October 16, 2018

A Survivor’s Tale

Rose Freedman is 104 and, by any account, a remarkable woman.

She speaks German, Polish, Ukrainian, French, English and Spanish.In her 90s, she earned straight A’s while studying various languagesat New York University. She kept an apartment in New York and one inBeverly Hills and lived bicoastally until the age of 97. Today, shestill walks or takes the bus to lunch or to her weekly Spanish andpainting classes.

But what makes the centenarian most remarkable is an old memory,one that is as vivid as yesterday. On March 25, 1911, Rose, then 18,was a seamstress at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which stood atthe edge of Washington Square in New York. When the infamous firebroke out, she dashed through the flames as her co-workers burned orleaped to their deaths from the factory windows.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which galvanized the Jewish labormovement, placed Freedman squarely in the annals of history. On manyan occasion during her long life, she has been called upon to recounther harrowing experience — most recently at a “Dignity Seder” forJewish activists and modern-day garment workers.

Freedman also spoke of the fire to a visitor who arrived to hertidy Beverly Hills single apartment. The émigré wassurrounded by her oil paintings and photographs of herself posingwith members of her beloved Los Angeles Lakers. Her gray hair wasimmaculately coifed, and she wore an attractive burgundy suit as sherecounted the events of 86 years ago.

She began, in accented English, by explaining that she was hardlythe typical employee at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Her familywas not Eastern European and impoverished, but was Viennese, culturedand middle-class. Rose sailed to America not in steerage but as asecond-class passenger on a tourist ship in 1909.

The Rosenfeld family moved into a comfortable apartment on theEast Side; when Rose’s father had trouble in business, her eldersister, Molly, found a good job at an exporting firm. Rose took careof the flat, but after Molly suggested that keeping house was hardlyworking, Rose set off to find a job of her own.

Not far away, she discovered the Triangle Shirtwaist Company,which had just fired a number of workers suspected ofunion-organizing activities. Rose, then 16, was immediately hired towork a machine that sewed buttons on shirtwaists.

Rose lived bicoastally until the age of 97.

Other survivors have written about the ghastly conditions in thefactory — the long hours, the child labor, the meager pay. Yet Rosesays that she found the job an interesting novelty: It symbolizedthat she was no longer a sheltered Jewish girl, but was a realAmerican, earning real dollars.

One thing bothered Rose about the factory, however: The doors werealways locked shut to keep workers from stealing the merchandise.That would prove fatal to many of her colleagues when fire broke outin the building in the spring of 1911.

“All of us on the ninth floor were engulfed by smoke, and therewas a terrible panic because the doors were locked and there was noway to get out,” she says. “People were running, crying andscreaming, but I just stood still, stupidly. When I saw everyonestampeding toward the fire escape, I knew they didn’t have a prayer.The fire escape was soon overloaded and, before long, it broke.”

As teen-age girls jumped from the windows, Rose ran up an internalstaircase to the 10th floor “to see what the executives were doing.”She discovered that the offices were abandoned and realized that heronly chance was a smoldering staircase leading to the roof.Terrified, she threw her long skirt over her face and ran through theflames, which were singeing her eyelids and eyelashes.

Upon the roof, she discovered firemen, who then hoisted her up toan adjacent building; the shaken, soot-covered girl slowly walked the10 flights down to the street, where she encountered her father. Hetook one look at her, fainted, and was taken away in an ambulance.

Rose, thankfully, did not see the bloody, mangled bodies of herco-workers, because she had emerged on the opposite side of thebuilding. Only at home that evening did she learn that more than 140girls and young women had died.

In the fire’s aftermath, the East Side erupted in hysteria, griefand mass meetings. A Yiddish poem eulogizing the dead covered theentire front page of the Forward. Rose Schneiderman, the diminutivefirebrand of the Women’s Trade Union League, spoke in a fiercewhisper at a memorial gathering.

Rose, who suffered from nightmares, did not immerse herself in theensuing strikes. Yet she did her part to bring the guilty to justice.Triangle officials tried to bribe her to say that she had escapedbecause the factory doors had been unlocked. But the teen-agerresponded with a shake of the head and a terse, “Nothing doing.”

Not surprisingly, Rose never did