Eric Lidji was facing a challenge.
As director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, Lidji began collecting objects related to the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of building almost immediately after it occurred.
The Rauh had never done large-scale real-time collecting, he explained. Typically, the materials archived by an organization like his are items people are done with.
“When it’s real-time, they’re not,” he said.
That created tension in the community, Lidji said. Everyone agreed that items related to the attack should be preserved for history — but not everyone was ready to have them moved behind closed doors. For some community members, many of the items were useful in the healing process.
“Very quickly, we felt like digitization was the solution,” Lidji said.
That led to the creation of a website — october27archive.org — which Lidji said will create a comprehensive record of the material collected relating to the antisemitic attack. It will be accessible to the general public, academics, historians and researchers.
The site contains numerous “doors,” or points of access, allowing people to retrieve information in several different ways, Lidji said.
“One of those doors is a map for people who find that that’s the way they make the most sense of data,” he added. “You can see where materials have come from.”
Users will have the ability to dig into the archive either as a whole or through filters to burrow into specific information.
A third way to access information is through what the Rauh is calling the “Community Page,” which lays out information in concentric circles. Those circles will allow users to view isolated information about particular organizations concerning Oct. 27, such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh or the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Starting with a memorial to the 11 victims, then histories of the three congregations, then material that came from Jewish organizations and then materials that came from the rest of the world,” Lidji said.
The website includes technological innovations, as well.
In previous generations, Lidji explained, archives would collect newspapers. The new website can do something similar; however, since most news is now covered online, the website uses a tool called Archive It to embed news sites and stories related to the attack.
There are more than 1,000 news articles available, but the Rauh will add more. The entire website will slowly expand over time, adding more news stories, artifacts and other relevant data.
The website provides information beyond the Squirrel Hill shooting, creating a holistic portrait of the community. Users can delve deep into the history of the congregations, such as the earliest bylaws of New Light Congregation, for example.
“It has nothing to do with Oct. 27,” Lidji said, “but one of the things we noticed early on is that people would say, ‘Two Conservative and a Reconstructionist synagogue?’ But, if you’re in town you know that Tree of Life and New Light are very different organizations from each other. This helps people understand that.”
The website also will serve as host for the “Meanings of October 27th,” an oral history project created by Aliza Becker and Noah Schoen.
Becker and Schoen conducted 105 interviews of Pittsburghers of all stripes — Jews and non-Jews, first responders, Squirrel Hill residents, community leaders, clergy and more. Twenty interviews are available on the site. Each includes a photo of the person, biography, keywords, index and a transcription of the interview.
“We’re really excited that people are going to be able to see someone they know from the community,” Schoen said. “In this release are people like Nina Butler, Leslie Aizenman and Rabbi Elisar Admon. These are people of our community.”
The collection, Schoen continued, is an archive about community members and their stories, creating a complex tapestry of collective response that doesn’t erase individual experience.
Becker, who lives in Chicago, said that as an outsider, she was motivated to create the oral history to help tell the community’s story to those not from Pittsburgh.
“I wasn’t living the day-to-day experience of being on the ground, of walking by the Tree of Life every day, living in Squirrel Hill,” she said. “I wanted to know what it was like there and the richness of the stories.”
While the website is innovative in the information it contains and the way it can be accessed, so, too, is the funding for the project: The initial funds were provided from a grant through the Justice Department, Lidji said.
“What [the Justice Department] noticed in other places is that archival material has some benefit to the healing process for people,” he said. “The stuff we have here is very unique in some sense — in some sense, it’s not. You go other places, and they have these collections of things. They decided, though, that Pittsburgh was a unique case.”
Typically, Lidji explained, material is collected, and then an archive is found to partner with. It’s rare for an archive to exist that already has a community’s trust and is invested in cataloging material from an event.
Another unique aspect, Lidji said, is the Rauh’s commitment to the community. The project, he said, is “victim-centered.”
“It is coming from the organizations chiefly responsible for making sure that the victims are taken care of,” he said. “We had to be responsible to the stakeholders. They are many and they’re often not all in agreement. When we started there was no Tree of Life ‘incorporated’ or ‘memorialization working group.’ We’ve had to adapt to those realities.”
Lidji said the purpose of archiving is to make data available to people and organizations, including institutions like the new Tree of Life nonprofit and the University of Pittsburgh.
“Our hope is that all of them see this as a tool they can use,” he said. “That they can all benefit from it. At the end of the day, you can’t collect all information anywhere, so, depending on what researchers want, they may have to go to more than one place; but we’re in conversation with all groups. We certainly see it as a collaboratory.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.