Faith Forged Through Fire: 1911

Megan Marquez, writer

We first got news of Papa from Rabbi Abrams—he told us Samuel Goldstein had been on the boat with him and saw him fall ill. Samuel was doing the same as Papa—going back to Italy to bring the rest of the family here to New York. Samuel told us he was there on the deck praying when they dumped his lifeless body over-board into the cruel unforgiving ocean.
Ever since that Sabbath, my world has felt cold and numb. Anger towards God left my chest feeling torn and raw. The few times I had felt the slightest bit of warmth and joy had been when I was with Mama, or playing with the neighborhood children on Sabbath evenings, and whenever I got the chance to see Jacob.
* * *
The morning light that streamed in from the living room window was faint; dust floated through it sparkling in the thick air. I gingerly rolled off the bed so I wouldn’t disturb Mama and got up to begin heating a pot of water for the day. I grabbed the familiar old oil lamp, the first one my family bought in America.
When we first moved into this place it felt so large and full of hope, but now it feels all too small and suffocating. I lit the lamp, picked up the pail in the corner of the kitchen, and carried them with me down the crowded corridors and dark stairwells of the tenement out to the back alleyway.
I had to watch my step and carefully maneuver around the small piles of trash strewn across the muddy back-yard shared by the residents of the tenement building. I used my skinny arms to push and pull the water pump to fill the pail. Watchfully, I carried the pail in the crook of my left arm all the way back three flights of stairs to our apartment.
I quietly opened the door in order to not wake Mama, however my brother, Avner, had apparently woken up late that morning because he ran directly into me. Water splashed on both of us; but, Avner had to get to work quickly. No more than a muttered sorry was exchanged for the small squeak of surprise I involuntarily let out at the shock of the cold water soaking through my clothing.
I heard Mama stir in the other room and I felt a fresh wave of anger wash over me; Avner constantly messed things up with his clumsiness. He could be such a fool. I took three deep breaths, walked over to the stove, and lit it up to begin boiling the water. While the water was heating, I finished getting dressed for work. I gave Mama a kiss on my way out the door.
“I left the water heating on the stove. It should start boiling in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, my Motek (sweet one in Yiddish),” Mama faintly spoke (Wieder).
“Please remember to go down to the markets today, so that I can cook dinner. You still have the money Avner and I gave you from our last paychecks, yes?” I double checked with Mama.
“Yes I’ll remember today, sorry I forgot yesterday.”
“It’s okay mama. I love you.”
“I love you too my Gindele (little doe in Yiddish).”
I hurried out the door and forced myself to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat. Seeing Mama like this over the past few years had broken my heart. In Italy, she was so full of life, constantly taking care of us and making sure we were always laughing and learning. But I knew I couldn’t let myself get emotional now—I had to go to work. My best friend Adina had finally gotten promoted to the tenth-floor management office at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. I ran down the short flight of stairs to her apartment on the floor below.
“Wow, catching me after three knocks that must be a new record for you Adina.” I said as I suppressed a giggle.
“Oh quiet Aliza, Eliana is still sleeping!” Cautious amusement was thick in Adina’s voice.
I peered over Adina’s shoulder as she slipped out the door and caught a glimpse of her baby sister, sleeping peacefully in her crib by the kitchen stove. I felt a pang of longing in my chest, I remembered singing my own younger sister to sleep in my arms many times under the warm Italian sun while a fresh breeze of clean air swept over our family farm.
We made our way through the maze of dark, damp hallways outside to the waking streets of lower east Manhattan. Produce sellers were beginning to set up their booths for the day. We side-stepped a few trash piles along the streets as we walked quickly to work, chatting endlessly.
“How was tea with Jacob?” Adina asked smirking.
“Oh Adina! He is so sweet and such a gentleman. Spending time with him is positively lovely.”
“Aliza, you are simply smitten with this boy”
“I really am, and the best part is I know he feels the same way.”
“Gee, I wonder when he will propose, he has been courting you for almost 5 months.”
“Adina, don’t get ahead of yourself, we haven’t even said I love you yet.”
“You do not need to say the words to each other, you both know without a doubt that you love each other. You will be married by the end of the year.”
Quickly I changed the subject, “I feel terrible that we have to work on the Sabbath, it upsets Mama.”
“I do too, but we must help provide for our families. As soon as we earn enough money we can stop working on the Sabbath.”
“I can not believe you are finally being promoted today! You will be making five cents more an hour, that will definitely help you have to work on the Sabbath anymore. You have deserved it for so long, Tzutkit (ambitious one in Yiddish).”
“I know, I am so excited to begin working on the tenth floor with you. Management told me yesterday that I can pack up my things at the end of day and move them upstairs.”
We took the elevator to the ninth and tenth floors and started our work for the day. It was moving by quickly, the pattern cutters were keeping the sewers busy. We met our quota for the day early and everyone on the tenth floor was packing up to leave. I walked over to the accounts desk to gather my paycheck for the week.
“Hello Freida, I need to collect my pay for the week. How are your children?”
“Good afternoon Aliza, the children are doing well, thank you for asking. I’ll grab your pay in just one minute I must take this call first.” Freida picked up the receiver before I had the chance to respond.
“Hello, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, how may I help you?”
“Oh it’s you Moriah.”
“Wait, what are you saying? I don’t understand. How is that possible?”
“Okay I will make an announcement. Thank you. Goodbye.” Freida hung up the phone with a unrecognizable expression.
“Freida what is going on? What is wrong?” Concern crept up the back of my throat.
Without answering me Frieda announced, “Excuse me! Everyone! Attention please! There is a fire on the eighth floor we all need to evacuate now!”
I had never heard Freida yell in such a manner; She was always very calm and reserved. I felt fear bubble up inside me. My feet felt like cement; people walked quickly everywhere in search of a safe exit. The elevators could normally hold fifteen people at a time but my panicked coworkers were squeezing together to fit thirty. Others were moving to the fire escape and began to crawl out the window and down toward safety. Some were making their way upstairs to the roof in hopes of reaching a nearby building.
I knew I could not just stand there—I had to move—so I willed my feet to start walking. I needed to find Adina on the ninth floor, and the fire escape was my best bet to get there. The elevators had stopped working and one of the two crowded doors to the stairwell was locked, per company policy (Rosenberg). I began to move towards the window when I heard the groan of twisting metal and I knew something was terribly wrong. I ran to the window just in time to see the fire escape collapse, crushing and killing all those on it.
I had to think of a new way to get down to the ninth floor and find Adina, I knew she must be as terrified as I. The interior stairwell was now the only way to reach Adina. “We were all holding the banister; everybody was holding the banister about one hundred and fifty people in the stairwell” (Pepe). We all tumbled down, losing our grip as we would falter in our footing. It was a rush filled with mad confusion and panicked bodies pressed against each other.
Immediately after I struggled to push past desperate women pressed into the doorway, the thick smoke stung my eyes. I scanned the large room, forced to squint through the ash. It was difficult to shout her name, to pump heavy smoke in and out of my tired lungs. My words were lost in the commotion, blown away by the scalding air, leaving my lungs burning for oxygen. I saw Adina on the other side of the room close to the large windows. So near the window her carefully pinned up hair was coming loose with the breeze of smoke billowing out of the windows. Stepping carefully around broken floor boards and lifeless bodies, I attempted to make my way closer to the window.
Adina finally saw me when I was just an arm’s-length away. Women were screaming, jostling, desperate to escape the flames closing in behind us. I wanted to pull her in closer, away from the treacherous ledge. I reached out my arm to Adina. Her fingers slipped through mine.
Over the roar of the fire I couldn’t hear her body thud on the pavement. A silent sob escaped my mouth and my tears mixed with the mist from the fire hoses.
God forgive us for working on the Sabbath.
Works Cited
Pepe, Pauline. “Survivor Oral Histories.” Cornell University – ILR School – The Triangle Factory Fire – Survivor Oral Histories – Pauline Pepe, Cornell University, 19 Mar. 1986. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. “The Deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” ThoughtCo, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2018.
Wieder, Paul. “How To Compliment Someone In Yiddish.” Oy!Chicago, Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, 2 Jan. 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.
Drehle, David Von. Triangle: the Fire That Changed America. Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2008. Print.
Hochfield, Max. “Survivor Oral Histories.” Cornell University – ILR School – The Triangle Factory Fire – Survivor Oral Histories – Max Hochfield, Cornell University, 20 Jan. 1957. Web. 29 Jan. 2018.
Tenement Museum New York City
“Yiddish/Hebrew Terms of Endearment.” Linguaphiles, 10 Sept. 2009. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.