What is about this fire that draws us so intensely? Why has this one event become such a touchstone for political, artistic, and cultural work?  How do we explain the nearly one hundred years of memorialization, activism, and creativity inspired by the events which transpired on March 25, 1911 at 29 Washington Place, just east of New York’s stately Washington Square?

Perhaps the idea that the fire, which still holds the dubious distinction of being the worst industrial accident in American history, consumed the lives of 146 mostly young, single women, who stood on the brink of their adulthoods, helps explain part of the power of its imagery in stimulating novels, plays, movies, works of art, and television dramas.

The fact that these young women not only were just starting out, but that they were the daughters of immigrants –and young immigrants themselves—who had come to America primarily from southern Italy and eastern Europe has heightened its power.

Here we have a living theater, played out on the streets of industrial New York. Over one hundred young women, Jewish and Italian in the main, had alone or with their families opted for migration as the best way to secure a better life. Yet the fire which ripped through the factory gave lie to their dreams, shattering them just as the gruesome jumps of the girls to their deaths, shattered their bones.  

Read the rest of this post by acclaimed author Hasia Diner on Jewesses with Attitude, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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