Remembering the Triangle fire: The picnic that saved my grandmother's life
My grandmother, Anna Palevsky Shomsky, was born in Kobrin, the great, great granddaughter of the Kobriner Rebbi. Her family was well educated, wealthy and religious. She grew up in a rariified atmosphere of gentility as her father was well traveled and her mother had a soup kitchen in their home. Nevertheless, my grandmother was rebellious and felt constricted by the very strict religious rules under which she lived in Europe. She felt very excited to move to America. When my grandmother came the United States, she settled in New York City where her older brother was living. She shed her religious past and became rather independent. She was an excellent seamstress and extremely artistic.
Grandma and her cousin (known to us as Tante Paulie) worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On the day of the fire, my grandmother boarded a streetcar to go to work. On the streetcar she recognized several young men and women from Kobrin. She knew who they were by sight, but had not been allowed to socialize with them in Europe due to her family’s stringent rules for a “well bred religious” young girl. Indeed, she told us that there were class distinctions in Kobrin and that she could happily ignore them in America. The young people greeted her and told her they were meeting more “Kobriners”, and were going on a picnic, and asked her to come along with them. Impulsively, my grandmother decided to skip work and go on the picnic. Aside from this auspicious coincidence no doubt saving her life, she met a young man that day at the picnic, another “Kobriner,” Philip Shomsky, and ultimately married him.
The story does not end there, as my grandmother explained that Tante Paulie, who was trapped in the fire, jumped out of the window, as did other young women. She expected to die. Fortunately for her, her voluminous skirts caught on a metal beam that protruded from the building leaving her hanging in the air, where firemen rescued her.
My grandfather became a union organizer for the Milliner’s Union, and he and my grandmother became socialists, no doubt as a result of the Triangle fire. My 97 year old mother remembers going to a Eugene V. Debs Memorial Service at Madison Square Garden, as a young child. My grandmother opened a millinery store and was quite a successful businesswoman. I have read a lot about the Triangle fire and of course, my grandmother’s story was never told, until now.