Save the Pervin Chapel
OpinionGuest columnist

Save the Pervin Chapel

If the Pervin Chapel is razed, future generations will have no real-time connection to the tragedy that occurred and to the lives that were lost there.

Pervin Chapel. Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives.
Pervin Chapel. Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives.

Oct. 27, 2018 will forever be remembered as the single darkest day in the history of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The horrific murders of 11 Jewish individuals gathered in Sabbath prayer inside the Tree of Life building embodied the most evil and deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

It is with great consternation, disappointment and sorrow to realize that Tree of Life Congregation’s rebuild plan does not include preserving a site of the attack, the Pervin Chapel, in its present form, but instead calls for razing it, saving some of the artifacts for placement in other spaces. The Pervin Chapel is where my parents’ lives together began, on Dec. 22, 1956, at their wedding ceremony, and then were tragically and senselessly ended on Oct. 27, 2018, when they and others were brutally murdered there.

Preserving the Pervin Chapel should be the first priority in the rebuild plan, and the new building should be constructed around and incorporate it. Without the horrific events of Oct. 27, it is unlikely there would be any plans for a rebuild, and surely none comparable in scope to what is now being considered.

My strong desire to preserve the Pervin Chapel is not about me or my family. It is also not shortsighted. If the Pervin Chapel is razed, future generations will have no real-time connection to the tragedy that occurred and to the lives that were lost there. After we are gone from this earth, there will be nobody left to tell the story firsthand. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that this tragic event does not get diluted or lost in time and the beautiful souls are remembered in perpetuity as forever tied to this tragedy. The best and most effective manner to reach that end is to preserve this site of the tragedy — exactly as it was left in the aftermath.

Everything within the confines of the Pervin Chapel tells a story. The bullet holes in the walls, in the steps and in the ark, and the pews, furniture, carpet and other artifacts, should all be preserved exactly as they were left.

Future generations must not be denied the opportunity to experience the utter and absolute horror, terror and helplessness, agony, pain, shock, loneliness, abandonment and disbelief that the congregants experienced as they realized they were about to be shot and killed. Future generations will need to connect physically and emotionally to what occurred in that space in order to fully comprehend the magnitude of the most horrific antisemitic event in U.S. history. That can only be achieved by leaving the Pervin Chapel intact, not by photographs or models.

The Pervin Chapel was a place where friends gathered each Saturday morning in prayer and to share each other’s company. It included both tangible and intangible facets of life that they looked forward to experiencing as a group. That commonality of experience is what ultimately led to their being present on that fateful morning. That must never be forgotten.

Future generations must be afforded the opportunity within the appropriate space to mourn the loving souls who shared the same religious ideals and customs. Future generations must know what precipitated the tragedy and the whole of what transpired there on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018.

It is indisputable that the Pervin Chapel is one of the most historically significant spaces relative to Judaism and antisemitism in the United States. Understandably, a preserved Pervin Chapel will not be used for any purpose other than historical significance, learning, education and memorialization. While some may be physically or emotionally unable to enter that sacred space, it is important to remember that none of us lives forever; this issue is about preservation for future generations, and not about us.

Throughout Europe, concentration camps have not been purposely destroyed, bulldozed or rebuilt. Many have been meticulously preserved and maintained for their historical significance, to memorialize the people murdered on those sacred grounds and for educating generations, worldwide, on the evils that occurred there. In the same manner, we must preserve the Pervin Chapel, a sacred space, in its present condition to provide a lasting physical artifact of what occurred, and to remind Jewish communities to remain vigilant and aware in the fight against antisemitism.

The USS Arizona battleship was not recovered from Pearl Harbor in order to clear the inlet. It remains in the exact location where it met its harrowing fate on Dec. 7, 1941. Upon arriving at the memorial, visitors can look into the water and see the top of the once-mighty battleship. They can also see the sheen on the water and smell the odor of fuel oil as it slowly bubbles up to the surface from the bottom of the ship. This memorial tells a story of brave Americans performing their duty under the horrors of war while paying the ultimate price. It takes people back, both physically and emotionally, to the time and space of the tragedy. This most unique human perspective can be achieved only because the actual site was preserved. For similar reasons, we must also preserve the Pervin Chapel.

The battlefields of Gettysburg, where approximately 50,000 Americans were killed in 1863, are not paved over and replaced by shopping malls or housing developments. They remain intact as a solemn reminder of the horrors of war, the extreme sacrifices of soldiers’ lives lost and the causes they fought for in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

This perspective can be achieved only because the actual site was preserved. For similar reasons, we must also preserve the Pervin Chapel.

Ohrdruf concentration camp, near Gotha, Germany, was the first Nazi camp liberated by American forces. Soldiers of the Fourth Armored Division and the 89th Infantry Division entered the camp on April 4, 1945. After being informed of the unimaginable and horrific conditions encountered, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the camp on April 12 with Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. He wrote to Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the Army, to say, “I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”

Eisenhower was so shocked by what he saw that he purportedly ordered his men “to collect as much proof, films and testimonies as possible, because the day will come when some son-of-a-bitch will say that this never happened.” In the same vein, we must follow Eisenhower’s example by preserving the Pervin Chapel in its present form so that future generations can bear witness.

Razing the Pervin Chapel would deny meaningful memorialization, crucial educational opportunities, an emotional connection and irrefutable historical corroboration of what happened on Oct. 27, 2018. These historical aspects exist within the space of the Pervin Chapel and must be preserved.

To this end, I respectfully ask and hope that Tree of Life Congregation’s leaders respond to this plea before the Pervin Chapel is destroyed and gone forever, and find a way to preserve this important piece of Pittsburgh and American Jewish history in its present form and location. PJC

Marc A. Simon’s parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, were murdered in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018.

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