There is history and memory in the seemingly everyday artifacts of the mikvah. There are dated note pads, decades old kosher-for-Passover pots and a rotary dial phone dating to the 1950s.
While boxing up such belongings, Malka Markovic, Pittsburgh’s iconic mikvah lady, discussed labor, retirement and what comes next for a 92-year-old communal servant.
“It’s time for me to leave,” she said. “I’m not sad, I just can’t do it anymore.”
For 28 years, Markovic has been the mikvah attendant in Squirrel Hill. Each day she takes phone calls and schedules evening appointments for between one and six women seeking to fulfill the process of ritual purification. Markovic is a principal player in that process, ensuring that each woman’s descent into the 200-gallon water bath beneath her home submerges the entire body.
Although currently located on the corner of Shady Avenue and Pittock Street in a discreet Squirrel Hill house, Pittsburgh’s mikvah is venturing to a new locale. After years of fundraising efforts and almost reaching its $2 million goal, the ritual bath is moving to a more prominent site on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Denniston Street near the neighborhood’s bustling business district.
While possessing spa-like accoutrements, the new mikvah will lack the lifeguard who once protected its purifying waters. Markovic, a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor, has indicated that she will not follow once the move is complete. Instead, she will relocate to Beacon Place, a condominium complex on the corner of Beacon Street and Munhall Road, also in Squirrel Hill.
“It was nice for me to do this,” she said.
But retirement has come. And the nonagenarian already has her schedule booked.
“It will take me a year to unpack things,” she explained. Afterward, “I’ll go visit sick people and tell them you have to move around, you can’t sit. It’s no good to sit around; your mind works better if you do things.”
Markovic should know — she has lived this way her entire life.
In 1944, at age 18, she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. While her parents, three sisters and 12 nieces and nephews went “straight to the gas chamber,” Markovic and her sister Leah survived.
After the war, the two sisters found their two surviving brothers.
Intent on returning home, Markovic rode on top of a train from Budapest to Czechoslovakia. Her rationale was that she had buried jewelry and cash underneath a pile of wood outside of the family’s home.
“The jewelry wasn’t worth too much. The money was worth something,” she said.
Markovic found the money.
In 1951, along with her husband Beni and son David, she immigrated to the United States.
“America was the best thing for us. I didn’t want to stay where I was born,” she said.
After arriving at Ellis Island and spending a week in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Markovic and her family moved to McKeesport, where an uncle had arrived “way before the war.”
While her husband worked at Tube City Iron and Metal, Markovic “helped out” at congregation Gemilas Chessed, which eventually moved to White Oak.
“I was the cook, the baker and at one time the janitor,” she said.
In 1987, Markovic and her family relocated to Squirrel Hill.
Faithe Milch, who was then involved in the mikvah, had heard from Sylvia Lenoff, the previous mikvah lady, that Markovic was ready to give up catering.
“I called her, and she grabbed it,” said Milch.
Apart from $136 per month, Markovic and her husband were given free housing on top of the mikvah.
“They were both terrific,” said Milch. “Her husband, for years we never had anyone in there to fix things, he fixed everything. He did everything he could, and then when he passed away, she did everything she could.”
“I repaired a leaky shower, washed the tiles, fixed a leaky toilet … patched up holes,” said Markovic. “I don’t even remember a lot of the things I fixed.”
Though no longer manning the repairs, Markovic still handles much of the mikvah’s tasks.
“I clean at night after people are done,” she said. “It’s easier. It’s much better, nobody bothers me. There are no telephones, I can just get my work done.”
On the afternoon that Markovic invited a reporter into her home, she had just returned from an outing. After parking her 2003 beige Buick Century, Markovic made her way inside. Though ascending steps is challenging, sitting still is more difficult, she claimed.
Simmering on the stove was milk from the day before.
“It looks like it’s ready,” she said.
With a ladle, Markovic separated what she called “the juice” and poured it over a cloth into the sink.
“We made cheese in Europe,” she noted.
It was only recently that the Holocaust survivor started making cheese again.
“Some people I drive home gave me their expired milk, and I had to figure out what to do with it,” she said. From the old milk, Markovic made fresh cheese.
Perhaps a portent of what to come, Markovic stopped ladling the creamy liquid to offer an observation.
“I like people to talk to. I had visitors to talk to every night,” she said. “But I have a lot of friends. They’re waiting for me. They want to play rummy.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.