What Pittsburgh Victims’ Families Want to Tell the World

Andrea and Ron Wedner
Andrea and Ron Wedner (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Peg Durachko has four bankers’ boxes filled to the brim with cards and small items that she received from friends and strangers after her husband, New Light Congregation member Richard Gottfried, was murdered during the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre on Oct. 27, 2018.

In the days and weeks following the shooting, Durachko, who is Catholic, also received “food and wind chimes and blankets and candles and crosses and photos and more things that I can’t even come up with from the top of my head,” she said. “So much, that I couldn’t keep up with thanking everyone.”

Durachko is not alone. Family members of the 11 people killed that day all received a similar outpouring of support. Although the families, like Durachko, could not send personal thank-yous to everyone who reached out at such a critical time in their lives, they want the world to know how grateful they are.

“It gives me hope for humanity after the hate that was rearing its ugly head,” Durachko said.

In addition to the items she received at home, Durachko, a dentist who lives and practices in the North Hills, also got support at work.

“People just descended on my office and brought flowers,” she recalled. “They erected a ‘Stronger Than Hate’ sign that’s still there on the side of the building. The outpouring from my community was amazing.”

She received masses of emails from her dental school classmates, a handwritten note from Gov. Tom Wolf, and mail from the coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers, a favorite team of Gottfried’s. Israeli Counsel General Dani Dayan paid a shiva call to her home.

“Most of the people I got cards from I didn’t know,” she said. “It was just an outpouring of love. I can’t even wrap my head around it.”

Howard Fienberg, son of Tree of Life member Joyce Fienberg who was murdered during the attack, also was touched deeply by the kindness of strangers.

“Reuben Ebrahimoff flew into Pittsburgh only for a couple of hours for the specific purpose of giving the victims’ families a copy of a book he had recently written, ‘From Your Lips to God’s Ears,’” he recalled. “It is a gorgeous coffee table size book that is an intensive study of the Book of Psalms. Reuben turned up at Mom’s shiva, since it was all he could find.”

Although Fienberg was not focused at the time on the strangers who showed up at the shiva, “I accepted the box of books and promised to get them to the other family members,” he said. “He then had to get back to the airport pretty quickly to fly home. It was only after he left that I realized what a nice gift he had brought and I regret I did not show my appreciation properly at the time.”

Fienberg’s wife, Marnie Fienberg, has also been moved by the kindness shown by so many.

“The 27th and the 28th were days when my husband and I came to Pittsburgh and we were alone and we were crushed under the agony of this loss of Joyce in this way,” she said. “It was rock bottom. And then family started to call, friends started to call. We were telling them, ‘Don’t come until Wednesday or Thursday, it’s inconvenient, we know.’ And all of them said, ‘You don’t know what you need; we’re coming and we’re coming right away.’”

Not only did family and friends show up, but almost 2,000 others attended the funeral for Joyce.

“There were people there that certainly had no idea who Joyce was, but they came to give their love and support,” Marnie Fienberg said. “People came from all over Pittsburgh, from Cleveland, from Brooklyn, just to pay a shiva call. I definitely remember four folks who were Sephardi Jews and they came from Brooklyn and they just wanted to hug us. … They felt compelled to physically come to the shiva. And it was a whole week of this.”

While the horrendous losses “will never be over for any of our families,” she noted, “it’s important to remember the outpouring of love and the good things we are capable of. I do want to thank everybody for sending me on a journey that is positive as opposed to a journey that is negative. I could be in pretty bad despair, but because of what you did I am trying to give that forward every day with 2forseder,” a nonprofit she started last year designed to encourage families to invite two non-Jews to their seders in order to foster understanding.

For the family of murdered Tree of Life member Rose Mallinger, all the cards, letters and gifts have “been very therapeutic,” said Mallinger’s daughter, Andrea Wedner, who also was shot and seriously wounded during the attack.

“It’s been very helpful because, first of all, you know that they are going through something, too, and I think it is healing for other people to express their love to you,” she said.

In the weeks following the shooting, “every day, when the mail would come and I would get a card it really, really meant a lot,” she said. “It really kept me going.”

The Wedners have about seven shoe box size containers filled with cards. Some cards came with trinkets, including several tree necklaces and bracelets, “that people took the time to either buy or make,” she said. Her brothers, Alan and Stanley, received many cards and items as well.

“I never felt alone,” Wedner said. “I have my core group here, but to get that love and support from the community and from the world, it was beautiful.”

Cherished items she received from strangers include a six-foot-high “Stronger Than Hate” symbol created by a welder who knows a colleague of Wedner’s and a letter from a man whose own mother had died a year and a half ago. The write-ups he had read about Rose Mallinger reminded him of his mother.

“With the pain I felt from her death I cannot begin to even comprehend or imagine the nightmare you’ve experienced and what all of you are dealing with at this moment,” he wrote. “All I know is this: every time I see your mother’s picture I begin to cry because of how I relate so well to who I perceive your mother as being. I feel a connection I feel compelled to share with you.”

It was “comforting,” Wedner said, “to know that my mother’s death affected somebody so much that they just felt the need to tell their story.”

Also comforting were the roses that people delivered to the homes of Mallinger’s children.

A friend of Rose’s daughter-in-law, Lauren Mallinger, came by the property that the Mallinger brothers share to help design a garden that has since become “Rose’s garden,” Lauren Mallinger said.

Other friends, neighbors and a cousin delivered nine rose bushes which now adorn the garden.

“If I have any more room I’ll pull it up to 11,” said Mallinger, adding that the eponymous roses provide inspiration.

“People just showed up from all around, all of our parts of life, to help us put the garden together,” she said. “It was amazing. It was very unifying because it drew our community together and closer.”

Although the Wedners and Mallingers could not thank each person individually for all the love they received, “we feel it is important to put that thank you out there,” Andrea Wedner said.

The Wedners are also grateful for the efforts of the first responders and the hospital staff, said Andrea’s husband, Ron. Andrea spent 10 days in the hospital following the shooting.

“Everybody from the doctors, the surgeons, the attendants, the nurses, the people that come in and take your food order,” said Ron Wedner. “And much like policemen and firemen, when something like this happens, there’s a much different perspective. I can’t express — as the husband of someone who was hurt — the care they gave her from top to bottom. Thinking about that keeps me going.”

This article originally ran in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a Jewish Exponent-affiliated publication.


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