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‘I cry for the girls, for my father and myself’ — Isidore Abramowitz and the legend of the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy

Why am I telling this story? Friends gently ask if I really want to do this. My frail 90-year-old brother fears for “our father’s good name.” His experience in the fire has been partially documented, and suspicion already cast and mercifully forgotten. Why revive it now? The obvious answer is that I have a few fragments to add to the story, and the tragedy that was the Triangle fire demands to be known and remembered in as much detail as we can bring to it. We owe it to the girls and to the 17 men who perished with them.

Even as I inch into print, I know there’s deeper stuff at work. This story and a few earlier fragments of childhood memories are all I have left of my father. I am certain that the fire was a central moment in his life. How could it not have been? Thinking about him and the fire has both enabled and forced me to try to understand the mystery of this man’s life; it’s been a way, however neurotically and unsuccessfully, to have my father back.

It’s a rainy Brooklyn morning in mid-March 1947. I am not yet seven. My 16-year-old brother is walking me to school, which he has never done before. He knows, but I do not, that our father has just died.

If we spoke at all, even at the classroom hand-off, I have forgotten it. I remember the expanding circles in the puddles as we crossed the street. We must have arrived on the late side since it took a minute or two to find a hook for my raincoat and a place for my boots in the walk-in sliding-door closet at the back of the classroom. The tangle of damp jackets offered momentary refuge. I remember glare and noise and strangeness and being alone as I joined the class. That’s all I will remember from that day and many days beyond it: no funeral, no weeping mother, no visitors at home, no words or hugs of consolation, no acknowledgement of loss and emptiness, no one saying, “This is very sad, but we will take care of you.”

“You remember when you saw Daddy in the hospital?” says my mother. “Now he’s in Florida to get better.”

Yes, I do remember seeing him in the hospital, but barely.

I stand in the middle of a large, bright, white room. That’s as far as I can go. Someone points me to look at a doorway across the room. He’s propped on one arm, waves with the other. His face is thin and stubbly. He smiles. Then we are on the street, and someone points to a window way above us.

“Wave. That’s Daddy.”

All I see is somebody’s upper body and a moving arm. I wave.

Martin Abramowitz in the arms of his father Isidore.

Father and Son: Martin Abramowitz in the arms of his father Isidore. Courtesy of Martin Abramowitz

Some time in my young adulthood (in the early 1960s), my mother mentioned that my father had been working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911 (he was 18 at the time) and had been lucky enough to be out of the building on a delivery when the fire broke.

This nugget of family history surfaced in the middle of a general conversation about our family’s identification with the labor movement. I was at that time a dues-paying and on-strike member of District Council 37 of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, on strike against New York City’s Department of Welfare. My father was what my mother called a “charter” member of the ILGWU (“He knew David Dubinsky”). My mother, who sewed store labels on men’s ties, had paid her dues to the other main union in the garment industry, “the Amalgamated.”

I felt proud that my father had been an “extra” in this historically significant terrible drama. I might have wondered then whether he had carried any “survivor guilt.” I remember thinking that my very existence and those of my children and all who will come after them to the end of time were a direct result of the fact that he was “not there.” I often think of that.

What I didn’t think about until I was well into my sixties, long after my mother had passed, was that she had done it again: she had told me “another story” about my father. To protect me, she had told me that my father had not died; to protect him, she had made him a delivery boy nowhere near the fire.

But in 2003, I learned that at the time of the fire, he was there, inside the factory. Browsing in a bookstore, among the new titles, I spotted David Von Drehle’s “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” I had read Leon Stein’s book in my early twenties and had searched for a mention of my father, only to be disappointed to find none. Now, looking at the cover of Von Drehle’s book, I wondered whether I wanted to go through that search again. Nevertheless, I checked the index and there he was: Abramowitz, Isidore, Pages 118-119. I decided to buy the book, if only to confirm the family story and document my father’s incredible luck at being out of the building. I didn’t wait to bring it home to find out.

On my feet, at the “New Titles” table, I read that Isidore Abramowitz was not a delivery boy, but an eighth-floor cutter who was in the building when the fire started. The fire, I read, had started in a bucket of trimmings closest to his workstation; he was the first to notice it, and tried to put it out before fleeing — and surviving. Here is Von Drehle:

Abramowitz was taking his coat and hat from a nearby peg when he noticed the fire in his scrap bin. Perhaps the cutter had been sneaking a smoke…. or maybe it was another cutter — they were a close-knit group and liked to stand around talking together. Or maybe it was a cutter’s assistant. At any rate, the fire marshal would later conclude that someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into Abramowitz’s scrap bin before it was completely extinguished.

I try to remember what I felt as I read and re-read, still on my feet, in that bookstore. The best I can recall is a mix of shock, anguish, excitement, and, I admit it now, some strange gladness that at least now I knew something more about my father. I even felt a perverse pride that he had made a difference, if in this terrible way, and would be remembered. I would have a story to tell.

Soon after reading Von Drehle, I started researching the census and the trial. Van Drehle’s account was based on the previously long-lost transcript of the trial, so the transcript (now online at Cornell’s Kheel Center) was my next stop. Would it tell me anything about this Abramowitz that would help me know if this cutter was my father? Would it tell me how old he was or where he was born?

My computer was down, so I used my cell phone to go online. I can’t remember where I sat — some place public, where other people texted and e-mailed. The pages came into view. As I started scrolling, I felt as if my father were alive and we were texting.

Monday afternoon, December 11, 1911. Ten pages of testimony, give-and-take; 76 questions to him, mostly to establish how the work-floor was laid out, who was where, where the fire broke out, and who did what. This Isidore made a point of being deferential, particularly when questioned by the judge: a lot of yes and no questions; the answer was always, “Yes sir,” “No sir.” Many more “sirs” than the six witnesses who had testified before him that day.

Isidore Abramowitz and his intended.

Circa 1920’s: Isidore Abramowitz and his intended. Courtesy of Martin Abramowitz

Several of those earlier witnesses had testified in Yiddish, and the English-speaking witness who took the stand just before Isidore had to be urged to speak loudly enough so the jury could hear him. Isidore testified in English and, apparently, in a voice that carried.

At one point the judge asked, “As soon as you saw the fire, what did you do?”

The transcript reads: “No answer.”

I see him breaking down at this point, though not crying. My heart breaks for him. Impossible to know whether he actually broke down, but it’s at least suggestive that the judge does not pursue the question. Rather, the prosecutor picks up the questioning, asks a few less potentially loaded questions, then circles back with a rephrase: “What was the first thing you did when you saw the fire?”

“I spilled a pail of water on it.”

This story was so at variance with my mother’s version. In the days, weeks, months to come, I struggled to process it. Was there any way my mother might have been telling the truth on this one? Could there have been another Isidore Abramowitz working at the Triangle while my father was making deliveries? No way to know; the payroll records were destroyed in the fire.

So maybe there was another Isidore Abramowitz, a cutter. Cutters were the elite workers in the garment industry. But how likely was it that my father would have reached that position at age 18?

As I write this, I have just unrolled, not for the first time, a wide and barely readable copy of a page of the US Census of 1910, the year before the fire. 160 Orchard Street. There he is, 17-year-old Israel Abramowitz (over the years, he was Israel, Isidore, Izzy; my mother called him Irving). Born in Romania. Arrived in the US at age nine. He lived with his mother, grandmother, younger brother David, and two slightly older girl boarders, Tillie Koffler and Beckie Weiss. Occupation: “cutter at shirtwaist company.”

One more piece of evidence: my brother, still worried about our father’s good name, tells me, “Daddy was there. He told me, when I was a teenager, that he saw the fire break out and left the building.”

My father was a cutter and he was in the building at the time of the fire, and an Isidore Abramowitz testified to his centrality to what happened as the workday ended. Still, how crazy is it to think what the destroyed payroll records couldn’t prove — that maybe there was another Isidore Abramowitz? Would press reports of his testimony reveal more? Did that Isidore Abramowitz limp to the stand with a club foot, as my father did? Was he beyond his teen years, as my father was not? Was his voice heavily accented? Was he bearded? Wearing a skullcap? Then it would not have been him.

I went online again. Nothing in The New York Times or the index of The Forward. But there were other New York dailies, other Yiddish papers. This would take scholarship and deep diving. I decided to let it go and try to examine my motives. I thought about possible outcomes. Finding nothing would prove nothing. Finding him as an 18-year-old living on Orchard Street or walking with a limp would remove all doubt. So would learning that Isidore was an older man — not my father.

I realized that I’d rather not know, and that I was afraid of the possibility that it was not him, that this story I have been carrying and telling for years has been a myth — like the myth of his not dying, and that I know even less about him than I thought. I need this story.

And there is still a question about my mother’s version of the story. It’s possible that she was telling it as she herself heard it from my father when they “courted” almost 20 years later. But I’m hoping and am inclined to believe that he shared with his life partner the truth as he understood it — and as he carried it all those years.

The question about what and how he told my mother is huge and leads me to wonder about my father’s inner life. Did he carry this terrible memory alone or did he find solace in sharing? Important as that question is for me, though, for almost 20 years, it feels as if there has hardly been a day when I have not been asking myself other questions, all of them without answer, all of them attempts to get closer to this man I barely remember.

What did he think or know about what happened? Could he know whether it was his ash or match that caused the fire? How guilty did he feel in his heart? Did he stay on the street as the factory burned and the girls leaped to their deaths? What did he say at home? What was he feeling during the tremendous public outpouring of mourning? How much private comfort could he take in the fact that public outrage was directed not at whoever’s match or ash it was, but at the fact that the doors had been locked and the workers trapped inside? What did he feel when he testified at the trial of Blanck and Harris? Was he dreading being identified as the direct cause of the fire? And later, did he realize that the fire led to improvements in the working lives of millions of people? Most of all: how did he live for 36 years with the memory of 146 deaths? How much forgetting was he able to do to keep going?

All I know is that he did keep going.

My brother tells me that, in 1920, Isidore was arrested by the fledgling FBI in a round-up of suspected anarchists that came to be known as the Palmer Raids. I’ve made two Freedom of Information requests of the FBI and the National Archives. The files, if they exist, are beyond my reach. Had he been radicalized by the Triangle experience? Or was he simply in the wrong place (like a union hall) at the wrong time? Could he have made that story up?

A few photos from the late 1920s show him as an American immigrant success story, in suit and fashionably broad necktie, cigar in hand, looking pleased with himself and his intended (my mother), at a time when he was presiding over his own men’s clothing manufacturing company. The company and his investments disappeared with the Depression. My mother told me that she had been worried about the impact of my father’s losses on his emotional stability. He had told her: “I’m not going to jump off a building.”

Did he flashback to memories of the Triangle girls leaping to their deaths? He, my mother, and my brother doubled up in an apartment with my mother’s sister and her family until things improved. In 1940, when I was born, he was working steadily as a cutter, and the family was in its own one-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

There is one photo of him, probably from the late 1930s, taken from across a garment factory worktable. At the center of the picture, a man stands proud and erect behind the table. He is tall, broad-shouldered, well-suited, discreetly neck-tied and smiles. His left hand rests lightly on the table; his right holds something perhaps a tool. The photo is about this man. My father, a head shorter, stands to the man’s right, off at the edge of the frame. His open coat jacket shows a broad tie from an earlier day. He looks into the camera as if he has just wandered into the picture. He is a walk-by in someone else’s story — diminished, a bystander. I ache for him.

Another photo. It’s 1941. Outdoors, against a brick wall, he holds me, a frowning toddler, in his right arm. His huge right hand (a cutter’s hand) secures me at my knees. He is almost completely bald. His suspenders pants ride high against an extended belly. He smiles off center, not at me or the camera. In his late forties, he is an old man. The cracks of time in the photo seem thematically right.

That’s the last photo. Pneumonia in the winter of 1946. Heart disease was the immediate killer in March of 1947. He was not yet 54.

I have long considered the loss of my father when I was seven, and my mother’s attempt to conceal that loss, as the formative experience of my life. Although I too have “kept going” and made my way in the world, I am deeply aware of the ways in which I and the people closest to me have paid a price for my becoming fatherless at seven. Wondering about my father’s life has been a major theme in my life even before I began to put the Triangle fire pieces together.

How did Isidore’s family get from Jasi, Romania, to the port of Le Havre? What was it like for nine-year-old Isidore to be to be fatherless in a strange-tongued metropolis? What did he know about his father? Who were Tillie Koffler and Beckie Weiss, those two apparently unrelated boarders his own age? Could there have been some sexual encounter on Orchard Street? Did my father have any meaningful connection with a woman before he sent some mutual relative as an emissary to his twenty-something future wife, 12 years younger? The story goes that at the time she was washing the floor and suggested he show up in person. In 1947, when he became ill, did he know he was dying and would leave his two sons — one still so young — fatherless, as he had been when his father died?

My Triangle speculations — that is, after all, what they are — have deepened my questioning, and I think, my empathy and pity for this man. Yet, I remain conscious of the fact that what I imagine to have been my father’s guilt, anguish, attempts to forget, pale in significance before the 146 deaths and the ultimate responsibility of Blanck and Harris. At times, I have felt egoistic and disproportionate in my focus on my father, and have even questioned my motives in telling this story. But it’s the story I have been given.

I began telling the story privately to family and friends while conducting the modest research that led me to uncover few but important fragments of the story of my father’s place in the Triangle fire. Now, I tell that story wherever I can, to whomever I can.

I try to use it to help commemorate those who died. As a Board member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, I want to see the names of the workers and their story as part of a memorial at the building that was their death-place. I may not know whether it was my father who caused the fire, or what feelings he carried with him for the rest of his life, but I feel a responsibility to the memory of the workers.

I’m at a window way above the street, on the ninth floor of 23-29 Washington Place, at the Greene Street corner. It’s a late March morning, and the organizers of the annual commemoration ceremony are beginning to set things up. The fire truck is in place but has not yet extended its ladder to the sixth floor, as far as it could uselessly reach in 1911.

The facade of the building is basically still the one the girls saw as they came to work, but they would not recognize the interior space. This is now a university building, with dropped ceilings, so brightly lit that, as I exit the elevator, my eyes feel the glare bouncing off the IKEA-style student workstations. I am here to honor the memory of the Triangle workers. But the room is too different. I am not moved.

The window is in a glass-walled conference room. I force myself to stare down, until I feel them—standing there, fire and smoke behind them, some alone, some holding hands. Are they thinking they just might survive if they jump? Or do they know they are lost?

Those poor girls, those poor girls.

I cry. I cry for them. I cry for my father. And for myself.

This essay has been excerpted from ‘Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,’ edited by Edvige Guinta and Mary Anne Trasciatti, New Village Press.

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