Categorized | Columnists, Light Lines

Zaidy was a hero in the 1918 flu epidemic

Posted on 15 February 2018 by admin

The current flu epidemic has hit us exactly 100 years after the one that decimated the world’s population following World War I. Then, it killed millions around the globe, and at least 670,000 here in the United States.
Virtually everyone alive today is either too young or too old to have individual, personal memories of that tragic time. My own uncle, who recently turned 95, was a toddler then, born after the misery as the next-to-youngest member of a very large Jewish family, of which there were many in those “olden days.” Among those families, there also were many that experienced at least one personal loss.
The great “they” theorize that a single sailor in the U.S. Navy, returning to shore after overseas duty, brought the flu home with him. But in the long run, while its origin is a matter of interest and some debate, it’s of less importance than the devastation it caused. We who live today were not even born then, or were immature enough to be fully aware, but many families carry sad memories of those lost ones to this very day. My own family is one of them.
I was born many years after the great epidemic, so I never knew my Aunt Ida. My mother was the oldest of 12 siblings; this sister was her family’s third, but first to die. As I learned over the years from many relatives (not just my mother), Ida was taken to a hospital — overcrowded, as all hospitals were at that time — so as not to infect other members of the family.
I know Ida’s basic, important dates because my Zaidy kept birth records on the back of my Boubby the Philosopher’s ketubah. She was on the list of the dozen as born on March 14, 1909; he also recorded her death date as October 24, 1918. A 9-year-old, doomed in the plague’s very first year, when the hospitals were already filled with the dying — and the dead…
When he got word of Ida’s passing, Zaidy went immediately to the hospital himself, to pick up her body for burial. But there was no time then, and not enough funeral professionals, to carry out all the pre-interment rituals we Jews think of as essential today. Tahara — the washing and dressing of the body — was suspended for the duration. Families were on their own…
When Zaidy arrived to take his daughter to the cemetery, he saw a dead baby boy lying next to her. Whose child was that? He wanted to know. But nobody knew. So many people had come in so quickly that the skeleton staff still on duty could only assume this little child had been brought in with, or perhaps by, a parent — or maybe even both parents — who had also subsequently passed away. Not a soul had even asked about him, much less come to claim him. So, my Zaidy did what he thought was right under those strange circumstances: He took that tiny body to bury with his own daughter. And he did.
There were no gravediggers then. There were only makeshift coffins of a sort. My Zaidy was physically strong, but I have no idea how he, or anyone else, could have been strong enough mentally or psychologically at the time to do what he did: He dug the grave himself, burying Ida and the unknown baby along with her.
So, every year, on the date of Ida’s yahrzeit, we say Kaddish not just for her, but also for that unclaimed little boy whose identity was never discovered.
This year’s flu is of epidemic proportions, but now we have better methods of preventing it, treating it, even curing it; our medical knowledge is much more advanced and personnel much better able to handle its victims — including those who must die. But circumstances were tragically different then, when my Zaidy became a hero — one known, however, only by his own family.

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