Art/Memory/Place: The Triangle Fire Through the Lens of Judaic Studies. Part 1: Taking the Class and Co-curating the Exhibition

May 11, 2011
by Ilana Weltman

Tombstone. Inscribed: “Tillie Kupferschmidt Died Mar. 25, 1911 Age 17 Years / Beloved Sister Perished in the Triangle Fire—1911.” Mt. Richmond Cemetery of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, Staten Island. Photograph by and courtesy of Ilana Weltman

Scrolling through the NYU website in September 2010, I came across a unique course outlining the opportunity for graduate students to co-curate an exhibition on the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. I was beside myself; I knew I had to take this class. After hours of dealing with registration hurdles I finally got in. Luckily, someone who had signed up never attended, so that person was dropped and I was added! I wish I knew who it was, boy would I thank them. The class was comprised of Public History and Museum Studies graduate students. As the anomaly Education & Jewish Studies and Hebrew & Judaic Studies graduate student, I was a bit intimidated by the first class. Professors Lucy Oakley and Marci Reaven divided the class into four parts, one to organize each section of the exhibition. I was surprised and pleased when they placed me in my number one choice: the already filled 1909–1920 section. This was the time period in which my knowledge of Jewish history could best be utilized. My group met periodically in the graduate study rooms of Bobst library, which must be reserved well in advance—good luck finding an available the day of! Tension was definitely in the air during group meetings. Everyone had their own vision. I wanted to emphasize the backgrounds of the Jewish shirtwaist workers: many had been active in the Jewish socialist labor movement (the Bund) in Eastern Europe and brought their political activism to the U.S. Also, many Jewish women garment workers were the first in their families to arrive in the U.S.; their seamstress skills were marketable here. They became breadwinners and sent their earnings back to their families in Europe, to help them pay for ship passage to America. Further down the road my group became more relaxed and began working as a team. Once we began laying out our plans in the gallery, the curatorial process became a reality. One of the most memorable field trips we took as a class was to the ninth and tenth floors of the Brown building, which were then in use for bio-engineering labs. Biology professor Michael Purugganan, who served as our guide, told us that NYU scientists are happy to be conducting lifesaving research in a place that was once filled with such tragedy. Some of the students, including myself, looked out the window from the tenth floor. For many of us, this was the first time we understood just how far the victims had jumped to their deaths and that we truly grieved for the people we were working so hard to commemorate.

Aside from class trips, I embarked on a little excursion of my own. Since I moved to New York only recently, going to Staten Island for the first time was quite an adventure. My aim was to take photographs of the tombstones of Triangle fire victims at the Hebrew Free Burial Association in Mt. Richmond Cemetery. While I love photography, I am not exactly a professional. If I could not produce pictures worthy of exhibition, then another trip would have to be made. Also, I was borrowing a classmate’s expensive camera; I was worried the camera would go overboard on that nauseating ferry. After successfully locating the South Ferry, I took it across New York Harbor. On the way, I asked a ferry employee whether the route I had mapped out on my scrap paper was acceptable. He said it wasn’t. Apparently, the Staten Island subway doesn’t stop anywhere near the cemetery. Great. I took the subway to the farthest point and looked for a cab. I learned fairly quickly that cabs do not exist in Staten Island. OK, time for the bus. The gas station attendants had no idea where the cemetery was, nor did the customers at the gas station pump. So I waited for Bus choice #1. NO. Waited for Bus choice # 2. OK, now we are getting somewhere. At the cemetery office, an attendant showed me on a map where the Triangle victims were buried. She did not mention that the rows are not exactly parallel. After searching aimlessly for fifteen minutes, I headed back toward the office and asked if she could walk me to the plot, and she reluctantly came out to help me. I was alone in the cemetery. The tombstones were disheartening; many of the Triangle victims were buried so very young. I took lots of pictures, but I had to hurry at this point; I was late for the Hebrew school class I teach. I called the director and told her I would be late. Late soon became very late; I had to take the bus, subway, and ferry, then subway all the way to the school. Oy! I walked in an hour and a half late; let’s just say that the school director wasn’t so pleased with me. While the whole trip had felt somewhat disastrous at the time, in the end it was all worth it. The photograph of the tombstone of Tillie Kupferschmidt, a girl who perished at age 17, is currently on view in in our exhibition.

During the curatorial process, I learned that not everything you envision in the exhibit will necessarily make it in. For example, I had wanted the Bintel brief letter (a Dear Abby for the Yiddish Forward newspaper) from a brother of a Triangle victim, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. I discovered that I was very emotionally invested in my work on the exhibition. After spending hours and hours at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on Sixteenth Street, I became quite attached to the newspaper I had found. Published two days after the fire, on March 27, 2011, it included portraits of Triangle victims and photographs of their grieving families. Professor Oakley said that she thought the resolution wasn’t good enough for display in the gallery. No paper copies of this issue survive, and the microfiche resolution wouldn’t cut it. I felt quite upset, because I had worked so hard, and I believed that it was very important to depict the reaction of the Jewish community. Fortunately, after obtaining a somewhat better scan and some additional nudging, I was able to convince Professor Oakley that the quality was not that much worse than other newspapers included in the exhibition, and that the Forward’s importance merited its inclusion. It made it in! (to be continued)

–Written by Ilana Weltman, co-curator of Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and M.A. Candidate in Education & Jewish Studies and Hebrew & Judaic Studies, NYU

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