A new book examines the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Did a contributor's father start it?

March 25 marks the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers in just 18 minutes.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory firefighters 58 (photo credit: Library of Congress)
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory firefighters 58
(photo credit: Library of Congress)

BOSTON  – Martin Abramowitz sits in Brookline’s Caffe Nero wearing a “Jews in Baseball” hat. It’s a nod to his position as CEO and founder of the nonprofit Jewish Major Leaguers, which produces baseball cards featuring Jewish players.

I ask about his Durham Bulls T-shirt. “It’s a long story,” he answers.

The tale he wants to tell is much more significant and has nothing to do with sports. Rather, it has to do with the worst industrial fire in New York history and one of the most important events in the history of the American labor movement.

March 25 marks the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers, mainly women, in just 18 minutes.

Men pulling racks of clothing on busy sidewalk in Garment District, New York City, 1955 (credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN / AL RAVENNA - WORLD TELEGRAM STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Men pulling racks of clothing on busy sidewalk in Garment District, New York City, 1955 (credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN / AL RAVENNA - WORLD TELEGRAM STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Friday will also see the release of “Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,” edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti. The 19 contributors include writers, artists, activists, scholars and family members of the Triangle workers.

Among the contributors is Abramowitz, 81, who attributes his very existence, as well as those of his children and their descendants, to the fact that his father, a cutter in the doomed factory, escaped the fire. 

And after devoting years of research to the tragedy, he has also come to grips with a painful possibility: that his father accidentally started the fire that, as the book describes it, “pierced the perpetual conscience of citizens everywhere.” 

“I have never been able to conclusively determine that my father caused the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” said Abramowitz. Indeed, neither his father nor any other single figure has been implicated in dropping the burning ash into the scrap bin that may have caused the inferno.

Nonetheless, even the possibility has been a burden.

“Regardless of whether or not it was his ash, I’m haunted by the fact that he must have been haunted for his entire life,” Abramowitz said. “He must have had a sense of, or a question about his own responsibility.” 

Five hundred workers were toiling on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, cutting and stitching the fashionable cotton blouses known as “waists,” when the fire broke out. The owners of the factory had locked many of the stairwell and exit doors in an effort to monitor breaks and maintain order (and also, Abramowitz said, to prevent the “girls” from pilfering materials).

Many workers consequently jumped to their deaths while helpless firefighters and traumatized pedestrians looked on.

There was no doubt that poor safety conditions turned a small fire into a deathtrap. The factory’s Jewish owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were subsequently acquitted in December 1911 of first-and second-degree manslaughter charges, although ultimately found liable for wrongful death in a 1913 civil suit.

Labor unions, galvanized by the tragedy, demanded better working conditions and won recruits, and the city passed reforms to workplace safety that would eventually become federal law.

But how did the fire start? 

According to David Von Drehle’s 2003 book, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” the fire began in a scrap bin belonging to a cloth “cutter” on the eighth floor. The cutter tried to extinguish the flames, and, when he couldn’t, escaped.

Who was that cutter? Von Drehle names him as Isidore Abramowitz, the same name as Martin’s father.

It’s impossible to determine whose ash it was, and Von Drehle acknowledges that “maybe it was another cutter.” But in search of answers, Martin Abamowitz has buried himself in the National Archives, U.S. Census records and family history.

In 1940s working-class Jewish Brooklyn, Abramowitz’s father, Isidore, cut patterns for women’s dresses and belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, Martin’s mother, Rose, sewed labels on men’s ties, and was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America.

But prior to his marriage, Isidore, at the age of 18, had been a cutter at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. 

Martin Abramowitz knew nothing about his family’s connection to the fire while his father, who died in 1947, was still alive. “Sometime in my young adulthood, in the early 1960s, my mother casually mentioned that he had been working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911, and was lucky enough to be out of the building making a delivery when the fire hit,” he recalls in his notes for his contribution to the new book. 

Von Drehle was the first to reveal the fire started in the wastebasket of Isidore Abramowitz, a fact he was able to glean from the testimony in the owners’ trial.

Abramowitz learned that the transcript had been donated to a Manhattan library by the estate of a defense attorney, and was later digitized by the Kheel Center for Labor Studies at Cornell University. He located the testimony online.

Meanwhile, on Ancestry.com, he found 1910 Census records that listed Israel Abramowitz, born in Romania, as a “Cutter at Shirtwaist Factory.” 

“That was important because I had wondered whether it was possible for my father to become a cutter, which was a position of esteem in that field, at the young age of 18,” Abramowitz recalled. 

“The Isidore Abramowitz in the book could have been another person by that name, but in the census, he was listed along with other family members whose names I knew, strongly suggesting that it was indeed my father.”

Isidore, who was also called Israel and even Irving, and his brother, David, did indeed become cutters. They lived on Orchard Street, a short distance from the Ashe Building. By 1910, according to U.S. Census Records, Isidore secured employment.

What is known about Isidore’s time in the factory and on the day of the fire is contained in the trial testimony. In its 10 pages, Isidore Abramowitz answers 76 questions from the judge. 

The answers were summarized by Von Drehle. “Abramowitz was taking his coat and hat from a nearby peg when he noticed the fire in his scrap bin,” he wrote. “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.”

To the judge’s queries about the layout of the work floor, who the nearby workers were and where they were when the fire broke out, Isidore Abramowitz mainly answered “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.” He spoke clearly, and in English.

“What was the first thing you did when you saw the fire?” Abramowitz is asked. He responds, “I spilled a pail of water on it.”

It is impossible to confirm whether the Isidore Abramowitz in the testimony was Martin’s father. “There could have been another Isidore Abramowitz at the Triangle, while my father was making deliveries,” Abramowitz said. “Since the payroll records went up in the blaze, there was no way to know.” But if they were one and the same, the trial testimony was radically different from the version told by Martin’s mother.

Was his mother’s version of the story something he had told her during their courtship nearly 20 years later, or had he revealed all, and either she or they decided to alter the narrative?

“I hope that he did tell her the truth he carried with him, and it was my mother who had changed it,” said Abramowitz. He notes that his mother also hid from him the fact of his father’s death for two years. Martin was only 7 when his father died.

“I also wonder whether my father might simply not have told my mother the truth,” Abramowitz continued to ponder. “Remember, the fire happened 28 years before they were married.”

Martin’s older brother Carl, who is in his early 90s and lives on Long Island, told him recently that their father had in fact told him that he had been at the factory, saw the fire erupt and fled.

Abramowitz’s brother has told him that in 1920, Isidore was arrested by the FBI in a roundup of perceived anarchists in what were later called the Palmer Raids. Did his father become more socially and politically active as a result of the Triangle fire?  

Martin has filed inquiries with the National Archives and the FBI, but he hasn’t yet uncovered any information about his father’s political activity.

When Martin Abramowitz was growing up in the early 1940s, his father was back on his feet working as a cutter, and they had their own one-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Yet in family photos, he appears to be much older than his age. In 1946, pneumonia set in, followed by heart disease.

Abramowitz remembers visiting his father at Kings County Hospital twice, when he was only 6. “I remember seeing him from the nursing station, and one other time, I was told to look up from outside the building, where in a window up above, I could barely see a face waving at me.”

Isidore Abramowitz died of heart failure at Kings County Hospital at the age of 54.

Martin graduated from Brooklyn College in 1961 with a degree in English literature, and went on to earn a master’s degree in literature from NYU in 1962. He served as director of program development at the New York City Department of Welfare and went on to a career in Jewish communal service, retiring in 2006 as vice president for planning at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation. 

(His son Yosef Abramowitz is a former journalist who lives in Israel and heads Energiya Global Capital, an investment firm specializing in solar energy; Yosef’s wife is the rabbi and author Susan Silverman.)

Did his father carry a terrible secret alone, or was he at least able to share it with his wife or anyone else? Abramowitz has himself borne this inner struggle.

“Every day, I ask myself questions that are unknowable,” he said. The absence of information and of his father, he said, had affected his psychological development as a child and, in turn, his family when he was an adult.

“Because no one would answer my questions, I learned not to pay attention to my feelings,” he said.

If his father did feel guilt about his role in an infamous event, Abramowitz also wonders if he took any comfort in the workplace improvements following the tragedy. He cites Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire as a social worker and went on to serve as the U.S. secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945, the first female presidential cabinet member.

“She famously said, ‘The New Deal began on March 25, 1911,'” Abramowitz said.

Martin Abramowitz himself served as a volunteer consultant to the board of the New England Jewish Labor Committee and participated in the RaiseUp Massachusetts Coalition’s successful 2018 “Fight for 15” campaign for a living wage for Massachusetts workers.

He is a board member of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a grassroots activist group that organizes an annual commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the fire. The coalition is planning a March 2023 dedication of a sculptural and educational memorial at the site, now at the Brown Building at 29 Washington Pl., just east of Washington Square. (There is currently a small plaque on the building.)

The group has raised $2 million for the memorial, with $1 million to go. Major support has come from the State of New York following the personal intervention of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and from the labor movement. The coalition is hoping that donors in New York and from Jewish and Italian communities will step up to fill the gap.

Abramowitz is using his experience as a Jewish community professional — and his family story — to support the effort. 

“The reason I’m telling this story about my father now,” he said, “is that I’m hoping it will bring some attention to the plans for the memorial. I owe that to ‘the girls,’ in the name of my father.”