Remembering Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh and more

Displaying the iconic shirt of the Squirrel Hill attack
Displaying the iconic shirt of the Squirrel Hill attack

If asked, Americans of a certain age can probably tell you exactly where they were on November 22, 1963 when they were shocked to learn of Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Similarly, most anybody with any connection to Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh particularly its Jewish community, recalls distinctly where they were when they heard the horrifying news of the massacre inside Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018 where three distinct congregations, each in its own sanctuary in the building, were holding Shabbat services.

My sister and about two dozen of our first and second cousins, scattered all over the United States, and I, here in Israel, were all preparing our separate journeys to a family reunion in Pittsburgh just then.

Those memories have been flooding me lately:  not so long ago the Pittsburgh community observed its 3rd Memorial Anniversary of the massacre. Another trigger was the recent passing of our Cousin Kay Friedman, z”l, who had assumed the major responsibility for organizing our reunion.  Finally, we’ve all been exposed to articles this past week that focus on the hostage taking in the sanctuary in Colleyville, Texas, articles which often reference Pittsburgh for comparison and contrast.

Our family reunion plans had originated months before by Kay and her sister Gayla, two of the granddaughters of Adolph Hersh.  They called it Women of Hersh [Herskowitz] Heritage, enabling the “wow” sounding acronym: WOHH.  That summer, 2018, the group emails solicited our suggestions for where and when the WOHH reunion should be held.  The initial replies were swift in agreeing that it be held in McKeesport / Pittsburgh over the Veterans’ Day weekend.

If this was about our heritage, Kay’s daughter-in-law reasoned, McKeesport had been the starting point for the first generation of the Herskowitz family who were fortunate enough to leave Hungary for America in the early 1900s.  Facilities in McKeesport in recent years, however, being limited at best for our intended reunion, (the town is now only a weak shadow of its former self), we should be based in near-by Pittsburgh.  I requested a tour of the McKeesport synagogue, Gemilas Chesed, which had centered our family’s religious and community life going back well over a century.  One great grandfather, Isaac (Ignatz) Klein, was a charter member of the shul in 1887 (The Beginnings of the McKeesport Jewish Community, Sarah Landesman, 1986.)  Naturally we’d also visit the cemetery where many of that first and later generations of relatives were laid to rest.

Veteran’s Day (known in the past as Armistice Day) would be the best weekend, November 8 – 12 for such a gathering.

Thinking of the reunion churned up so many memories of our elders!  I was already deep in family history when the emails about WOHH flowed back and forth that summer.  There were only a few of us who had known all five of the Herskowitz siblings who had immigrated one after the other, in a chain, from their birthplace in Munkacs, Austria-Hungary.  I had been coalescing all the strands – all sides of the family shared McKeesport roots.

That Shabbat of October 27 I spent with my daughter, son-in-law and their children who live in a pleasant little town between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.  As usual on any Shabbat we are oblivious to anything happening beyond our borders.  After Havdalah, my son-in-law, as usual, pulled out his cellphone for a quick check of the news.  What he said was not usual.  He asked what I knew about Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.  Was that near where I was heading?

Oh My Gosh!  Yes, I remember it well!!  Though nothing that I remembered of the Squirrel Hill of my childhood bore any relationship to the unbelievable news we heard of the massacre of that day.  I remembered visits in the late ’40s – early ’50s.  McKeesport had been far from Pittsburgh in my very earliest memories, when it meant a long stomach-churning ride on the streetcar.  When I was about 6 years old, though, my father purchased a car, a 2nd hand two-toned green Studebaker.  Suddenly distant places grew so close and could be visited more frequently, places like Squirrel Hill!

While returning to my apartment in Beit Shemesh, in between the news reports from my son-in-law’s car radio, I described just some of the images of Squirrel Hill’s main drag, Murray Ave., that were surfacing in my memory.

Murray Ave. was filled with eateries and it had all the food specialties that my parents craved and could not find in McKeesport, not even at Maxie’s kosher butcher shop or Feig’s Bakery.   My father had a yen for a particular “shmear case“, a specific cheese spread – I know not what – only that it wasn’t Philadelphia Cream Cheese.  There were the various deli foods my parents liked, and my father wanted corn bread.  This corn bread wasn’t the light corn pone of the southern U.S. variety, and it wasn’t the heavy rye of many kosher bakeries.  This was a something else, a heavier bread than any other.  This was bread!!

To find these various items in Squirrel Hill, one went to different specialty shops along Murray Ave.  On a Sunday, the street was packed and all its stores were crowded with long lines waiting to be served.  My parents split up, each entering a different store to stand at the end of one of the lines.  But sometimes that wasn’t enough, so they parked me at the end of the very longest of the lines in one of the shops, trying to assure me that one of them would return before I made it to the counter, though I was never quite reassured and was anxious as all get out.  The aromas that I couldn’t identify, that overwhelmed me, tickled my parent’s appetites.  The towering people all around me excited their quest.  What occurred to me in retrospect, was how much my young slender mother and young but not-so-slender father shared their love of this gastronomic adventure.

How had that Squirrel Hill become the stage for a massacre of American Jews in shul on a Shabbat morning?  The stark and conflicting images didn’t sync.

After my son-in-law dropped me off, I spent the night glued to my computer screen for more news.  On Sunday morning I reached out to some of my American relatives asking how they were managing of course, but also questioning if our reunion would still be on.  (Here in Israel, when there were terrorist bus attacks, many of us would still ride buses that took the same route as the ones blown up.  I had no way of knowing, however, how American cousins would feel about an attack on their turf.)  I was wrong to even raise the question.  Of course WOHH was still on!

One of our cousins sent the link from an article in the Wall Street Journal, related to the news from Squirrel Hill:  It featured an interview with the man behind the counter of the Murray Ave. Kosher deli.  He was shown in his full apron and large black yarmulke (which the reporter emphasized in the text), preparing platters for the families of the victims who were sitting shiva, as he described having known several of them who had been familiar customers.  “Look at his name!” our second cousin wrote in surprise:  “Herskowitz!”  Yes, my sister and I responded – he’s one of ours – our fathers were brothers.  We were at AJay ‘s Bar Mitzvah and other celebrations;  he and his family live in Squirrel Hill and we know them well.

The hotel Kay had arranged for this reunion of WOHH was in central Pittsburgh.  The plans were precise and meticulous, featuring drinks on arrival and in the evening the cousins introduced themselves and spoke of their place on the family tree, adding some unique oral history tidbits.  Kay’s grandson had prepared and schlepped from Chicago a large family tree for the occasion.

The Herskowitz clan consisted of the 8 children of Moshe Herskowitz and Sarah Klein, all born and raised in Munkacs in the late 1800s.  Five of the siblings had traveled across the ocean, steerage class, but then by-passed the large urban centers, like New York and Baltimore that housed the major waves of immigrants of their era. Instead they followed a smaller immigrant stream that had preceded them, going straight from the boats to the railroad station to catch the train for the mill town of McKeesport, PA.   Three of the siblings remained tethered to Munkacs however, until May 1944, when the cattle cars took them and many of their offspring to Auschwitz.

One of our cousins at WOHH was born and raised in Israel of survivor parents who told her of life in Munkacs before its destruction.  From her mother, Lea Klein Schmerler had learned that some of the American uncles, between the wars, had returned for a brief, rare visit to their old home.  The WOHH gathering was an occasion to spend with a group of cousins descended from those uncles.

In fact several of us had never before met each other, and in other cases it had been a long, long time between visits.

My US based daughters and I only joined the WOHH on Sunday, but that was the most intense day.  We boarded the bus hired by Kay to take us to the Gemilas Chesed shul in McKeesport, our first stop.  The shul had relocated in the ’60s from the old part of town, right behind the mills, near the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers, for greener backyards and wider roadways in suburban White Oak.  Before demolishing the walls of the original building, they had carefully removed the ark, the bima, a few of the pews and the old plaques, gently taken them out to the suburbs and placed them in a reconstructed semblance of the old shul.  The reconstruction was used as a weekday minyan room on the lower floor of the modern structure.  Standing in that space I recalled where so many of our elders had sat during the holiday services of my childhood.

The Minyan Room of Gemilas Chesed of McKeesport, a reconstruction of the old shul

My sister and I found the plaque honoring the building committee of the first purpose-built shul of the congregation (1905), which included the name of our maternal great-grandfather,  Moses Weisz.  We went up to the entrance floor, with its mid-20th century styled sanctuary, which was surrounded by numerous uniform plaques of more recent ancestors.

From the shul we went to the cemetery to honor the final resting place of most of those whose dedicatory plaques we’d just seen.  Kay led the way directly back to her biological grandmother.  WOHH gathered around.  Kati Braun Herskowitz passed away in 1917 as a young mother soon after giving birth to her third child, the result of an infection that could presumably be easily treated today.

We also sought the grave sites of others of our family.  My sister and I went to our biological grandmother, Hannah Klein Herskowitz and her daughter, Elsie, who had lost their lives in the flu pandemic of the last century, in the first weeks of November 1918.

And we visited so many more.  In one section we found the headstone of our great-uncle, Uncle Sam Klein, veteran of World War I (a.k.a. the Great War), whose untimely death, as noted in the death certificate, was connected to his service as a soldier in Northern France.  In another section lies Cousin AJay’s parents. Uncle Henry Herskowitz lived a long life filled with numerous volunteer activities for the community.  Among them was the Jewish War Veterans of the US after his service in World War II.

Besides locating great-grandparents and so many whom we’d known or known about (though unfortunately not all) we solved a genealogical riddle through the Hebrew inscription on the stone of a great-uncle whose identity had not been previously clear to us.

Returning to Pittsburgh, before going for lunch, we stopped outside the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Approaching the Tree of Life Memorial site, November 2018

We walked slowly, reverently, past the impromptu memorials that honored the eleven congregants who had been murdered inside its sanctuaries just two weeks earlier.

In Memory of the fallen at Tree of Life, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018

Later, when we returned to our hotel our group divided up in different directions, some going to rest while a few people had said their “good-byes” and left for the airport already. My sister invited several of us to her room for another kind of memorial to honor the day of the birth of our Mother 100 years before.  In that auspicious November of 1918, while the world celebrated the Armistice ending the Great War, during the same week that our father, as a three year old lost his mother and sister to influenza, close by in McKeesport his future wife, our mother, was born.

That evening the members of WOHH who were still in Pittsburgh gathered again for dinner in a Squirrel Hill restaurant and exchanged more stories.   On the last evening when Kay, her sister Gayla and I were the only out-of-towners left, Cousins AJay and Faye and their daughter Rachel graciously hosted us in their home in Squirrel Hill.  Ever thoughtful, they had also invited another local cousin.  Photo albums were passed around, and Faye kindly scanned several of the old pictures for me. Rachel modeled the iconic T-shirt of the fresh trauma:  “Stronger than Hate,” it incorporates a Magen David into the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In a conversation this week with Cousin Lea, she said that sometimes we have experiences that in the moment we don’t realize will be once-in-a-lifetime events, unlikely to be repeated. Maybe all family reunions share similar features, encompassing affection and camaraderie, nostalgia and unyielding data, connections with a shared past and current updates.  Taking place in Pittsburgh intensified the vivid kaleidoscopic impressions and range of emotions for us.  But having to sync idyllic memories of a safer time with current realities of the oldest bigotry, hatred and violence – that may be unique to certain venues.

The next day I was the only out-of-towner left of WOHH, but a kind young cousin I’d not known before digging into family roots took me under her wing until seeing me off at the airport.  Before driving to her parents’ home where I met this equally kind and considerate couple, Jaime took me to the Heinz Museum.  Its very name evoked the day camp memories of outings at the visitors’ center of the Heinz factory of long ago, when we had watched the bottles of ketchup or pickles filling up and going round and round.  Inside this museum were the signposts and artifacts of that former age:  Isaly’s ice cream parlors, USSteel, an actual car from the roller coaster at Kennywood Park – and one of those old street cars I’d deplored as a child!   But here too was another reminder of the here-and-now:  a booth with a message from traditional Jewish sources, “Chazak, Chazak V’nitchazek – Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened“.  Note paper and pens were laid out to leave one’s own message for the community.

Cards of support and comfort at the Heinz History Center

Mellow scenes from Memory had to shift space to accommodate Squirrel Hill as the poster for violent American antisemitism.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the messages focused on healing.  (Bound in the Bond of Life, Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, Ed. Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).  Community ties were emphasized.  (Squirrel Hill, the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, Mark Oppenheimer, Alfred A. Knoff, 2021).  Now, more than three years later the accounts of Colleyville, Texas with its reference points Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey and so on are often about security – to paraphrase President Biden – to build back safer.  (“Coverage:  OU Advocacy Center-Convened Security Briefing with Attorney General Garland, DHS Secretary Mayorkas, FBI Director Wray, Other Senior Officials” lists 20 major outlets that carried this meeting on safety for synagogues.) Others are declaring that it’s about education, to prevent antisemitism.  There are numerous calls for Deborah Lipstadt, the quintessential educator, particularly on Holocaust issues, to be confirmed as US Special Envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.  (“Confirrming Deborah Lipstadt is a Foreign Policy Priority,” Barbara Goldberg Goldman, Pittsburgh JewishChronicle, January 19, 2022, reprinted from the Washington Jewish Week, articulating a viewpoint held by most if not all major Jewish organizations.)

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day coming this week these refrains, among others, will be echoed.

At the personal level Lea said that the WOHH trip to McKeesport – Pittsburgh had been significant for meeting descendants of her grandmother’s siblings.  “I was glad to see their children and grandchildren, and where the family had lived,” she said.  “I’d like to go back again.”  We discussed how Kay had been planning another reunion, this time in Chicago, when Covid-19 hit.  When that family gathering couldn’t happen in person it was confined to Zoom. “Who would do a reunion for us now?” Lea asked.  Even when we’re free of Covid (soon, G-d willing) who else will invest the time and energy to pull it together, in person, as Kay had?

This blog post is dedicated with gratitude to Kay Levinson Friedman, of blessed memory.

About the Author
Susan was born in McKeesport, PA and grew up in Chicago, receiving her B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Chicago. She studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for one year in the early 60s, and made Aliya in 1987. She was a teacher and has been a freelance writer. Susan retired after two decades of public relations and grant writing for the non-profit, Melabev. She is currently working on family history projects.
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