The deadly 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York was a seminal event in the history of The Forward, at the time a Yiddish daily located just blocks away from the disaster site and steeped in the politics of the nascent labor movement.
One hundred years after 146 mostly women and mostly Jewish and Italian garment workers died in the fire, a new generation of Forward journalists knew the anniversary couldn’t pass without a significant contribution on their part.
“I suggested that The Forward create a special section in print and on-line as part of the anniversary commemoration,” said Lillian Swanson, managing editor of the Forward’s weekly English-language edition. “I asked the editor if I could take on this assignment, to direct the coverage, because I felt a strong connection to the Jewish and Italian immigrants who were the victims of the fire.”
Added Swanson: “They were very young and full of hope and the expectation that America would offer them a better life. Instead, they went to work one day and faced an awful choice, to jump out a window or be consumed by flames. Either way, 146 were put in their graves.”
On Sunday morning, Nov. 6, Swanson will share stories about the fire and the Forward at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative synagogue in Clark. The talk and the light breakfast that will precede it are cosponsored by the temple’s adult education committee and men’s club.
“I first learned of the Triangle factory fire from The Forward’s coverage of the annual ceremony commemorating the event,” she told NJ Jewish News, in answer to e-mailed questions. “Every year as part of our labor coverage, we sent a reporter and photographer to capture the speeches and the scene outside the building.”
Last year, Swanson assigned a story about Ruth Sergel, the founder of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, who since 2004 directs a project in which volunteers use chalk to inscribe the victims’ names on the pavements in front of the buildings where they lived.
That story led to the discovery of never-before-published accounts in the Forward archives. “I knew that the archives would yield a rich treasure of information, and I was eager to see what was there,” said Swanson, who has worked for The Forward since 2008.
In her talk at the synagogue, she will share some of those unpublished stories. She also plans to bring people up to date, she said, on what has transpired since the fire’s March 25 centennial commemoration this year.
Among those developments is a project to mark and clean up the graves of victims, and the use of banners commemorating the tragedy as part of demonstrations planned by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.