Locked in the upper floors of a 10-story building in Lower Manhattan, dozens of workers burned to death in the fire; others jumped out the windows in desperation. In all, 146 died, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, most of them women, many of them under 18.
“How poignantly ironic that this conflagration was literally and figuratively the spark that ultimately made it much easier for people to have a five-day work week and to keep the Jewish Sabbath,” Rabbi Moses Birnbaum of the Jewish Center of Kew Garden Hills said at a memorial service in Maspeth last Friday.
The Queens Jewish Historical Society hosted the event at Mt. Zion Cemetery, where 16 of the fire victims are buried in a plot provided by the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union.
From additions to labor and fire safety codes that immediately followed the fire to the New Deal and the Wagner Act which affirmed the right of workers to organize, the tragedy’s legacy has been inseparable from politics. After Jewish and Catholic prayers, Friday’s event was no exception.
“Today, 100 years later, we have unfortunately a mayor who is absolutely assailing the unions,” said United Federation of Teachers representative Dermot Smyth.
Smyth said that the 20th century reforms are “guide rails” protecting the middle and working classes, and that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to appeal to a “radical right” by trimming them away.
“It’s an attack, not only on the tenure of teachers, but on civil service itself,” historical society president Jeff Gottlieb added. “It goes through the whole country, right to Wisconsin.”
Gottlieb said the recent Wisconsin decision that stripped public sector workers of collective bargaining rights should serve as a wake-up call for organized labor. He also emphasized the importance of passing labor history on to younger generations.
To that end, sixth-graders were invited from nearby P.S. 229. They read aloud first-hand accounts of the fire and, in the Jewish tradition, placed stones on the grave to close the ceremony.
“Now that I’ve started it, I think it’s going to become a tradition to take them on a walking tour of this cemetery every March 25th,” sixth-grade teacher Caroline Roswell said. “There’s so much history here.”
Maspeth’s hold on this particular piece of history may be slipping, though, as the face of the Mt. Zion Triangle Shirtwaist monument is being washed away. A century of weather and acid rain has already erased several of the engraved names from the marble monument.
According to Gottlieb, the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish benevolent association, is responsible for the monument’s upkeep, and apparently lacks the money for it or has not prioritized the process. Gottlieb said he planned to petition the state legislature to fund the restoration.