I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
(From a children’s jump rope ditty of 1918)
I remember the Spanish Flu of 1918. No, I’m not really old enough to remember it personally. Even my late father, who was 3 ½ years old in November 1918 didn’t have clear memories of it – but at various times throughout his life he would share a memory of what he’d heard in growing up, even in his later years he keenly felt the losses that the flu had inflicted, and he passed this narrative down to me and my siblings.
A large framed photo of his mother, a lovely looking young woman hung high over his bed. She has a Mona Lisa radiance and seems to be looking down on whoever is looking up at her. Coming into my parents’ room on a lazy Sunday morning I never tired of asking my father about that picture, especially knowing that I carried his mother’s Hebrew name – and my father never tired of speaking about her.
Hannah Klein Herskowitz was almost 27 years old when that photo was taken. When she was a girl, her family, the Kleins, owned a store and the family lived upstairs. This was in Duquesne, PA, a mill town outside of Pittsburgh. Philip Herskowitz worked in the Klein’s store. He had arrived from the same part of Europe, the northeast corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Hannah’s parents, and maybe that was one reason that they hired him. He also had a pleasant demeanor, was responsible, and good looking besides. About a year after he started working in the store he married Hannah, his boss’s daughter. About a year after that, their oldest child, Elsie, was born. The family moved a couple of times as Philip tried to start a store of his own. My father was born in 1915, in McKeesport, PA across the river and just south of Duquesne. By the spring of 1918 the family was living in another mill town, North Braddock and Hannah was pregnant again. My father kept an unframed picture from that time, which shows his whole family together, his parents, his sister and himself as a curly haired little boy who hadn’t yet had his first real haircut. All of them are properly dressed in the style of the day.
Six months later, in the fall of 1918 Hannah’s parents, Ignatz and Ida Klein, became ill with the Spanish flu. Hannah spoke to her doctor about going to care for her parents, but he warned against it. Although much was strange about the Spanish flu, one of its peculiar features was already obvious: statistically more of the young adults who caught the flu – and it was spreading like wildfire – were succumbing to it than the older generation. Hannah’s doctor told her not to go to her parents because the odds were that her parents would recover. But if she caught the flu, it would be dangerous for her – more dangerous than for her elders.
This narrative, repeated often in my growing up, so intrigued me that I began studying family history and also tried to learn more about the times and places in which they lived. In March of 1918 there was an outbreak of the flu in the farmlands of the Midwest, which spread particularly to army bases where many soldiers were about to head off to join the fighting in Europe. It happened that Hannah’s brother, Samuel, was also a new recruit being shipped off to Europe then. The death rate from that first wave of the disease was hardly more than most any other seasonal flu, and so went largely unnoticed at the time. News of the Great War held all the newspaper headlines, and was likewise the issue of concern of the Klein family. They worried about Sam, a soldier in the U.S. army. Meanwhile, the first wave of the flu petered out.
By late summer, early fall, however the flu returned, in a powerful second wave that made it a killer. Unlike other respiratory illnesses, it was especially devastating to young adults – the healthiest part of the population. One theory was that the recruits were pressed in close quarters, and were spreading it around the world. A second theory held that the immune systems of young men and women were so powerful, that it went out of control and attacked the victim, as in an auto-immune disorder. Another possibility was that the older generation had been exposed to an earlier, similar flu that had circulated in the late 1880s, giving them an immunity that the younger people lacked. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable because the pregnancy put extra stress on their lungs.
Statistics aside, an uncle of Hannah’s called to tell her that her parents were very ill and that she had to go back to Duquesne to take care of them. They could not manage without her help. Since Sam was away fighting in Europe, and her youngest sister, still living at home, was barely out of childhood, while other family members had various other demands on their lives, Hannah, her uncle told her, was the only one available. She must return to the Klein home, then under quarantine, to tend to her parents.
Once, when I was a child spending time with a friend of mine and her family, they introduced me to a middle aged woman visiting them. This woman, whose name I now don’t recall, told me that she had known my father’s sister Elsie. She said that they were together in second grade, and Elsie was her best friend. One day, walking home from school, they passed a house with a “Quarantine” sign, and Elsie insisted that they cross the street. “My Bubby and Zeide are under quarantine,” she had explained, “And I’m not going to see them until they get better!” The very next day, this woman told me, Elsie wasn’t in school. Her mother had taken her to her grandparents’ house.
At first, when Hannah took the children with her to Duquesne to care for her parents, Philip stayed behind in North Braddock to tend to his store. When Hannah became ill he joined the family under quarantine.
In early November Hannah gave birth, and three days later she passed away. The cause of death is listed as influenza, with the childbirth as a contributing factor. Less than a week later Elsie passed away of pneumonia as the result of flu. My father and grandfather, though both ill, survived. Hannah’s parents also survived, as Hannah’s doctor said they probably would. Nobody later recalled even the gender of the baby, there is no documentation beside the reference on Hannah’s death certificate nor is there a marker in the cemetery for this newborn where Hannah and Elsie were laid to rest. Those who survived were all so ill and sat shiva for 2 weeks straight, such as shiva might have been under quarantine.
Over the years there were different aspects of the story that were emphasized, with new details added. My father said that he had been told by relatives that after his mother and the baby and his older sister died, his father became deeply depressed. Philip felt he hadn’t spoken correctly when Hannah had sought his opinion. Hannah had been torn between her doctor’s advice to stay out of her parents’ house while it was under quarantine, and her uncle’s call insisting that she must go there. When she asked Philip what she should do, he had answered, “Whatever you decide, I will support you.” Philip felt guilty for not having said, “As your husband, I insist that you stay home now.”
I was specifically told never to ask my grandfather about the photo of little Elsie that hung over his bed, nor anything else about this part of family history.
In all my father’s descriptions of his mother, she was consistently a heroine, a model of virtue, devoted to helping her parents.
Not everyone saw it that way. A close female relative, who had never had a chance to meet Hannah or Elsie, once pulled me aside and said, “I will never say this in front of your father, but his mother should not have risked the lives of her children and the baby she carried. If she wanted to risk her life to help her parents, that was one thing, but not her children’s. I hope when you grow up you never do anything so damned stupid.”
A great aunt of mine from the Klein side, my grandmother’s youngest sister, was only thirteen years old in 1918. She told me in a 1970s taped family history session we had, “Your grandmother didn’t want to come home you know. If our uncle hadn’t called her she wouldn’t have come. But she had no choice.” My aunt also talked about her brother, Sam. They had been very reluctant to tell him what happened to Hannah and Elsie. When Sam finally came home from the war, since he was not well and was in and out of V.A. hospitals, they waited some while to tell him.
My grandfather’s youngest sister, in a taped interview of the Herskowitz side of the family, also spoke of being unaware of the situation. She was a happy young woman living in Detroit, MI in the fall of 1918 and returned to visit her oldest sister in McKeesport, PA, about one month after the events, to share with her family the good news of her recent engagement. “Where is Hannah?” she asked, “Where is Elsie?” “Nobody would tell me,” she said. Philip told her, “Hannah went to Duquesne to take care of her parents, her parents were ill.” It took a while before anybody said that Hannah and Elsie were no longer alive.
Silence surrounding the trauma of the Spanish Flu seemed to have been common. Even after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, the newspaper accounts of the flu still competed with the news of the War and its aftermath. There are few scattered personal accounts published in fiction or non-fiction. One exception – a searing account – is the autobiographical novella, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” by Katherine Anne Porter. It was hard to absorb, even long after, that young adults were most often the victims. Dying from the flu – though so many more died of the flu than were killed in battle – ran against the image of the warrior heroes of the age.
Yet, despite the tendency to silence, the impact was felt by those who experienced it forever after.
In the Klein family my father was thoroughly indulged by some – by his grandparents certainly, who took care of him during the first year or so until his father remarried and had settled down to a new life. He also went to his grandparents during all holidays and vacation times thereafter. Although he claimed to remember practically nothing of his childhood before his Bar Mitzvah, he recalled waking up on Friday mornings to the aroma of freshly baked challahs and a warm roll that his Bubby set aside special for him for breakfast. In looking at his Bar Mitzvah photo, he said, “My Zeide got me that suit.” He also spoke of his late mother’s youngest sister whom I’d interviewed, who took him on special outings to the amusement park and such. Likewise he described simple, but pleasant outings with his Uncle Sam. When Sam was well between V.A. hospital stays he took my father for rides around the area on the streetcar. But Dad felt a distance from other family members it seemed, and was grateful whenever one of them reached out to him.
In a recent discussion with my sister and her family we talked about our father, who was hardly more than a toddler in 1918. If he was very ill, and everyone around him was very ill or dying, one can easily imagine his crying for his mommy. How had he managed? “He was resilient,” my sister said. That was not a word readily used to describe him. He was a man of few words, with a low-key self-deprecating sense of humor, but he was hard-working, and no matter the circumstances put one foot in front of the other and carried on. Yes, he was “resilient.” And yet, one refrain of his, even towards his last years, was, “My life would have been totally different had my mother lived.”
Epilogue: during that week in November 1918, amidst so many losses, across the river from Duquesne and a little distance away, in McKeesport at that very same time, a woman named Ella Weiss gave birth to a daughter. She never mentioned the Spanish flu when telling about giving birth at that time. What she described was the excitement that her baby’s birth on November 6, for on that day a false rumor went around that the Armistice Agreement had been signed. News was slow to travel, maybe especially to small mill towns – they didn’t know that there had been a last minute glitch in the negotiations and the Agreement wouldn’t be signed until nearly a week later. So while my Bubby, Mrs. Weiss, was in labor, through her bedroom window she heard the sounds of horns blaring and whistles screeching and other loud celebratory noises that accompanied the birth of her baby girl, whom she named Gittel.
Twenty two years later Gittel (Gete), met Marvin Herskowitz. A few months afterward they married and the rest, as they say, is history. Every early November in our family my father had yahrzeit for his mother. A candle was lit and though he was not a particularly religious man, he went to shul to say Kaddish. At about that same time, every year, we had a big beautiful cake for our mother, with its many candles, and some gifts. (Well, actually, if the Hebrew date of the yahrzeit fell on November 6, Mom’s birthday got pushed off a bit.)
The lessons for today are clear. Be grateful for favors large or small. We know about needing resilience during dark times – our people have passed through more than enough. Now the calendar says it’s Pesach – even in dark times there are silver threads.
A good happy kosher and healthy Pesach!