Malcolm and Renee
I went to dinner at Malcolm and Renee's. It was a gathering in celebration of the visit of David Friesen, a great friend and a very well known and brilliant jazz bassist. He's recently had a beautiful journey of discovery to the birthplace of his family in Russia. He had been treated as an honored guest by the city that once made life for Jews impossible and deadly.
It was a visit and journey of revelation for him, culminating in a performance by the young students in the town's public school. Their English class sings their rendition of "Yellow Submarine" to him. What a joyous moment for all.
And as old friends do, we all began to tell stories.
Renee was prompted to tell us an extraordinary story about her own background.
It was March 11, 1911 in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. There is a building on Greene Street. On the eighth, ninth and 10th floors there is a company called the Triangle Shirtwaist company. They manufacture a very commonly used article of clothing for young women, the shirtwaist. It is late in the afternoon. A fire breaks out.
There is an explosive and rapid evolution of flames. Panic erupts. The workers, mostly very young immigrant women, attempt to flee. The elevators are overburdened and shortly thereafter fail. The single fire escape collapses under the weight of so many people attempting to save themselves. There's only one door for exit available and it is quickly overrun. All are quickly being overcome with smoke and flames. There's virtually no escape. The firefighters arrive but the water power only allows water to rise to the sixth floor, well below the fire itself.
Of those who are not directly overcome by flames and smoke, horrible decisions must be made. Some begin to hold hands and jump singly and severally from nine floors above to the pavement below, where instantaneous mortality awaits them.
It is the worst fire disaster in New York City until September 11th, 2001. More than 140 people perish, nearly all young immigrant women.
21-year-old Sarah Brodsky is among those who succumbs to the flames.
As reported in the New York Times on the following day, a Lieutenant Sullivan had identified her remains. He removes a watch and a ring from Sarah's burnt hands. He seeks out and gives them to her fiance, Israel Brarolsky. They were to have been married five weeks from the day of the fire. He collapses in stunned grief.
Wounds heal, even the deepest.
And time passes. And Israel meets Jenny. They fall in love and marry. As part of their betrothal, Jenny had received Sarah's ring. It is a way of having Sarah's life remain a meaningful part of his story. And Jenny is accepting of this. They have a child.
Terribly, as is the case in the early 20th century, life and health remain precarious, even for the very young. Jenny falls ill and succumbs to tuberculosis.
Once again, Israel must heal his wounds. Israel and Jenny have had a son. And life must go on.
Israel is still a handsome young man. Dapper, with a somewhat uncanny resemblance to Fred Astaire. He eventually regains his emotional strength and meets a lovely young woman named Rose.
They bond. They marry and have children. And she is now the next recipient of Sarah Brodsky's ring.
Many many years pass and the ring is passed to Rose's daughter, my friend Renee.
Renee asks us if we would like to see this ring.
She goes to her bedroom, opens her jewelry box, and retrieves this mythical object. She returns to us, and she is now wearing it on her left fourth finger.
It is quite small. The silver is dull gray. It carries a small rough cut yellow diamond. And the moment is overwhelming.
I have seen a very indistinct photo of Sarah Brodsky.
I have seen a photograph of Jenny's gravestone.
I have seen multiple photographs of Israel, Renee's grandfather.
I have seen a photo of Israel and Rose in Central Park, from 1919.
I have held the ring.
Sarah Brodsky's Ring.