The story of Steel City Jewish immigrants is currently on display at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Through May, an exhibit titled, “For You Were Strangers: Jewish Immigration to Pittsburgh, 1880-1990” will allow visitors to better understand the makeup and origins of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
Jackie Reese, marketing and education associate at the Holocaust Center, researched and designed the exhibit.
Doing so was “one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my career to date,” said Reese. “It means so much seeing how it has resonated with people and how it’s encouraging others to explore their own family histories.”
“Response to the exhibit since last week’s opening has been enormous,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center’s director. “It’s clear that the story appeals to so many of us. It’s personal, it’s our story. So many people in Pittsburgh have really deep roots.”
Although Steel City landsmen often take pride in marking how many generations their families have resided here, the longtime presence of Jews in the city isn’t as well known by the community at large.
During a program with the Pittsburgh Police during the week after the October 2018 murders at the Tree of Life building, a member of the police force asked Bairnsfather if all of Pittsburgh’s Jewish residents came to the city following the Second World War. She was surprised by the question and thought, “It isn’t really a fair assumption that everyone knows this history.”
So the Holocuast Center decided to tell the history, along with help from local historian Barbara Burstin and Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.
At the entrance to the exhibit, there are some cautionary words: “As we look at the actions taken then, we should ask ourselves now: What is our responsibility to our fellow humans? ‘For You Were Strangers’ examines our history, so that we may learn from seeing where previous generations succeeded and failed.”
The exhibit also includes a timeline of U.S. immigration policy and a map of Pittsburgh Jewish migration within the city between 1865 and 1990.
Apart from raising questions about responsibilities to immigrants, Bairnsfather hopes the exhibit invites more personal considerations.
“Because these stories are personal to so many people, I imagine there will be interest in how you do research at the Rauh,” she said. “I can see a number of public conversations growing out of the exhibit.”
As dialogue increases, the exhibit may change, Bairnsfather added.
Unlike other exhibitions that employ artifacts for narrative strategy, “For You Were Strangers” relies simply on text-printed-panels. As the weeks and months go on, however, Bairnsfather could see integrating relevant documents and materials from the Holocaust Center’s collection, including “passports of Jewish people with the ‘J’ stamp from Nazi Germany or prayer books that Jewish soldiers took with them when they went to Europe.”
Such items could help the larger public understand Jewish Pittsburgh’s makeup, she explained. But for now, it’s worth seeing the panels as is, noted Bairnsfather, who also offered the following advice: “Come prepared to spend some time reading. There is a lot of text in this exhibit because it tells such an incredible story.”
It’s a story of more than just the Jewish people, she added: “The exhibit talks about immigration in this country in general. We’re keeping an eye toward the broad appeal.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.