When I hear that nothing like the coronavirus epidemic has ever happened before, I wonder that our collective historical memory is so short. Just over 100 years ago, in 1918, the world experienced a pandemic influenza epidemic that killed more than 50 million people. No place was spared, and in Pittsburgh, the combination of heavily polluted air, crowded housing conditions, and the city government’s reluctance to adhere to statewide quarantine measures led to a death rate per capita that was higher than in any other American city.
World War I was going on at the same time, with 2 million U.S. soldiers in Europe by the summer of 1918, and news of the flu epidemic was tacitly downplayed by politicians and journalists nationally as well as in the local Jewish newspaper. Reading the Jewish Criterion for September-December 1918, the main issues I see covered are the war effort (including an editorial headlined “Keeping the Hun on the Run”), anti-Semitism and Zionism. Homefront coverage included a major push for the 4th Liberty Bond Campaign to raise funds for the war. Despite underreporting, the advance of the flu was relentless.
On Oct. 4, the state health department banned large assemblies, and synagogues and Jewish organizations suspended services and meetings. City Councilman Enoch Rauh, a member of Rodef Shalom, argued that the public schools should be closed, and later in the month they were. The visiting nurses of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement served residents of the Hill District, providing home visits and beds in their building for 1,047 cases of influenza and pneumonia, an increase of 560% from their regular nursing load. Doctors and nurses at Montefiore Hospital worked around the clock during the epidemic and the Gusky Home took in newly orphaned children.
The Concordia Club became a convalescent hospital for flu victims among the soldiers who had been training at Camp Pitt. Some Rodef Shalom Sisterhood members offered to do shopping for the recovering soldiers, and others made up “comfort kits” for the men. The Jewish Welfare Board of Pittsburgh sent crates of oranges and grapefruits, and Sisterhood, Hebrew Ladies’ Hospital Aid, and the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh chapter, sent homemade jellies, pies, cakes and eggnog.
Even when public meetings were banned, enthusiasm for the war effort did not wane, and the Rodef Shalom Sisterhood, which had been given a quota of raising $250,000 for the Liberty Loan Bond campaign, went “over the top” and brought in the astounding amount of over $2 million.
By mid-October, subtler signs of the flu epidemic’s effects on the Jewish community began to show up in obituaries of young adults between the ages of 16 and 40; some give pneumonia as the cause of death or state that the person died suddenly or after a brief illness. Many of these young people left very young surviving children. Most funerals were held at home or at the graveside. One very unusual obituary, for a young woman buried at West View Cemetery, expressed the anguish many families must have been feeling: “In these days, when death is stalking throughout the land and taking his toll from among all classes and ages, one is apt to become hardened to the visit of the Grim Reaper, but, despite this, our hearts were stirred and moved to their utmost depths when we learned of the passing away of so sweet and lovely a friend as Nannie Jacobs.”
As restrictions were lifted and the epidemic began to slow down in November (though it wasn’t over in Pittsburgh until the following May), an article in the Criterion ended with a thought that might be expressed today: “Nor is the work completed; for many weeks after the epidemic has spent itself there will be work of rehabilitation, of reconstruction, to be done, to repair, in a measure, the havoc wrought.” PJC
Martha L. Berg is the archivist at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column originally appeared on the website of Rodef Shalom Congregation.