Luckily, I said Tongue’s Memory would be a blog about *learning* Yiddish, not about knowing Yiddish. One post in, and I made my first mistake, and it led me to learn something interesting.
My little green book of Morris Rosenfeld’s collected poems (vol. 1 in his 1913 selected writings) includes three poems in succession, written “Oyf ferbrente fabrik-maydlekh”, or “for the burned factory girls”. None is dated. The first poem, Fire, begins (roughly):
“Don’t sing about weddings, Listen! A crash,
a wail, the groaning chaotic crowds.
Bridegrooms are going through the ash
in tears, searching for their dead brides.
The musicians, silent. All have returned
to their stations, the firetrucks. It’s done.
The bloody factory has burned
destroying an ocean of the young.”
Those are the verses quoted in Robert’s Adventures, described as having been set to song and as wafting into the boy’s open window. The second stanza is the one included at the end of my first blog post on Thursday. But it is the following poem, Red Avalanche (my dictionary suggests Red Stampede might be a better translation of די רויטע בהלה), that appeared on the cover of the Forverts. http://buzzardpress.com/blog/2011/02/22/rosenfeld’s-requiem-the-triangle-fire-victims-in-verse/
The two poems differ somewhat in tone. I assume that the earlier poem’s excerpts were chosen because they are sadder, and also written in rhyming stanzas that are amenable to being set to song. The Red Avalanche is angrier and in free verse. Both of these features make the earlier one a better choice at that moment in the children’s story. However, when I went back to the poems to take a closer look at their form and tone, I noticed that the first poem, Fire, is in fact dedicated to the burned shop girls in Newark, not New York.
In November, 1910, Newark, New Jersey had been the scene of an awful fire as 26 women working in a fourth floor undergarment factory died, 6 by burning, 20 by jumping to their deaths. The fire started in a lamp factory on the floor below. Here, as elsewhere, there had been complaints about the exits and advance warnings about the inadequacy of the fire escapes. That fire, then, was the subject of Rosenfeld’s first poem. It was the worst and most publicized workplace disaster in the time leading up to the Triangle Fire. The Newark fire resulted in public and specific calls to improve the conditions of New York’s factories, along with warnings that an even greater tragedy could happen there. Here’s a description and an exposé of the causes of the Newark fire, from McClure’s magazine, written before but published right at the time of the Triangle Fire. [note: these days an April issue of a magazine often comes out in early March. I don’t know what the custom was in 1911. The triangle fire occurred March 25.] http://www.oldnewark.com/histories/factoryfire01.htm
My guess is that this could explain the difference in tone in Rosenfeld’s two poems. Sadness at the tragedy and anger at the disregard for workers’ lives the first time around, but the second time, and after more and clearer warnings? Blind rage.
“Damned be the rich! Damned be the system! Damned be the world!”
Robert’s Adventures says the song he heard was from a poem, Fire, that “the great poet Morris Rosenfeld wrote specially about the Triangle Fire.” Did my grandfather also fail to note the tiny letters in the poem’s dedication that gave the location of the fire? Or did he simply use his own poetic license to make Robert a better story? I can’t know, but I the latter seems more likely.
And what about the third poem? That one appeared four days after the front page avalanche poem, also in the Forverts, and was titled Two Letters: “Come home, my daughter, come back home/ A man has told us about America/ That the factories are not safe there…”
The first letter is from a mother in the old world to her daughter in America. The mother is frantic after hearing about the Newark fire, unsure whether Newark is the same place as New York, and desperate to save her daughter from the dangerous factory where she works. The second letter is the reassuring reply:
“Your call dear mother moves me so,
Your grief becomes my wail —
No! Newark is not New York, No!
Don’t listen to that man,
There is no danger going on…
In the factory where I produce
There will never be such an affair,…”
And the letter ends,
“Do not fret, Mother
And have no vexation —
There is a heaven,
There is a God…”