A Flame That Keeps Burning:
Marking the Centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire
Co-Sponsored by The Sholem Community, Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle,
Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), Yiddishkayt, and LALaborfest

Presented March 13, 2011

A Lesson for Today

“A Flame That Keeps Burning” paid tribute today to American Jewish and labor history by honoring trade unionism and the continuing struggle for worker safety, dignity, and collective bargaining.

Click above to view our event program

The events depicted were not mere items in a text book. Unfortunately, they still resonate. As our presentation makes clear, workers are still dying — in the United States and around the world — as a result of negligence and unsafe working conditions. Fires still occur in garment sweatshops, child laborers still toil, oil workers and miners are constantly sacrificed on the altar of greed. Unions and collective bargaining are under assault.

Hershl Hartman (left) and Bill Ratner

“A Flame That Keeps Burning” produced and edited by Jeffrey Kaye and directed by Allan Katz, drew on material from a number of different sources. In particular, “Bread and Roses,” the 2000 play produced by the Sholem Community and written by Katherine James with Rose Auerbach, Hershl Hartman, Michael Hersh, Alan Levine, Linda Post, Bill Ratner, and Eric Schoenbaum.

From left: Janet Hawkins, Hershl Hartman, Bill Ratner

The first major strike of garment workers, the “Uprising of the 20,000” began on November 23, 1909. It came the day after a packed meeting called by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York’s Cooper Union.

The shirtwaist (blouse) makers, mostly Jewish and Italian women and teenagers, voted for an industry-wide strike to protest poor wages and working conditions. The strikers received help from the New York Women’s Trade Union League, which united workers with upper and middle class women fighting for, among other causes, the right to vote.

During the presentation, the audience was called on to join in — by singing and by playing roles as garment workers and their supporters. The lines included, a Jewish and union oath that touched off the 1909 “Uprising of the 20,000,” a strike for better working conditions:

“If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge,
may this hand wither from the arm I now raise!”

Historical Background The fire on March 25, 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City killed 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. The two Jewish owners of the company were acquitted of manslaughter charges. The fire led eventually to workplace safety laws, and remains a vivid symbol of the need to ensure a safe workplace.

Photo on left: Scott Wilkinson (tuba), Lenny Potash (guitar)
Photo on right: Katherine Collins, Sara Kaye

Three of the leaders depicted in our presentation were: Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982), a Ukrainian immigrant, active in the labor and peace movements, as well as in secular Yiddish children’s schools; Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972), a Polish immigrant and labor leader who helped organize the first female local of the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union; and Pauline Newman (1888-1986), Lithuanian immigrant, ILGWU organizer, liaison between the union and government reformers, and suffragist.

This production incorporated poems included in Julia Stein’s recently published anthology “Walking Through the River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poems” (C.C. Marimbo press). Poems used in “A Flame That Keeps Burning” in whole or in part are: “My Little Son” by Morris Rosenfeld, “Scraps” by Chris Llewellyn; “Blanck and Harris, The Bosses” by Ruth Daigon; “Triangle Shirtwaist Company March 25, 1911” by Hilton Obenzinger; “Sisters in the Flames” by Carol Tarlen; “Industrialist’s Dream” by Mary Fell; “One Of Rosie’s Girls” by Julia Stein; “Memorial to Triangle Fire Victims,” by Morris Rosenfeld, translated by Aaron Kramer; and “Jury of Peers” by Chris Llewellyn.

All photos by Slobodan Dimitrov.