On Sunday, I had lunch with Fannia Cohn. So did Toba Penny from Moment, Sarah Perry, Rose Zoltek-Jick, and Leah Berkenwald from the Jewish Women’s Archive, and six other guests (including one man) at Table 24. We were gathered to commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and to celebrate Jewish women activists, past and present. Each of us was given a numbered card with a part of Fannia Cohn’s life story.
Physical places add an important dimension to our understanding of history. This was the impetus behind JWA's effort to put Jewish women "On the Map." This month, we have been commemorating the centennial of the Triangle factory fire, which took the lives of 146 garment workers. The history of the labor movement in the U.S. is inextricably linked with this watershed event.
On March 25, 1911, in the span of 20 minutes, 146 people lost their lives to a fire that swept through one of New York’s largest garment shops. Almost all of the victims were young women, some literally just girls. Most who died were greenhorns, new immigrants, who didn’t know better or have any choice but to work there. Typically they worked with relatives or people from their hometowns (landsleit) who had recruited them. Two-thirds were Jewish; the other third were Italian and, of course, all who worked there were poor.
Three years ago, my knowledge of my paternal grandmother, born Annie Sprinsock, was at best sketchy. A Russian-Jewish immigrant to New York City, she lived a tragically truncated life marked by recurrent bouts of melancholia until her death at the young age of 34 in 1929. My father, deeply pained by her untimely death, rarely spoke of her to my brother and me when we were children -- except to say that she had been at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the day of the infamous fire.