On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. Trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes, more than 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, perished in the flames or jumped ten stories to their deaths. One of the worst industrial fires in U.S. history, the Triangle fire became a galvanizing symbol of industrial capitalism’s excesses and the pressing need for reform. In its aftermath, a coalition of middle-class reformers and working people secured passage of landmark occupational health and safety laws. For Jewish and Italian immigrant communities of the Lower East Side, the fire was especially tragic. Poet Morris Rosenfeld, known as the “poet laureate of the slum and the sweatshop,” penned this memorial to the victims four days after the fire. The Jewish Daily Forward printed the poem down the full length of its front page.
Neither battle nor fiendish pogrom
Fills this great city with sorrow;
Nor does the earth shudder or lightning rend the heavens,
No clouds darken, no cannon’s roar shatters the air.
Only hell’s fire engulfs these slave stalls
And Mammon devours our sons and daughters.
Wrapt in scarlet flames, they drop to death from his maw
And death receives them all.
Sisters mine, oh my sisters; brethren
Hear my sorrow:
See where the dead are hidden in dark corners,
Where life is choked from those who labor.
Oh, woe is me, and woe is to the world
On this Sabbath
When an avalanche of red blood and fire
Pours forth from the god of gold on high
As now my tears stream forth unceasingly.
Damned be the rich!
Damned be the system!
Damned be the world!
Over whom shall we weep first?
Over the burned ones?
Over those beyond recognition?
Over those who have been crippled?
Or driven senseless?
I weep for them all.
Now let us light the holy candles
And mark the sorrow
Of Jewish masses in darkness and poverty.
This is our funeral,
These our graves,
The beautiful, beautiful flowers destroyed,
Our lovely ones burned,
Their ashes buried under a mountain of caskets.
There will come a time
When your time will end, you golden princes. Meanwhile,
Let this haunt your consciences:
Let the burning building, our daughters in flame Be the nightmare that destroys your sleep,
The poison that embitters your lives,
The horror that kills your joy.
And in the midst of celebrations for your children,
May you be struck blind with fear over the Memory of this red avalanche
Until time erases you.
Source: Morris Rosenfeld, Jewish Daily Forward. Reprinted and translated in Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1962), 145–146.