A Closet with Wedding Clothes Is All That Is Left of Yetta Goldstein
Originally published in the Forverts, March 28, 1911
A closet full of wedding clothes. Standing by the closet, as if beside a holy Torah ark, are Yetta Goldstein’s two brothers, choking on their tears. They hug each other. One of them yells out: “If there was even one little bone left for us to identify her!”
The room deafens with keening.
All the other floors in the tenement building send up a heartbreaking cry in response.
A young man runs into the house wringing his hands. The two brothers gather him in and the three of them start wailing: “Yetta! Yetta!”
Yetta Goldstein was 20 years old. This week she was to marry a certain Mr. Cohen. At 6:30 pm on Saturday, he ran up to the fifth-floor tenement house at 282 Madison Street with a wild, confused look in his eyes, asking if Yetta had returned home.
“No” they answered him, and the young man ran off to the morgue. A telegram to Patterson brought Yetta’s two brothers — Sam and Jake Goldstein — Sunday morning, and for the entire day the two brothers, along with their sister’s beloved, spent time among the 145 burned corpses in case they might identify their sister.
Each shard of bone lying on the floor, each shoe wrapped on a burned foot, was examined by the brothers. But they found nothing of Yetta. Thirty extremely burned bodies lay there, 30 human cinders resembling each other. They were all unidentifiable. Yetta’s beloved left and ran through the streets hysterically. Her two brothers led friends to Yetta’s Lodgings at 282 Madison Street.
Sam, her elder brother, entered the house, went to Yetta’s room and, upon seeing her wedding clothes — grabbed a knife.
Several neighbors held him back and wrestled the knife out of his hands.
Helpless, the young man fell across her bed, sobbing: “A sliver of bone, a mere fragment of bone would suffice for us to identify her!”
When a Forverts reporter visited the two brothers in Yetta Goldstein’s room, the two began crying, entreating: “The Forverts should put up a monument for her, a gravestone! There’s not even one piece of bone left of our sister. The Forverts must write about her. That will be her monument. We’ll frame that bit of paper as a memorial, and send it home to our sick, elderly parents!”
Yetta Goldstein comes from Bialystok; her father is Chaim Moyshe the weaver; her two brothers of Patterson, N.J., are also weavers and earn a paltry living.
“We begged her to stay in Patterson and work there,” her elder brother Sam told the Forverts. “She had so many admirers; she was so pretty.”
“But she kept saying she’d only marry someone worthy of her love. Meanwhile, she’d work and wait until the right person came along.
“In New York, she went to work for the Triangle shop because she heard one could earn one dollar more in the city. Several times she’d told us and friends of hers that she was terrified of that shop and used to call it ‘the trap.’ And when I told her she shouldn’t work there any longer, she reminded me that our sick mother was bedridden now in Warsaw, and one dollar more per week was two more rubles in Warsaw. Two rubles for medicine — that would be a great help for our mother.”
Only last week, Yetta Goldstein sent five dollars home to her parents in Bialystok for Passover.
Yetta’s landlady, Mrs. Abram Levine, spoke about the joy Yetta had in sending her parents the money.
“She was as happy as a child,” Mrs. Levine said. “She saved that money by denying her own needs. But she was extremely capable, and the cheaper she lived, the better her outward appearance.”
“She had a premonition that an accident would happen to her this week,” Mrs. Levine further explained. “She had bought material for a vest for Passover. She showed me the material and we talked about what type of trimming would be better for this material. I suggested black and Yetta wouldn’t hear of using black.
“Oy,” she said, “I’m frightened by anything black. It’s such a sad color, it really makes my heart tremble.”
Many of the neighbors in the same tenement house recall Yetta discussing the Triangle shop, saying that if a fire broke out there, the workers would be lost.
“’Death,’” one woman said, “simply didn’t emerge from Yetta’s mouth these last weeks. She just talked about the shop and what a dangerous place it is.”
A friend who ran over Saturday night to find out whether Yetta had survived discussed details of Yetta’s death.
The friend explained how she and Yetta were seated next to each other when the fire broke out and led everyone to the elevator. But the elevator didn’t come fast enough. Yetta then told her friend she was going to try to run over to the dressing room to grab her things. A few seconds after Yetta disappeared, the elevator arrived. Her friend began calling: “Yetta! Yetta!” But the stream of people coming toward the elevator didn’t let her wait any longer. Outside on the street, she waited, hoping Yetta had managed to get down. But she didn’t see Yetta again.
The friend who told this to Yetta’s landlady was also dazed, and didn’t leave her name or address with Mrs. Levine. Yetta’s brothers are seeking her out desperately, in order to find out how she and their Yetta spent those last moments.
“Tell her, via the newspaper,” wailed one of Yetta’s brothers, “that she should come here to us and describe how Yetta spent the last day of her life in the shop. She should tell what she said in her last hour, whose names she recalled on that last day. Ask her, through your newspaper, to come to us.”