The March of Tears

By Morris Rosenfeld

Published March 15, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Originally published in the Forverts, April 6, 1911

A black parade, a black day, a black sky and a black earth. Black rows of mourners walked through rain-soaked streets as black threatening clouds dragged through the air; it was as if the day had been custom-ordered for this singular soundless, deeply mournful funeral march.

Never have I seen such dreadful gloom, such sorrow, in New York. I’ve never seen such lamentation. Not even at the historical mourners march that extended out in protest to counter the pogroms against Jews during Russia’s savage empire.

What Russia’s awful triumvirate, Nicholas II, Krushevan and Stolypin never achieved, New York’s dreadful triumvirate, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, did achieve. They reduced living beings to ashes and as a result we’ve had the largest mourner’s march in history.

America’s metropolis, this horrific funeral town, criminalized, its work going to unskilled laborers, its trembling hands on its head, its ranks, haggard and weeping, dragged themselves along in grievous rows.

In spring, when the plow should be tearing the awakened earth open for the planting of new seeds, the spade sweats at its work, digging hundreds of graves for its charred young sons and daughters.

The fledgling spring rain falls on the fresh graves, but it won’t bring the murdered beings back to life. No! Rain water will not occasion sprouting on these untimely graves in work’s vast cemetery. No! It will be the tears of the millions of sufferers that will wake the dead to life, to eternal life, in our hearts, and in the hearts of future generations.

Under the weeping sky the mass of 100,000 heads grew as waves of people spilled into the streets from all the buildings and with bowed heads aligned themselves in the funeral rows of mourning marchers.

Most haunting were the black flags and thousands of open black umbrellas that filled the space like black wedding canopies.

The ghastly march snaked past the dancehalls in silent gloom. And when it passed the wedding halls of the Jewish quarter on the East Side the horror doubled.

The immolated girls used to dance in these halls in their free time. And it was in these wedding halls that they hoped to drink from the wedding goblets. It was here where they were expecting to wear their white wedding veils. And now, unfurled beside those doors—death-flags wrapped in black cloth, black ribbons and black bands, radiated horror on the whole of humanity, on the entire sinful establishment. Carriages loaded with flowers were not there to grace bride and groom but fresh graves where burned bones lay.

Indescribable and moving was the moment when the survivors of the Triangle Fire, those astonishingly rescued at that devilish altar, appeared at the march. A silent shiver ran through everyone’s heart, the onlookers’ eyes lit up with frightened awe and incomprehensible feelings—agonizing elation and sympathetic excitement evoked burning tears.

Making a powerful impression were the American flags woven through with black cloth. They intermingled with hundreds of union flags and condolence and protest placards.

Looking at the much sung about American flag, Old Glory, The Red White and Blue, I saw it in its true colors for the first time — the thing that had been missing was that dreadful color, black, the color of poverty, death and isolation of the working masses over which it fluttered with an exaggerated conceit. At this mourners’ march, in memory of the fire-departed, I saw America’s flag not like it waves above New York’s City Hall.

In the large open space of Rutger’s Square, where the streets of the East Side flow together, where the Jewish gloom of the tenements expresses itself in bold strokes — yes on that square, I looked down from a window at the gathering, the walking-dead groaners of the sweatshops. This was the poor man’s day of grief, moving him alone. A rag-doll would not have brought a smile to the lips of any of those gathered. A fortune would not have brought joy to anyone’s countenance. Here the embodied lament, the despair, the tragedy alone marched in the hundreds of thousands of assorted visages of poor men and women.

Grievous was the picture of mothers and children looking out of tenement windows, pointing to their loved ones who were marching in that immense memorial.

What horrific thoughts must have come to the fore in a haggard, tenement mother’s mind as she pointed out to her little girl or boy the mourners of the immolated workers!

I shudder when I think of it. I grow faint when I imagine what such a mother might have thought. What is woven through her mothers’ broken heart? What transpires in her distraught mind — young children burned in a factory! Vey, what poor family doesn’t send its children to factories?

The train of lament snaked through the Jewish streets. Most of the mourners were Jewish but among the Jewish ranks were also Italian Christians, lamenting over the same devastation along with their poor Jewish neighbors.

The catastrophe of Washington Place, the locked hellish door to that firetrap that ate up young lives, that lacerated the hearts of Jews and Christians alike and gave them a joint grave of the unidentified fire victims at the city’s Evergreen Cemetery. Jews and Christians now have a common workers’ grave on which compassion lays a communal tombstone bedecked with an everlasting green laurel wreath.

This was the most forceful impression, the most unforgettable parade of tears that has yet been recorded in the annals of labor history. This was a silent protest against the modern slave industry, a silent rage that will never disappear.

A quiet march, with no music, no speakers. It was not necessary.

What significance could a mourners’ march have had on these streets, devoted to earthly instruments?

What experience would the sound of mortal lips have conveyed? What would the best speaker have told us?

Thousands of wounded souls thundered in a silent chorus.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.