“Provenance” is the story of an object: Who made it? Why? And through which hands did it pass before yours? Answering these questions can determine value and authenticity, but it can also reveal meaning. Even the lack of provenance can prove to be meaningful.
The provenance of this letter, given to Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives in late 2017, is weak. It was donated anonymously, without so much as a note of explanation.
It is from “Eve,” to “Dorothy,” and it is dated, simply, “Friday — the 27th.” It begins with pleasantries. Dorothy had been ill, as had Eve. Eve was now feeling better and planned to use her strength to write as much as she could before the start of Shabbos.
Eve felt relieved to hear from her pen pal, after a lull in their correspondence, “especially at this time when terror and disaster reigned here. You know Pittsburgh too well to have been unduly alarmed about those whose abode is high above the flooded area.”
With that line, the circumstances become much clearer. The date is almost certainly Friday, March 27, 1936 — 10 days after the worst flood in the history of Pittsburgh.
The high ground in question is unclear. Squirrel Hill, Greenfield, Oakland, East Liberty and Beechview all had big Jewish sections above the floodwaters. Eve describes the inconveniences she had experienced: power outages, water shortages, radio silences, gasoline pumped by hand and selling at a dollar a gallon. By that Friday afternoon, her neighborhood had returned to normal. Even the movie houses were running again.
Not so in the low-lying areas. It seems that Eve worked at Kaufmann’s Department Store, which gave her a reason to head downtown. “If you could see the muddy streets, battered shops, ruined business people, the hum and bustle of our little city, converted into a quiet, battered territory, undisturbed, except for the hum of engines still pumping water out of basements and first floors, your heart, too, would cry at the desolate scene,” she wrote.
She had slipped through one of the many checkpoints erected along Smithfield Street, designed to keep people away from the flood zone at the Point, “and saw so much it would take endless words to describe. I know nothing of the war-ridden countries in Europe, but to me the sight of truck-loads of militia men, being transported through a torn and broken community, made me think of a city left bleak and bare after a war-time raid.”
Looking at the deserted office buildings, Eve had an epiphany common to those who have witnessed the easy destructiveness of nature: that sense of the tremendous fragility of human accomplishment. In an aside, she told Dorothy, “man-made strikes are nothing for contraband workers can be secured — but nature’s strike left everyone powerless.”
The account proceeds for more than 1,000 words, over eight pages, before suddenly rushing to a conclusion: “Shall write more in a few days — father is going to the synagogue and will mail this for me thus saving me the trip down the street,” she writes.
Maybe she wrote again, maybe not. Our letter is all that survives of the correspondence.
This letter is exceptional, but it is not unique. The March 1936 flood is among the best-documented events in Pittsburgh history. A quick search of the Heinz History Center catalog reveals more than 90 relevant collections — personal reminiscences, oral histories, institutional accounts, governmental reports, books and many newspaper articles. There are hundreds of photographs, not only of the city but also of every low-lying town along the rivers. Just this past summer, I saw a photograph of the old McKees Rocks synagogue wearing a skirt of muddy floodwaters. It is the only known image of that small-town shul.
Since last October, no object in the archive has felt more relevant to me than this letter — not so much for its contents, but because of its unknown provenance. A terrible event occurred, a major trauma in the life in the city. And more than 80 years later, vivid documentation continues to wash onto the shores of the archives, from parts unknown. 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.