One family's story of Spanish flu

Spring 1918: A formal portrait was taken in a photographer's studio in a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The young couple - Hannah (Chaya) Klein Herskowitz, age 27, and her husband, Philip (Ephraim Fishel) Herskowitz, age almost 30 - stand close together right behind their children, Marvin, aged three and Elsie, aged six. They all look scrubbed, starched and polished in the manner of the times. Hannah has an almost-smile, Mona Lisa style; she is in the early stage of pregnancy with her third child. It is the day before Lag Ba'omer, when Marvin would receive his first haircut. Therefore, his mother arranged this visit to the photographer, to preserve this moment before the curls were trimmed. November 1918: Hannah is in the last stage of pregnancy. Her parents, Ignatz and Ida Klein, who live nearby, are under quarantine because they are ill with Spanish flu. There is nobody to take care of them. Yet Hannah's doctor tells her not to go to her parents' home because she is more at risk than they are; pregnant women had the highest death rate. An uncle tells her she must go, there is nobody else. [According to historical accounts, many nurses answered the preceding summer's call to help the soldiers overseas in World War I, creating a nursing shortage for civilians. Of those nurses still in the community, many were themselves ill.] Hannah asks her husband what she should do. "Whatever you decide, I will support your decision," he answers. She goes to her parents and, because of her late-stage pregnancy, she takes Elsie with her to help. When they become ill, Philip, who has stayed behind with Marvin, joins them. They all come down with the flu. Hannah's parents recover, and go on to live long lives - as do Philip and Marvin. The recollections of the survivors differ as to whether Hannah gives birth before her death; but if so, the infant lives only a day or so and no record of it is kept. Elsie, age six, dies a week after her mother. Marvin was my father, and one of my Jewish names comes from his mother. This is the family story he told me when I was a child and that he repeated often. He personally recalled none of it, he said, being so young at the time; he retold what he heard from others. I, too, heard it told by others, in different ways through the decades that followed. In the early 1950s, when I was a child, a middle-aged woman began her story by telling me, "When I was six years old, your father's sister, Elsie, was my best friend..." Only once did I ever hear my grandfather speak of his loss, and then in few words: "We were all so very sick, and I sat shiva for two weeks straight." In the early 1970s my father's youngest aunt, Sadie, who had been 13 years old in 1918, recorded an oral family history, and this writing is partly based on the transcript of that tape. To the end of his days, nearly 80 years after the event, my father would sometimes comment, "My life would have been entirely different had my mother lived." My family's story is not unlike others of that time. The statistics for Pittsburgh alone in the last four months of 1918 were 4,817 excess deaths (i.e., not seasonal or expected) from flu and pneumonia. Philadelphia recorded more than 12,000.