Four months before 146 sweatshop workers perished in a gruesome fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan, another devastating blaze occurred in another unsafe garment factory — this one in Newark.
It happened 100 years ago, on Nov. 26, 1910, in a building on the corner of Orange Street and High Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). It is still considered the worst fire in Newark history.
Like the tragedy at the Triangle plant, the factory happened to be run by Jews and a great many of the victims were Jewish women and girls.
While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is embedded in the history books as an object lesson in unsafe working conditions and exploitation of working-class women, the blaze in Newark, which claimed 26 lives, has largely been overlooked — until now.
A retired Star-Ledger newspaper reporter who has been living in Newark for the past 25 years is determined to commemorate the event.
Guy Sterling served as a panelist at a Nov. 16 seminar on the tragedy at Drew University in Madison.
And he has helped organize an interfaith memorial service that will take place Friday, Nov. 26, at the corner where the factory stood.
“The fire happened right around the corner from where I live,” said Sterling in a phone interview. “People in this neighborhood have always talked about it, but no one knew much about it. So I decided on the 100th anniversary I would do whatever I could to make sure that it is not forgotten in Newark history, which it pretty much has been.”
For the past year, Sterling has been researching the fire and its victims, most of whom worked in the fourth-floor sweatshop of the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company.
After an electrical fire broke out in a light bulb factory one floor below, the women were burned to death or died from leaping out of windows. Safety exits were inadequate, and workers were instructed not to summon firefighters stationed across the street, lest they alert their employer’s insurance company.
“I didn’t want these 26 women to be forgotten,” said Sterling. So he set about tracking down their relatives and their burial sites. “I would like to find every headstone and any relatives of any of the victims,” he said.
‘I’m not giving up’
Thus far, he has managed to find the graves of 22 of the 26 victims. He spent many weeks looking for the resting places of three sisters — Dora, Tillie, and Minnie Gottlieb.
With the aid of Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, and Alice Gould, a West Caldwell resident with voluminous knowledge of Newark’s Jewish cemeteries, Sterling found the sisters buried in the Grove Street Cemetery beneath a single tombstone inscribed with the surname “Gotlieb.”
Once he had located the graves, Sterling returned on the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, hoping to run into relatives of the three sisters. “I stood out there by the tombstones for four hours,” he said. “It was a rainy, nasty day, but I was hoping someone would come.” No one did.
He is also looking for the burial sites and possible relatives of two other victims who, he said, “I am pretty sure were Jewish.”
One was Bessie Rosen. “According to the newspaper, she was buried at the same cemetery as the Gottlieb sisters, but the cemetery has no record of her,” Sterling said.
The other was Gertrude Denton, who was supposedly buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside. The cemetery doesn’t have a record of her either. “I am assuming she was Jewish, but I don’t know that for a fact. I’m not giving up,” he said.
Sterling did manage to find a granddaughter of one of the Wolf brothers, who ran the nightgown factory.
“We spoke on the phone,” he said. “She told me she had learned about it from someone who was doing some genealogical work for the family, but she didn’t know much about it. She said this was something her family never knew about and never spoke about. I filled in the story for her.”
It is a story that he wants many others to be aware of. He plans to read the names of the 26 victims during a one-hour ceremony that will include prayers by a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi, Shalom Lubin from the Chabad Jewish Center in Madison, as well as remarks by officials from the city and Essex County.
“I want Newark to remember,” said Sterling. “This was a major event in the city’s history. It was the worst fatal fire the city of Newark has ever had. It spurred major change in how buildings were put up and how buildings operated from then on. The city of Newark has never done anything to commemorate the event. I just felt that I’m one person, and whatever I could do I was going to do.”