Author of book about Pittsburgh’s Jewish community says WWI set stage for Holocaust
The inexorable passing of time often obscures important facets of history. For Jewish people, World War II is a horrific landmark, the Holocaust forever towering over all that came before and after.
But the problems of the Jews started long before Adolf Hitler’s pogroms.
“World War I was devastating on many fronts,” says historian Barbara Burstin, the author of “Steel City Jews: In Prosperity, Depression and War: 1915-1950” (Closson Press, $25.95). “Many people don’t even get to study or appreciate the impact of World War I. … World War II eclipses World War I, but World War I set the stage for much that happened to the Jews.”
Burstin, who teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, previously released “Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community: 1840-1915.” For both books, she pored over newspaper archives and, when possible, conducted interviews. What emerges is a portrait of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in times of desperation and loss, bound together by faith and heritage despite varying viewpoints.
In Pittsburgh during the late 1910s through the 1920s, there was great concern for the Eastern European Jewish population, particularly in Poland and the Ukraine. Burstin found references to numerous philanthropic drives for these populations in the pages of the Jewish Criterion, a newspaper that was printed from 1895 to 1962.
“You had drives not only for the Jews in Europe,” she says, “ but also for Jews in Palestine, because World War I impoverished them, as well.”
Burstin notes that Pittsburgh was a “bastion of Zionism” during this era, although there were factions that did not agree with the concept. Notably, the Reform Jewish community, then predominately German, thought that it was better to concentrate on spiritual matters.
Newly arrived immigrants took an opposing stance.
“They were from Eastern Europe and had a visceral connection to the Zionist movement because they knew what anti-Semitism was all about,” Burstin says. “Many of them had heard about the Zionist movement and supported it while they were in Europe. So they were much more committed to a political Zionism than the reform Jews, who basically said being Jewish was about religion.”
Today, Squirrel Hill is the “heartland” of Jewish Pittsburgh. But during the period Burstin writes about, the Hill District was home to many Jewish families, who co-existed with black neighbors. Burstin says the Hill’s economic circumstances — most residents were poor — made for more commonalities than not.
“I think what’s overlooked is that blacks and Jews got along,” says Burstin, who interviewed former Hill District residents for “Steel City Jews.” “Sure, there was some prejudice on each side, but basically people lived together in neighborhoods. There was no infighting.”
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Pittsburgh had a number of Jewish leaders and agencies committed to combating discrimination against blacks. While social justice became increasingly important, Burstin found there were numerous Jews contributing to local and national arts and culture. Notably, Samuel Rosenberg was an important modernist abstract painter, and Oscar Levant became a famed composer and pianist.
Burstin notes that Jewish patronage, especially of museums and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, were critical to the welfare of the local arts. Edgar Kaufmann especially played an important role, financing the Civic Light Opera and commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater, one of the world’s most renown architectural landmarks in Fayette County. But Burstin thinks one of his crowning achievements was Kaufmann’s, the department store that was a pioneer of design and decor.
“He was a major figure (in Pittsburgh), no question,” Burstin says.
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.