In Robert’s Adventures, a Yiddish children’s book by Shloime Simon, written in the 1930s but set a generation earlier, there is a scene in which Robert and his sheyke, his little four person ‘gang’ of 10 or 11 year-old boys, are window shopping near Union Square. A fire breaks out, and the boys are excited:
“A fire!” The friends liked to watch fires. They always loved when firemen would start breaking things. Grab an iron crowbar and Crash! Right into the window. A gigantic hammer in hand and Blooey! In the door.
One time Robert had even gotten to see firefighters rescue someone with a net. Now the boys run to watch, but when they get to the scene there is a dense crowd blocking their view of the factory. Intermittently they hear a loud dull thud against the asphalt. A moan goes up from the crowd. It is the wailing, “of people who see death in front of their eyes and are powerless to help.”
Last week when I began translating chapter nine and first read these passages (and it could be that I am the first person in fifty years to read them) I was startled. It was the third time in as many weeks that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire had come up out of nowhere.
The first time I was just randomly browsing. I have gotten to the point in my Yiddish reading (certainly not yet in my translating, about which I will write more later), where I thought I might be able to read some poems. We had a night last month to commemorate poets who were executed by Stalin, at which I talked about a poem by Peretz Markish. I thought perhaps an earlier generation of Yiddish poets might be a little easier to tackle. I looked first in Mani Leyb’s work, then in Morris Rosenfeld’s, for something I could manage to decipher. I saw a poem by Rosenfeld dedicated to the shopgirls killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I thought that poem was likely to have been translated, so that I might see the English and Yiddish side by side.
In fact, not only had the poem been translated, it was very famous. Four days after the fire, this poem was not just on the front page of the Daily Forverts, it was the front page. On our drive to Boston the next day, I mentioned this to my friend Jacob Rakovan. It says something that a hundred years ago, probably the third or fourth biggest newspaper in New York City, with a circulation well over 100,000 (and many more readers than that) would so prominently feature a poem. Only a poem could do justice to such a transformative event, and could both reflect and channel public grief and anger so effectively.
That night in Boston, Jacob was the featured poet at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. There was also a poetry slam which, it happens, I ended up judging. The single most powerful poem in the competition that night was about, you guessed it, the Triangle Fire. A poet named Sophia Holtz performed a work in which she spoke as the voice of the fire. It was grisly and haunting and awe-full. In her hands, the personified fire was universal and implacable, inextinguishable as human greed.
Why would Simon, my grandfather, write about this fire in a children’s book (at 180ish pages it would be a young adult book today)? Children in the 1930s were of course too young to know anything about it, but for their parents’ generation it was an unavoidable landmark– an event that divided the world into before and after. Just over a century later, we know that following the fire, the ensuing clamor for better working conditions and a strong labor movement led to important workplace safety regulations. Unfortunately, we also know that in our world, in 2013, a building containing a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand people. We know that just as with the Triangle Fire, earlier safety warnings had been ignored. Raw greed was regulated for a historical moment, then it simply emigrated, taking its life-threatening jobs along with it.
Today in Rochester, I pick up the story where I left off. After the fire, Robert reads the newspapers, horrified by the survivors’ accounts of how the access to the fire escapes was locked. He struggles to understand in what kind of world human lives can be willfully put at risk for the sake of profits. From an open window a song is heard. It’s Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry, set to music.
And of course my posting today is on the anniversary of another event in lower Manhattan– an event that echoes so strongly these tragic images of burning, of people falling from buildings, of buildings collapsed. I have nothing insightful to say about moral absolutism and religious jihad. A desire to remake the world in some holy vision that requires bloodletting seems as ancient and many-headed and implacable as the greed for money and power. Some battles need to be fought again and again.
This wasn’t what I expected to write about in my first blog post. Soon I will write about my grandfather and about why I am studying Yiddish, of all things, in the twenty-first century. I will write about charming folktales. I’ll describe whatever I happen to learn—about word origins or poetry, about loss, survival and defiance, about Jewish culture. Today’s subject imposed itself. In lieu of tidy parting words, here are some of Rosenfeld’s:
De klezmer shvaygt. S’forn tzurik
di feyer-vagon – altz farlorn.
Farbrent di blutike fabrik
tzestert a yam mit yunge yorn.
And, meanwhile, Robert’s mother sews black clothing for the planned funeral march— a march to be held without music and without banners. A march with no speeches at the end. Nothing to interfere with our own thoughts about those who have been lost, and about what is to be done.