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The tragedy was the impetus for workplace safety regulations, says Councillor Pasternak, who spearheaded the motion to remember the victims

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After seventy years, the nine Jews who lost their lives in a tragic factory fire, are now being commemorated by the City of Toronto.

Mayor John Tory and Members of Toronto City Council on June 29 honoured the workers who died in the Phillips Garment Factory fire of 1950. It passed in a motion put forth by Councillor James Pasternak, and seconded by Councillor Joe Cressy.

Toronto Council has approved a $7,500 plaque to be placed at, or near, the location of the fire, to be affixed in early 2021.

In the afternoon of January 20, 1950, a deadly blaze broke out in the basement of the Factory at 447 Richmond Street, killing nine out of the eleven workers inside.

Wilfrid Gutzin, a father of four young boys, perished in the flames, as well as Rosa Annie Kitts, Abraham Weizberg, Priva Naiman and Bluma Eichenbaum. Isadore and Clara Singer, both Holocaust survivors, were also killed in the flames, leaving behind their four-year old daughter Ann, orphaned.

The owner of the factory, Philip Chikofsky was also killed in the fire, and his 18-year-old son Sidney, who had managed to escape through the entry door, returned heroically with a fire extinguisher, only to succumb to the same fate.

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“I was not really aware of this terrible tragedy which befell the Jewish community, and the wider garment industry, and the city of Toronto, until David Gazit, one of the orphans of a male adult lost in the fire, came into my office. All these years later it just seemed like such a senseless loss of life,” noted Pasternak.

“What was missing here was that there was no recognition of the event, or a strong history lesson, of how this could be prevented in the future. Mr. Gazit could not find closure until a dedicated plaque was affixed at the site. I said I would help.”

Pasternak immediately reached out to Heritage Toronto, and without offering too many details of the event, they said they knew all about it. He also elicited the assistance and cooperation of Councillor Cressy, as the location is in his riding.

“He was more than willing to help,” said Pasternak.

Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak-Facebook | Photo: Facebook

Historical records indicate the blaze started as a result of a short-circuit in a cloth-cutting machine; the fire ignited the layers of highly flammable cloth, and adjoining racks of finished suits, dresses, and other merchandise.

The details that emerged following the tragedy were disturbing. The workers had attempted to climb through a window, but it was securely barred. The back door exit was blocked off by a plywood partition, and sealed shut by heavy iron bars and padlocks. An inquiry into the tragedy was ordered, as well as a survey of fire hazards in the entire garment district.

During the inquiry, Ontario’s Chief Coroner Dr. Smirle Lawson, called the Phillips factory “a death trap of the worst kind,” and expressed shock that humans were working in such conditions.

Toronto’s mayor at the time, Hiram McCallum, immediately ordered an inquiry into the tragedy and a survey of fire hazards in the garment district. Subsequently, more voices began to arise about similar working conditions in other factories.

Last month Pasternak put forward a condolence motion in Council chambers.

“These victims are now recognized as part of the public record in the City of Toronto. It seemed to be an important part of Jewish Toronto’s shared history and experience,” he said.

“This rarely known event has implications to this day. New measures for workplace safety and worker protection were introduced, which transformed the way manufacturing operated in the city and helped save many lives in the future.”

-with files from Toronto city council

Dave Gordon is the managing editor of TheJ.ca. His work has appeared in more than a hundred media around the world, including all of the Toronto dailies, BBC, Washington Times, and UK Guardian.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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