Political unrest, economic uncertainty and nations on the brink of battle is not a new story.
In fact, as researchers Tammy Hepps and Eric Lidji explained, today’s struggles largely mirror the unmapped episodes of 100 years ago, when Jewish soldiers from Western Pennsylvania set out to take part in the Great War.
Through a multisensory presentation, titled “Forgotten Stories from the Homefront: Jews in Western Pennsylvania during World War I,” Hepps and Lidji showcased a collection of materials threaded by tales of historical resonance and emotional gravitas.
The idea for the Nov. 12 program originated nearly a year earlier when Hepps, a researcher at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, encountered competing frustrations.
“Americans don’t seem to know or care that this year is the 100th anniversary of when we entered the war. … [And] Jews seem to have no idea how horrific World War I was for the Jewish communities in Europe,” she remarked.
To right both wrongs, Hepps, a Harvard University graduate and curator of the HomesteadHebrews.com website, went to the proverbial stacks. What she encountered was shocking, she said.
“I started doing the research on the war during the election cycle last year (both before and after) and was just struck at the uncanny parallels and disheartening similarities and differences between the challenges then and now and how people responded. I felt like this was a real opportunity to use history to get people to think more critically about the present and our opportunities as we live through it.”
“My hope was to present all this history in a way that might inspire self-reflection about the kinds of Jews and Americans we want to be today,” said Hepps, who, along with her collaborator, adopted technical means for achieving their task.
After months of preparation, and as more than 125 attendees gathered on the fifth floor of the Heinz History Center, Hepps and Lidji occupied opposite sides of the Mueller Event Center.
Flanked by large screen projections, the researchers ripped through slides in duet fashion, as each orator built on the previous person’s postulations.
The narrative combination of caesuras and consequent clicks through PowerPoint catapulted the audience’s interest in a subject largely unknown.
“I’m more familiar with World War II than World War I, so this is amazing,” said Lee Kikel of Hampton Township.
“Originally, we were going to do a traditional program with one speaker followed by another,” said Lidji, who was recently named director of the RJHPA. “We were each going to choose a piece of World War I history to talk about at length. But as we started researching, we just found so much interesting material to share.”
“I thought that people would be amazed to know how much this period was a turning point for things we think turned in different ways at other times,” said Hepps.
By creating a tapestry of scripted utterances interwoven with photographs, telegrams and reprints of old newspaper clippings, the audience experienced a presentation unlike any many had seen.
The work was impressive for what it exhibited, explained Arnie Gefsky, chair of the RHJPA.
This was a “fabulous job done by Tammy Hepps and Eric Lidji, our new director; and another example of how, by using our own archives and the records we collect from the community, we are able to put together the basic pieces and components of this program,” said Gefsky.
Along with granting new insights, the Nov. 12 program served as a reminder of past service to a local cause.
“Before Tammy or Eric speak, we’re taking an opportunity to honor Betty Arenth, who was for many years senior vice president of the Heinz History Center and this year retired,” said Gefsky. “She’s been such an important supporter of the Rauh, and we’re honoring her with a few words from one of our board members, Judy Robinson.”
In honoring and praising Arenth, Robinson, a published poet, read an acrostic poem that she composed for the occasion.
“Our heartfelt thanks for all the years together! Good luck to you, Betty, our very special friend,” concluded Robinson, who then invited the researchers to begin their remarks.
As the event unfolded, the artifacts and their custodians were on full display.
Apart from the “records we have that enable us to do this presentation, we have some very bright young people who lend their genius to what we do,” said Gefsky.
“This program is a model for the kinds of events we hope to do in the future at the Rauh,” said Lidji. “We want to tell well-researched, meaningful stories about overlooked corners of regional Jewish history, and we want to find innovative ways to tell those stories.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz