Kehillat Israel History

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Bringing Alice Home

Posted by kehillatisrael on October 2, 2010 at 10:41 PM

On June 13, 2010 a gathering of family and friends took place on the cemetery. This special event was organized by Dr. Norman Wall and its purpose was the dedication of a marble bench in memory of his sister Alice.

 

The Kehillat Israel Congregation Cemetery Division wishes to thank Dr. Wall for bringing Alice home in this meaningful way; and for his generous donation to the cemetery fund.

The following article was written by Norman’s son Harry.



 

Harry D. Wall

June 30, 2010

 

BRINGING ALICE HOME….After 92 years

 

 

The passage in the history book, about the devastating Spanish influenza that took the lives of 20 million people early in the last century, was brief, almost cryptic: “Alice Wolowitz,  nurse at [Philadelphia’s] Mount Sinai Hospital, began her shiftin the morning, felt sick, and was dead twelve hours later.” But for my father, reading that sentence from John Barry’s “The Great Influenza”, the worst pandemic in human history, it was like hearing a voice from the grave. Alice was his sister and, until that moment, her death had been a mystery.

 

Philadelphia was ground zero and the first appearance of this modern-day plague in the US. And it was there that Alice, then only 16, was living and studying in 1918. No one ever knew how or where she died. Barry’s sentence, illustrating the virulence of the flu strain, described just one more death among millions. But it was like finding the Rosetta Stone.  My father was stunned.  That piece of information came not only as a revelation after nearly a century. It was also as a call to action.

 

My father, Norman, was only four years old when Alice died and so never even knew his sister. But that was beside the point. He had a mission to fulfill and, fortunately, the strength and capabilities to carry it out.

 

At 96, an age when most of his contemporaries are either dead or incapacitated, he began researching and tracking the remains of Alice. After locating her in an anonymous grave in Philadelphia, he began to organize a memorial service for a sister he never knew. To bring her “home”. Home is a scenic mountaintop cemetery in Schuylkill County, Pa where his parents, brothers and sisters, and other family members are at rest.

 

The youngest of nine children, Norman  is now the only surviving sibling. His own father had left the Russian pale at the end of the 19th Century, part of the large migration of Jews escaping pogroms and seeking a better life in America. My grandfather’s life is a familiar immigrant’s story: an itinerant young peddler whose journey took him to a small mining town in the Anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. There he opened a dry goods store, raised a large family, and managed to carveout a decent, hard scrabble life as a somewhat observant and well- respected Jew in a community made up largely of Irish, Polish and Baltic immigrants.

 

Alice left home as an idealistic teenager to help out in the war effort, the product of a family grateful for what America provided. She died suddenly, without a memorial service, buried along with thousands of others in Philadelphia in the midst of the pandemic. For my grandparents, it must have been a terrible trauma, the death of their beloved daughter in the remote and frightening density of the big city. About 100 miles away, it may has well have been the moon for them. And there she remained, unknown and unvisited for almost a century.

 

My father has a deep feel for family and hisr oots in small-town America. The only one of his siblings to get a college education, he became a doctor, served his country in World War II, and built a successful and fulfilling career in medicine.  Upon retirement, he often said he had the “best 50 years in medicine”, between the invention of penicillin and the profession’s takeover by technology and HMOs. I wonder now how much impact the catastrophic influenza, and the death of his sister, had on his decision to become a physician. He cared greatly for his community and his extended family. Now, it was time to do the same for Alice.

 

His intention was to re inter Alice’s remains to lie alongside her family upstate.  But religious restrictions prohibited that. So, he opted for a bench inscribed with Alice’s name on a plaque, honoring her memory and her sacrifice. Fittingly, the bench faced the graves of her parents.

 

Last month, he and his wife drove from Florida to Pennsylvania, where our family gathered from around the Eastern seaboard for the cemetery service.   We huddled under a canopy during a hard rainfall. A few family members, third generation, made remarks. When it was my father’s turn to speak, the rain conveniently stopped. He sat on the memorial bench for Alice, his white hair tussled in the wind and addressed his closest kin, explaining why we were here.  He had made speeches before audiences throughout his life. None, he said, was as important as this event, to only about 30 people.

 

At the ceremony, he spoke about a beautiful young girl, struck down by devastating disease, buried alone and left forgotten. He spoke about the importance of family. About values. About  tradition. And memory. We recited the mourner’s Kaddish. And slowly left the cemetery for a family lunch. I watched my father as he looked at the headstones of his other family members.  He looked at ease, as he had completed his task. After 92 years, he brought Alice home.

 

*****

 


 

 

 


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105 Comments

Reply Janet Schoor
9:20 AM on May 31, 2011 
This is a fascinating and moving story. Thank you for posting it.
Reply Eileen Brenner
7:44 AM on September 2, 2016 
as the daughter of a hometown native of the northeastern PA coal mining town, I must say that Harry Wall's piece about his Aunt was so touching and truly hit home. Thank you Harry, for adding another piece of local history to the annals.
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