The Forverts’s coverage of the fire and public outcry was graced by poet Morris Rosenfeld. In honor of the centenary and Rosenfeld’s writing about it, the Forward Association ran a prize poetry contest for original poems in English and Yiddish.
The winner of the Yiddish section was Alec (“Leyzer”) Burko of New York City. In the English section, judged by Susan Comninos, Dan Friedman, Rodger Kamenetz and Alicia Ostriker, two honorable mentions went to Ben Levin Purkert of New York City and Sandra Gardner of Lake Hill, N.Y. The winner was Zackary Sholem Berger of Baltimore, Md., whose poem appears below.
She was a woman worth a certain amount
to her family: a pension or lump sum.
All I could say was this is human
when I saw her on the street, red
gathered at what must have been her neck. Count
the holes in my body — she faced me: I retched — some
of which I made when jumping. What man
reckons what the living owe the dead?
I didn’t kill you. My every liberal part
aches for the laborer, the immigrant,
the seamstress whose callused finger bled.
I’m killed and rise up daily. My scalded heart
fibrillates, a sack of worker ants.
My words in your mouth are beit-din’s lead.
— ZACKARY SHOLEM BERGER
Poetry Contest Winners