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Midweek Perspectives: Know your past, know yourself

Pittsburgh's immigrant generation has a story to tell - to you

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

By Barbara Burstin

Tonight at 10 p.m., WQED will air a film that I initiated and directed, "A Jewish Legacy: Pittsburgh." It is a history of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh that was a labor of love for me, a transplanted New Yorker. You will learn about the struggles and successes of Jews in Pittsburgh and some of their contributions to the city's development.

  Barbara Burstin teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Squirrel Hill. 

While the film uses documents and pictures to tell a story, the most convincing and inspiring resources that I am able to draw on are those aging members of our community who reflect on their lives. They are members of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," if you will. They talk of hardships, adjustments and contributions. Their history sweeps from the immigrant past through the trials and tribulations of great events in the 20th century that they witnessed or participated in today. They make the film what it is. They link the chain of generations and they tie the past with the present - and look beyond.

I am clearly hoping that viewers learn from this film about the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. But beyond that, I am also hoping that this film will inspire and motivate all Pittsburghers to take a much more serious look at their own history - before the connection to their past is severed.

What we all need to recognize is that many Pittsburghers today are descended from some of the 27 million immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1924 (when Congress slammed a lid on immigration). These immigrants, like the Jews, were mainly southern and eastern Europeans fleeing persecution and poverty. They settled in Pittsburgh, drawn here by the city's position as an industrial powerhouse.

That history aside, what that means for us today, is that our senior citizens often are the children or grandchildren of this immigrant generation. Their memories and experiences are the last direct link to the European past and the early immigrant experience.

If they do get the chance to tell their stories and that of their forebears, many Pittsburgh families will lose a vital connection to their roots, will lose their only opportunity to understand better what it meant to leave Europe and why these forebears journeyed to America. And even if these old-timers are not directly linked to an immigrant generation, their lives span the 20th century, a time of profound events in human history. That legacy is crucial for us to consider.

In a course that I teach at the University of Pittsburgh on the history of the American Jewish community, I regularly ask all my students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to report back on what they could find out about their family's past. They have to try to speak to some elderly relative if at all possible.

When the time comes for the reports, the room is abuzz. The students can hardly wait to share what they have learned. And what these young people have to say never ceases to surprise me.

First of all, they often have fascinating tales that they were able to gleam from their grandparents and great grandparents. But more to the point, many of them comment that it was the first time that they had really sat down and talked to their grandparents and certainly the first time that they had heard any of these stories about their family's history. Either they had never asked or the grandparents had never talked!

It is not my purpose to try to explain this most unfortunate lack of communication. What I can comment on is what comes from this effort. Students, all students, whether their roots are in eastern or southern Europe or whether their ancestors hail from western and central Europe, from Africa or the Caribbean, from Asia or wherever, they are energized and enriched by a newfound connection to their historical past. They not only delight in telling the stories of their ancestors, but they are proud of how far their families have traveled even in this century to where they are today.

With this simple exercise, not only have they learned some family history, but they have come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of what it means to be part of a particular heritage - Jewish, Italian, Polish, African-American, whatever. They feel a link to their roots. They get a sense of where they have come from, about family, about their traditions and values, about themselves. And in addition, they get a good lesson on America. They understand something about what America has always stood for, about why their ancestors came here, about the meaning of freedom and opportunity, about hard work, sacrifice, determination and about the struggles all Americans have endured. They tell me that they do not want to take for granted what they have today.

History is more than a record of the past: It is an engine to the future. It is a backdrop for us to examine who we are and where we are going. Without that connection, we face losing our moorings. We must speak to this generation before they are gone.

We must ask and they must tell. And we must do this, not just for their sake, but for our own.

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