By Marcia Bronstein
My grandmother Rose worked in a sweatshop when she arrived in the U.S. as a 15-year-old. She even had the needle marks on her nails to prove it.
It was there that the sewing machine sewed through her fingers many times. She was appreciative of the work, though, as it was that job that allowed her to stay in America and send money home to her family in Russia.
Rose, then known as Ruchel Rabinowitz, left Minsk with a caravan of others who were walking out of Russia through its frozen heartland, heading to brighter futures. She had a ticket for a crossing to American on the Cunard Line, purchased for her on Jan. 27, 1923, by her sister Anna in Brooklyn, New York.
Rose made it to Riga, Latvia, on March 21, 1923, where $108 awaited her, money that her sister had sent through the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America (HIAS). According to the paperwork in family files, the payment would be made “when the payee presents himself” at the European HIAS office.
On April 12, 1923, Anna mailed a letter from Brooklyn to the American Consul in Riga on my grandmother’s behalf.
Dear Sir: Please read this plea from an anxious young woman and may you be inclined to act favorably in her behalf.
My sister, Ruchel Rabinowitz, whose present address is c/o HIAS Riga, has been waiting over three months away from her home and among strangers, for her visa and passport to the U.S. Soon her stay in Riga will become illegal and she will be penniless because of her forced detention. Doubtless, you are doing all within your power to aid people who are placed in such unfortunate positions, nevertheless, I shall pray every night until this letter reaches your own hands and that you will do something to soften the misery of one sister in Riga and the other here.
The necessary papers for obtaining the visa have been in your office for three months and your favorable action in this case will earn for you the undying gratitude of two sisters.
Please kind sir, help us.
My grandmother did finally arrive at Ellis Island on July 4, 1923, on a ship that had set sail from England. She was reunited with her sister in New York and they both held piecework jobs in a sweatshop, while attending night school, learning English, going to dances with young men and enjoying life in the new world — where they didn’t have to worry about Cossacks, pogroms or being recruited into the Russian Army. Rose sent money to her parents every month and believed in the American dream.
She was like so many of the young women who worked in sweatshops in the U.S. in the early 20th century. In March, the month of the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we think about those who died on March 25, 1911, in the garment factory located in the Asch Building in Washington Square in New York City.
Many of the workers, like my grandmother, had recently arrived from Europe and held piecework jobs in the factory. And they were trapped — they had no opportunity to escape from the flames as the building collapsed. The doors were locked by managers to prevent stealing and people from leaving the building. The single fire escape quickly collapsed from the fire and the firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the eighth, ninth and 10th floors. Many of the young female workers jumped into safety nets but were killed as the nets ripped upon contact.
The fire spread rapidly and, in the end, 146 workers — overwhelmingly young girls — were killed.
This catastrophe touched the entire New York City area and the nation. The grief in immigrant communities soon turned to anger as the causes of the fire were discovered. Abhorrent working conditions were exposed, and the public demand for changes was fervent, as the causes were preventable. Renewed energy was poured into the labor movement to improve women- and immigrant-rights in the workplace.
We remember those who lost their lives and their dreams in the flames. May their memories be for a blessing and may we find the fortitude still today to advocate for laws that protect workers, women and immigrants.
Marcia Bronstein is the regional director of AJC.