In preparing for a recent renovation, the archivists at the University of Pittsburgh found an item that they felt belonged at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives. I assumed it would be something small, perhaps a folder of correspondence. I went over there to look and was stunned to discover this beautiful framed montage of Bertha Rauh.
It’s heavy and huge — 46 inches by 32 inches. The caption at the bottom reads: “How Mrs. Enoch Rauh ushered in the year 1913 — on Dec. 31st 1912.” Each of the 14 photographs shows Mrs. Rauh visiting a different social service agency in Pittsburgh.
Thrilled, I hauled the frame back to the Heinz History Center, where the other archivists flitted around it like hummingbirds at a feeder, pointing out every charming detail: the white plume rising from Mrs. Rauh’s hat, the broom makers at the Work Shop for the Blind, and especially the caption: “Refereeing a Boxing Match at Kingsley House.”
Certain historical items carry you off in a swirl of romance. They seem to have come not just from another time but from another world — one more picturesque and dramatic than our own. The sight of this well-dressed Jewish matriarch appearing now at a hospital on the South Side and now at an orphanage on the North Side, gracefully communing with the downtrodden of different races, creeds, ages and genders, feels more like a sparkling scene from a movie than a document of real life. If you or I were to witness so much need in one day, we would arrive home sweaty, exhausted, cranky and desperate for me-time.
Nothing in this montage gives any explanation of its reason for being. The backing is completely blank, aside from a framing tag from Kaufmann’s “Art Picture Department.”
At the dawn of 1913 Bertha Rauh was about halfway through her 19-year tenure as the president of the National Council of Jewish Women-Pittsburgh Section. In her first decade of leadership, she had transformed the organization into one of the most important social service agencies in the city. Its membership increased to 800 from 150, and its reach expanded. She wove the needs of the Jewish community into the needs of other communities, forging strong relationships and creating a broad network of philanthropy.
She had become one of the leading humanitarians in Pittsburgh, which is why the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times devoted a page and a half to her work in its Sunday edition on January 12, 1913, in a feature called “Some Snapshots of a Busy Day With Mrs. Enoch Rauh.” The photographs and the captions in this montage all come from the article.
We follow Mrs. Rauh on her rounds, watching her interact with social workers and their clients. Between locations, we hear her thoughts on life. She espouses the “conservation of leisure,” and she calls upon others of her privileged position to become personally engaged and thereby “prove by one’s presence that the whole social fabric is democratic.”
Her philosophy can be summarized in a single quotation: “It has been my belief always that the first place for every woman is in the home. Motherhood is her noblest function, but I believe that the idea is carried to a false conclusion when we insist that her last place is in the home. I believe that the home in modern life is no longer the place of four walls, but that it has stretched out until it articulates with every public function, whether that function be religious, social, philanthropic, charitable, industrial, economic or civic.”
Like that quotation, the article can be read in two competing ways: as an expression of one devoted spirit, or as a glimpse into the societal values of her day. Mrs. Rauh’s thoughts on gender, class, race and religion reveal her compassion and commitment. They are also tethered to her milieu, with all its complications — just as ours are today — and those complications often seem intent on clipping the wings of a whimsical artifact.
True understanding probably involves both ways of seeing the world — individually and societally. I’m drawn to the former. But I grudgingly respect those who, in artfully pursuing the latter, can replace the mysteries of romance with the mysteries of reality. pjc
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.