Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
October 26, 2011 By:
Bringing Alice Home to Rest at Long Last
The passages in the history book, about the devastating 1918 influenza that took the lives of more than 30 million people worldwide, were brief, almost cryptic: "Alice Wolowitz, a student nurse at [Philadelphia's] Mount Sinai Hospital, began her shift in the morning, felt sick and was dead 12 hours later."
For my father, reading that sentence in John Barry's The Great Influenza, was like hearing a voice from the grave. Alice was his sister, and until that moment, her death had been a mystery for him.
Philadelphia marked the first appearance in the United States of the worst pandemic in human history. It quickly became the epicenter of the disease. And it was there that Alice, then only 16, was living and studying in 1918. No one knew how or where she died. The historian cited her death to illustrate the fierce virulence of the flu strain, providing a bit of description of one of the countless victims.
But for my father, it was a stunning revelation. It was also a call to action.
My father, Norman, was only 4 years old when Alice died and so he never even knew his sister. But that was beside the point. Alice was family. She died in service, alone and forgotten. He now had a mission to fulfill and, fortunately, the strength and capabilities to carry it out.
At 96, an age when most of his contemporaries are either dead or incapacitated, he began researching the disease and tracking the remains of Alice. After she was located in a crowded cemetery in Philadelphia, he began to organize a memorial service for her -- and to bring her "home."
Home is a scenic mountaintop in Shenandoah, Pa., where his parents, brothers and sisters, and other family members are at rest. It is a small Jewish cemetery, personal and familiar, where almost all the names on the headstones speak of families and individuals who knew each other well: immigrants, neighbors, merchants, their offspring and casualties of two World Wars. It is all that remains of a once-vibrant community.
Norman, the youngest of nine children, is now the only surviving sibling. His own father had left the Russian Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century, part of the large migration of Jews escaping pogroms and seeking a better life in America.
My grandfather's life is a familiar immigrant story: an itinerant young peddler whose journey took him to a small mining town in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. There he opened a dry-goods store, raised a large family and managed to carve out a decent, hardscrabble life as a somewhat observant and well-respected Jew in a community made up largely of Irish, Polish and Eastern European immigrants.
Alice, from what I had heard, was a vivacious and adventurous young girl. With two brothers serving in World War I and hearing her own patriotic drummer, she left high school and her home to nurse sick soldiers in a Philadelphia hospital. That decision, probably as impetuous as it was courageous, proved costly.
She died suddenly, without a memorial service and was buried quickly, along with thousands of others during the chaos of the pandemic. For my grandparents, it must have been a terrible trauma, the death of their beloved daughter in the remote and frightening density of the big city.
About 100 miles away, Philadelphia may as well have been the far side of the moon for them. And there she remained, unknown and unvisited for almost a century.
My father has a deep feeling for family and his roots in small-town America. The only one of his siblings to get a college education, he became a doctor, served his country in World War II, and built a successful and fulfilling career in medicine. Upon retirement, he often said he had the "best 50 years in medicine," sandwiched between the invention of penicillin and the profession's takeover by technology and HMOs.
I wonder now how much effect the catastrophic influenza, and the death of his sister, had on his decision to become a physician. He cared greatly for his community and his extended family. Now, it was time to do the same for Alice.
His intention was to reinter Alice's remains so that she would lie alongside her family upstate. But religious restrictions prohibited that. So he opted for a cast stone settee inscribed with Alice's name on a plaque, honoring her memory and her sacrifice. Fittingly, the bench faces the graves of her parents.
On a stormy afternoon this past July, the family gathered from around the eastern seaboard at the cemetery in Shenandoah to dedicate the memorial. It was a service conceived and choreographed by my father, now the patriarch of a dispersed clan who seldom see one another.
We huddled under a canopy during a hard rainfall. A few third-generation members made remarks. When it was my father's turn to speak, the rain conveniently stopped.
He sat on the memorial bench for Alice, his white hair tussled in the wind and addressed his closest kin, explaining why we were here. He had made speeches before audiences all his life. None, he said, was as important as this event, to only about 30 people.
He spoke about a beautiful young girl, struck down by a devastating disease, buried alone and left forgotten. He spoke about the importance of family. About values. About tradition -- and memory. We recited the mourner's Kaddish, then slowly left the cemetery for a family lunch.
I watched my father as he looked at the headstones of his other family members. He looked at ease. He had completed his task. After 92 years, he'd brought Alice home.
Harry Wall is a consultant and documentary filmmaker who lives in New York.