday, March 27th, we will all congregate at the Eldridge Street Synagogue for an afternoon of music and poetry written by the Yiddish sweatshop poets about the relentless soul crushing grind of life in the factory. One of Morris Rosenfeld's poems, To My Beloved, tells the tale of a factory worker with no time to spend in the arms of his beloved as they are both at work all day long.

He writes:

It hums, it boils, it burns, it seethes

There is no place for you – o go-

I hired out my arms and hands;

I cannot now embrace you – no!

And though without you I am dead

I must demand of you - please go

Here rules the struggle harsh for bread

And I must tremble when I sew.

This poem will be performed in its entirety by Melanie Martinez at left and Yankl Salant in English and Yiddish on March 27th at 3pm at The Eldridge Street Synagogue.


  1. This was a beautiful poem and one of my favorites from the day. Could you tell me where I can find a copy?

  2. the yiddish you can read in the collected works of Morris Rosenfeld at and the english in Sing Stranger: A century of Yiddish Poetry by Benjamin Harshav. You can read To My Beloved on google books.