A casualty of the last pandemic
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HistoryEsther Yochelson worked on the Western Front

A casualty of the last pandemic

Pittsburgh nurse attended to soldiers-in-training during World War I

The Jewish Criterion published this photograph of Esther Yochelson in her military uniform on Jan. 3, 1919, about six weeks after her death. The photograph also appears on a small porcelain portrait set into her grave marker at Elrod Cemetery.
Photo courtesy of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center
The Jewish Criterion published this photograph of Esther Yochelson in her military uniform on Jan. 3, 1919, about six weeks after her death. The photograph also appears on a small porcelain portrait set into her grave marker at Elrod Cemetery. Photo courtesy of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Anytime I glance over a grave marker or a yahrzeit plaque, I always pause if I spot 1918 as the date of death. People die every year, for many reasons, but a lot of the Americans who died that year died from one of two causes: World War I or the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

In Elrod Cemetery, in Versailles, Pennsylvania, is one such grave marker.

It reads:

Esther Yochelson
1895-1918
A Daughter of Democracy
A Mother of Mercy
Died in the Service of
Humanity in the Great War
Nov. 12, 1918

Yochelson was born in Pittsburgh, just a few years after her family emigrated from Russia. She enrolled in a five-year nursing program at McKeesport Hospital when she was 16 or 17 and became the first Jewish graduate of the program in January 1917.

World War I had been underway for several years, but the United States was only an observer. We officially entered the war in early April 1917. Yochelson enlisted in May 1918, just as reports of a flu-like illness were beginning to emerge out of neutral Spain.

She was sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia, where she spent the summer attending to soldiers-in-training. While stationed at the camp she wrote letters to friends and relatives throughout Western Pennsylvania. In a letter to Esther Margolis of Munhall, she enclosed an original poem titled “The Same Old Things.” After her death, the Criterion reprinted it.
Here is the final stanza:

Goin off duty at 7 o’clock,
Tired, discouraged, just ready to drop,
But called back on special at 7:15,
With woe in her heart, but it must not be seen;
Morning and evening, noon and night,
When we lay down our caps and cross the bar,
O Lord! Will you give us just one little star
To wear in our crown, with the uniform new,
In the City Above, where the head nurse is You

As a top Army nurse, Yochelson was sent overseas to tend to soldiers on the Western Front. She mobilized in late August, barely missing a major outbreak at Camp Gordon.

Accounts of her trip conflict, but she seems to have left for France in mid-September to join Group A of the American Expeditionary Forces. She contracted influenza on the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and was sent to U. S. Army Base Hospital No. 33 in Portsmouth, England, where she died of meningitis on the morning of Nov. 12, 1918.

Under war department regulations, Yochelson was interred overseas until burial accommodations could be arranged stateside. Her first funeral occurred at Morn Hill, a large military camp near Winchester, England. It took 19 months before her body was returned to McKeesport. Her second funeral was on May 28, 1920, at Elrod Cemetery.

According to the Criterion, it was among the largest funerals in McKeesport history. It lasted much of the day and included full military honors. The mayor, the superintendent of schools, and other civic leaders all delivered remarks. In a eulogy, Rabbi Murray Alstet of the relatively new Temple B’nai Israel of McKeesport said, “I come here not so much as a Jew, as a rabbi, to eulogize a daughter of Zion, but as an American, to join with you in honoring a daughter of democracy who died that democracy may live.”

A lot of people have recently been turning to the 1918 flu for insights into our current crisis. There was surprisingly little written about the pandemic in the local Jewish press, especially compared to issues like the rebirth of Zionism or the relief campaign for European Jews, both of which appeared in issue after issue. Aside from incidental references in obituaries and other notices, I found only a few short articles addressing the pandemic directly, and even those mostly contain distressing vagaries. “The Montefiore Hospital, its force badly crippled by illness among its staff of physicians and nurses, has worked night and day fighting the disease,” the Criterion wrote in November 1918.

But the Criterion followed the Yochelson story for years. Her death provided an opportunity to make meaning out of the pandemic, whereas so many of the other impacts must have induced the same fear, guilt, anger and frustration we are experiencing today. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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