A photograph of three generations of Tree of Life congregation sisterhood members. A Bar Mitzvah boy’s bencher prayer book with the date of the Tree of Life massacre embedded in the iconic Pittsburgh Steelers logo. The program from the interfaith prayer service at Duquesne University, a Catholic institution across town founded by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. A picture of the 1901 confirmation class at the synagogue. A reminiscence from Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi on how he spoke with his team that tragic Saturday.
All this, plus more, is in the newly released October 27 Archive that commemorates the slaughter of 11 Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. The archive has been assembled at www.october27archive.org by the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish History Program and & Archives.
All that, plus more, is a reminder of that sad and sober day, more than four years ago, when Pittsburgh was the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.
Since then, the mere phrase “Tree of Life” – originally appearing in the Book of Genesis as a life-giving tree and then again, in the Book of Proverbs, as an affirmation of faith – has taken on broader meaning. In contemporary times, the very words “Tree of Life” stand as a symbol of the cruelty of antisemitism, and the legacy of the 2018 gun attack.
The Tree of Life building itself rests at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, customarily considered the center of Jewish life in a city regarded as having an unusual concentration of Jewish residents. Though there are ambitious plans to transform the structure into a memorial and a center for the study of the Holocaust and other hate crimes, it stands today as a venue for prayer and contemplation – and – and for the flowering of impromptu expressions of sympathy and a venue for contemplation. Sitting midway between the home of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and a collection of kosher food outlets, passing it, by automobile, on a bus, or of foot, is part of the daily lives of thousands, including me.
And so when the archive was unveiled, I called Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh archive and the son of one of my onetime former colleagues at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – a tie that itself demonstrates the intertwined lives of Pittsburgh Jewry – and learned the origin of this new effort at remembrance. Mr. Lidji is a thoughtful man, and his remarks speak eloquently not only about his own role, but also about the sensitivity of the project – and the enduring meaning of the legacy of Tree of Life.
“Archives are for things that no longer have use but still have value,” he explained. “In this case, people are still living the experience of the Tree of Life shooting. Early on, there was tension within the community – a desire for things to be preserved, a sense that people didn’t want this to be forgotten. But there also was a sense that some of these things now in the archive should be out in the world and useful. And there was another tension, the tension between this being a local story and a global story.”
And so Mr. Lidji, working with project archivist Claire Moclock, came to the conclusion that a digital archive was the way to go.
“It addressed both tensions,” he said. “On the one hand it allowed us to have comprehensive documentation without making a decision yet about what items should be in a museum and what should not. Taking a high quality photograph of these items allowed us to preserve them in some way but delayed the decision about whether we should permanently preserve them.”
The Pittsburgh team consulted with archivists and preservationists at other sites of tragedy, including the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, Pa., the site of the crash of the fourth airliner hijacked during the 2001 terrorist attacks; the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, a three-minute walk from the site of the World Trade Center in New York; the Tucson, Arizona, structure commemorating the 2001 mass shooting whose victims included Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived, and six others, who did not; and the memorial honoring the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims. The project was underwritten in part from by an unusual grant from the Department of Justice’s victims’ assistance unit created after the domestic terrorist incident at Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
“This was a neighborhood event but there is interest in this globally,” Mr. Lidji said. “This has become an emblematic moment in American Jewish history. So the website allows us to speak to the community locally but also to allow the rest of the world to participate in that conversation.’’
Many of the objects in the archives are flyers, posters, and photographs. There are news reports from the scene and from the week that follows. But perhaps the most poignant elements are oral histories that capture the various elements of the tragedy, and various perspectives on it.
And so, listen, for a moment, to the Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania organization and a pastor in the United Church of Christ at the time of the Oct. 27 attack. “On that morning I was not only feeling a professional responsibility, but I was reaching out to my friends whom I deeply care about,” she said. “Still, today Christians have to repent about the sin of antisemitism, which is complicated and which infects our traditions since its origins.”
Now pause to listen to the testimony of onetime Steeler offensive tackle Zach Banner, beloved in Pittsburgh for his contributions at Heinz Field but more so for his reaction to an NFL player’s social media post two years after Tree of Life. Speaking about the embrace he felt from the Jewish community here, he said:
“It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it feels good to be able to display that character aspect that my mom preached so much growing up … We have to realize that a lot of the same people who hate Jews and say antisemitic things and do antisemitic things – those are the same people and the same groups and the same organizations that do things to suppress and hold down and, you know, brutalize Blacks and stereotype Blacks and not give educational resources to Blacks.”
And so, like the tragedy at Tree of Life itself, the archive shouts a message against hate, not only against Jews but also against our neighbors. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.