An idyllic childhood memory was shattered Oct. 27 when the news broke that a gunman spewing anti-Semitic invective had slaughtered defenseless worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue building in Squirrel Hill. My family had lived at 3080 Beechwood Blvd. in Squirrel Hill until I was 5. Our home was about a half-hour walk from where the synagogue is now located.
Those murders in a house of God also affected me because the Columbine High School massacre of April 1999, which I helped cover for The Denver Post, will remain an indelible memory until the day I die.
My memories of Squirrel Hill are happy ones — the 1940s were a good time to be a little boy in a place where neighbor ladies and my grandmother, Sara Papparodis, got together at 3:30 p.m. sharp for coffee and conversation. (Yes, I know, they’re “women” in the stylebook, but in the 1940s, you called them “ladies.”) They could be counted on to produce a cookie or two, accompanied by a pinch on the cheek.
Yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) knew lots of the neighbors, and when she took my older brother, Nick, and me for walks to a nearby park, she would often stop to chat. It was a beautiful neighborhood, with tree-lined streets and immaculately kept yards.
Somehow, Yiayia and the neighbor ladies managed to communicate: You’d hear Greek, English and Yiddish (which she didn’t speak).
I never felt anything but happy and safe when we lived in Squirrel Hill. Even after moving to Brookline and, years later, to New Mexico and Colorado, I had a special fondness for Squirrel Hill, so much so that when I returned to Pittsburgh after graduating from the University of New Mexico to work for the old Pittsburgh Press, I frequently went to movies or dinner in Squirrel Hill, despite living in the South Hills.
My earliest memories are of the huge old three-story house on Beechwood Boulevard, where my family had moved shortly after my birth in 1943. I recall the wartime blackouts, when our grandmother told us we had all the lights out the better to see our mother, Cecelia Chronis, when she came home from work at the Eon Grill, which she and my father owned on East Eighth Avenue in Homestead. What Yiayia didn’t explain was why the house was still dark after Mother came home.
There was lots of room to play in the ample backyard, and, when the weather was bad, there was a huge, open room on the third floor where you could ride a tricycle in a pinch.
But we also spent a lot of time in the house’s large entry hall, which our mother called the reception room, listening to Yiayia’s stories of the Old Country, and to long poems about kings, princesses and warriors.
Almost everybody we knew then was either Greek or Jewish. Our neighbors had names like Schwadron or Jacobson, with the exception of an older boy named Peter D’Imperio, the son of a high school coach.
We didn’t know about anti-Semites and their fanatical hatred. We didn’t know about the Greeks who perished by the hundreds of thousands during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Or that our paternal grandmother, Panayiota, had died of starvation because the Nazis had commandeered all the crops to feed their legions. Or about our cousin, Lt. Peter Mandros, who was summarily executed by an SA Standertenfuhrer after his B-17 was shot down on a mission over Germany in July 1944. Or about the Holocaust, in which millions of people who were just like our wonderful neighbors were murdered because of a hateful madman and his evil minions.
The real Nazis were nothing like the clumsy buffoons in “Hogan’s Heroes.” They were stone killers. And although the genuine articles are mostly dead now, every so often, just when we think we’ve seen the last of this scourge, somebody like Robert Bowers pops up to commit a new outrage. To kill people he doesn’t know just because they happen to be Jewish, several of whom were Pitt graduates like my late mother.
A while back I had my DNA analyzed and learned I’m not 100 percent Greek and have Eastern European, some Western European, and Jewish DNA. It angers me to think that just because of the blood in my veins, an ignorant misfit like Bowers would want to kill me and others like me.
No way can I forgive this monster for murdering 11 innocent human beings, and, in the process, demolishing a cherished memory. PJC
A native of Pittsburgh, Peter G. Chronis is a veteran journalist.