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Injured at Work

Injured Workers' Alliance has dedicated this page to a patriot for worker safety
Rose Freedman
Rose Freedman

The last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in which 146 of her co-workers perished in 1911, died on Thursday, February 22, 2001 in her apartment in Beverly Hills, Calif., her daughter said. She was 107. Mrs. Freedman, who at the time of the Manhattan fire was two days shy of 18, escaped death in 1911 by following company executives to the roof to be rescued. She became a lifelong crusader for worker safety telling and retelling the story that the Triangle workers died because the owners were not concerned with their welfare.

The disastrous factory fire, in which girls and young women leapt from eighth- and ninth-story windows, their flaming skirts billowing in the wind, horrified the nation and led to some of the first city, state and federal laws dealing with workers' safety. It gave a powerful impetus to the fledgling labor movement, greatly strengthening the building of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which two years before the fire had led a three-month strike to focus attention on conditions in workplaces like the Triangle factory.

The union's successor, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, confirmed that Mrs. Freedman who was Rose Rosenfeld at the time of the fire, was the last survivor to die. The next-to-last, Bessie Cohen, died two years ago. Mrs. Freedman's life after the fire was colorful and courageous. In World War I, she saved the life of a spy in Austria. After her husband's death, in 1959, she went back to work to support her three children, two of whom had polio. Lying about her age, she worked at a Manhattan insurance company until she was 79. Mrs. Freedman, who always wore high heels, celebrated her centennial by attending Spanish classes in a Mexican town with cobblestone streets, but refused to abandon her heels for more sensible shoes. "I'd look matronly," she said. Her involvement in the fire never left her consciousness, and she appeared at labor rallies for the rest of her life. She always expressed rage that the factory doors had been locked, either to keep workers at their machines or to prevent them from stealing scraps of cloth. She always told of how one of the owners tried to bribe her to say the doors were not locked. She refused. The owners were eventually acquitted of manslaughter charges when the jury could not establish whether they had ordered the doors locked or had even known they were. But in 1914, civil suits brought by relatives of 23 victims ended with payments of $75 to each of the families.

On the day of the fire, Mrs. Freedman escaped the inferno by stopping to consider what the executives were doing. She somehow thought they would be safer, and went up to the 10th floor, where their offices were, to find out. They were taking the freight elevator to the roof, where firefighters pulled them to the roof of an adjacent building. She did the same. The alternative was jumping. "Girls in shirtwaists, which were aflame, went flying out of the building so that you saw these young women literally ablaze flying out of the windows," she said in a Public Broadcasting System documentary, "The Living Century," shown in December and January. As she was taken down the steps of the adjacent building, she stopped on each stoop to sit down and cry. "When I came in the street here comes my father," she recalled. "He collapsed. He fainted. And I didn't go back to work anymore. I went to college." The anger about what she saw as the owners' greed persisted. In the documentary, she said: "That's the whole trouble of this fire. Nobody cares. Nobody. Hundred forty-six people in a half an hour. I have always tears in my eyes when I think. It should never have happened. The executives with a couple of steps could have opened the door. But they thought they were better than the working people. It's not fair because material, money is more important here than everything. "That's the biggest mistake that a person doesn't count much when he hasn't got money. What good is a rich man and he hasn't got a heart? I don't pretend. I feel it. Still."

Rose Rosenfeld was born on March 27, 1893, in a small town north of Vienna. Her family ran a profitable business importing and exporting dried foods. After her father visited New York and fell in love with it, the family began spending more and more time in the United States, finally emigrating in 1909. They sailed on the Mauretania. With Mrs. Freedman's father devoting most of his time to Jewish studies, the business was run by her mother. An aunt who lived with the family once sharply criticized the young woman's housecleaning abilities. "You call this work?" she demanded. Mrs. Freedman's response was to go out the next day and take a job at the Triangle factory. Since her language skills were good she eventually spoke seven languages she was given the prestigious job of operating a large machine to attach buttons to the blouses. Her only close friend at the factory a forewoman, died in the fire. She attended college in New York, although family members are not sure where.

When she and her mother took a trip to their Austrian hometown to show Mrs. Freedman's grandparents that she was really alive, World War I had broken out, and the Russians had invaded Austria. Her grandfather had befriended a man who turned out to be a Russian spying against his own country for Austria. She told of hiding him by burying him in coal in the basement, then talking the pursuing Cossacks into leaving without a search. After returning to New York, she got a job with Cunard, the steamship line. In 1927, she married Harry Freedman an American she had first met at the American Club in Vienna. He owned a typewriter store in New York. They had three children. When the two youngest were stricken with polio, Mrs. Freedman asked when they would be able to walk. The doctor said, "Five years." She replied, "I have time." Mr. Freedman died at 59 leaving Mrs. Freedman no money or source of income. She got an accounting job at the Manhattan Life Insurance Company. Her youthful appearance enabled her to say she was 50, when she was actually 64 "Of course it was a lie, but they didn't know it was a lie," she said. She worked until she was 79.

In 1995, she moved to Los Angeles, where her son Robert and her daughter, Arlene March, live. There, she became such an avid fan of the Lakers that she became livid if someone phoned while a game was being shown on television. On her 100th birthday she was presented with a team jersey bearing the number 100. She exhibited paintings at the Beverly Hills Art Fair, and continued to paint almost until her death. She had her hair and nails done weekly, and shopped and cooked for herself. Mrs. Freedman was still attending Spanish language classes at 107. "To me, 106 is a number," she said in the documentary. "I lived that long, not only on account of my genes, but on account of my attitude. You've got to stand up for yourself. Am I right?" Other survivors are another son, Herbert, of Rye Brook, N.Y., eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. She was overjoyed at the great-granddaughter's birth, and always advised the child's mother, her granddaughter.

Dana Walden, who is president of 20th Century Fox Television, not to get caught in grief when loved ones died. "Sadness takes years from you," she said. Her own passing ends a chapter of history. Steven Latham, director of the documentary, suggested it was something like the last Holocaust survivor dying. "This is the last voice of an event," he said. "This woman actually smelled the smoke."

Rose Freedman Assemblyman Wally Knox
Rose Freedman receiving award from CA Assemblyman Wally Knox


Triangle Shirtwaist fire
Read about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire here and women who made history here.


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