New "Triangle Fire" film: What was missing
Next Monday, February 28, 2011, PBS will broadcast a new American Experience documentary, Triangle Fire, about one of the most horrific, and most consequential, workplace disasters in American history. A variety of special programs—gallery exhibitions, musical performances, conferences, even an HBO movie—are taking place over the next month to mark the centennial of the fire that left 146 workers dead. (A full listing of events is online at www.rememberthetrianglefire.org.)
Here at the Jewish Women’s Archive, we have been immersed in the story of the Triangle fire for months as we’ve been planning our first annual Living the Legacy Award Luncheon, to be held on March 13th in the firehouse that in 1911 sent the first engines to the scene of the fire. We are also preparing to launch an online walking tour of sites associated with the Triangle tragedy.
The staff of American Experience, based at WGBH in Boston, was kind enough to let us preview the new film. There is a lot about it to admire, and I encourage you to watch. It shows how the fire that consumed the Triangle factory on March 25, 1911 was not only preventable but, given the history of the Triangle Waist Company, predictable. It explores at some length the “Uprising of the 20,000,” as the general strike of 1909 was called. An actor reads the words Clara Lemlich spoke to the crowd gathered at Cooper Union in November 1909, words that inspired thousands of shirtwaist workers—the great majority of them young immigrant women—to endure an 11-week strike. Dramatic re-enactments and documentary photographs are artfully combined to re-create the fire itself. The investigations that took place and the legislation that was enacted following the fire occupy the remaining few minutes of the film, leaving viewers with the impression that public officials were ready and willing to do the right thing.
What is far more problematic is the film’s assertion that the men who owned the Triangle Company quickly disappeared into obscurity. In fact, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck collected on their insurance policy and re-opened for business within a matter of weeks. Equally troubling: we don’t learn that Harris and Blanck were themselves impoverished Jewish garment workers who had emigrated from Eastern Europe 20 years before. Just as the plaque the union mounted on the building makes no mention of gender — “On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on March 25, 1911 — the word “Jew” or “Jewish” is not uttered once in the 52-minute film.
We’re not told that Clara Lemlich, also a Jewish immigrant, addressed the crowd at Cooper Union in Yiddish. The film mentions that many of the workers at the Triangle were from Italy, as indeed they were, but neglects to say that the majority of the workers —and victims—were Eastern European Jews.
Why should it matter? Was Rose Schneiderman thinking only of her fellow Jews at a mass meeting shortly after the fire when she said, “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed.” Was she talking about the wasting of Jewish life when she told the middle-class reformers in the audience that night, “I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled”? I’m pretty sure the answer is “no,” so why do I care?
I care because the Triangle Fire film is yet another example of how Jewish women have been marginalized even when they are central to the story. The woman who called for a general strike when the male union leaders would not was Jewish. Large numbers of the shirtwaist workers who withstood the taunts of the men sent to harass them on the picket line were Jewish women. More than half of the victims of the Triangle fire had names like Ida Kanowitz, Jennie Levin, Nettie Liebowitz, Sadie Nussbaum. One of the leaders of the effort to investigate and regulate factory conditions after the fire was Rose Schneiderman, another Jewish woman. Telling a “broader story,” as the makers of the new Triangle Fire film sought to do, means leaving out one of the most important parts of the story – the role of Jewish women.
Once you’ve seen the film, let us know what you think.
Ellen K. Rothman is Deputy Director of the Jewish Women's Archive.