Picking up the pieces left behind by the massacre at Tree of Life

Eric Lidji has spent the last year combing through an ocean of love and grief.

It’s an ocean that grew to span the globe, and one that began at a house of prayer miles from his office, on a Pittsburgh street where some would least expect it. 

Lidji is director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at Heinz History Center. And in the 12 months since the massacre at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue, he became a gatherer of just about everything that followed.

The letters. The tributes. The articles. The photographs. The videos. The memorials.

Physical objects from the public response to the Tree of Life attack are pictured in storage at Heinz History Center. // Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.

In the outpourings, debates, and pleas that came after, there was Lidji, pulling drops from an ocean, one by one. 

A year later, and there’s no end in sight. 

“Some people keep saying, ‘Well, you must be almost done,’” Lidji told The Incline. “And I’m like, ‘We’ve almost just started.’ (…) The history center will probably be collecting things about this event for a century or more.” 

Few have questioned why he’s doing it. While the preservation of traumatic memories can be uncomfortable, on this scale — and in this context — Lidji said it seemed unavoidable, even vital.  

“This seems to be one of the rare moments when the archival impulse is very obvious to people,” Lidji, a former journalist, explained by phone. “Especially within the Jewish community — the moral support has been incredible.” 

He continued: “I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve tried to come up with a really concise way of explaining it. (…) If you’ve been doing your profession long enough, you have a gut sense of when you’re needed, and this immediately felt obvious to me.” 

He pauses. 

“It feels like these objects are an outgrowth of something that’s happening in America. And it’s for other people to explain what that thing is — that’s for historians and academics and politicians to explain. But it’s clear that a certain kind of violent event is a part of American life right now, and the response to that is also a part of American life right now. The purpose of archives is to preserve the original documentation of the important parts of life. From a professional standpoint, I think that’s why you do it.”  

That may sound more clinically detached than it actually is, because Lidji is far from unaffected by the ocean around him.

“You can shut all that (emotion) down. But at some point early on I decided that I wasn’t gonna. You know, there’s a way to do that and I decided I didn’t want to do that. (…) It’s awkward to cry at work, but it happens.”

Lidji said archivists don’t collect things because they know how they’re going to be used or how they’re going to be viewed in the future or how they’ll make people feel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. 

The Society of American Archivists says it’s about strengthening our collective memory. It’s also less directly about preserving tools, the same now being used to convey the horrors of 9/11 to the first post-9/11 generation. 

With Tree of Life, the History Center’s physical collection is already as massive as you might expect and includes more than 150 linear feet of letters, memorial objects, and gifts sent to Jewish organizations citywide. It took just two months for the archive to gather an amount that would normally take a year and a half to accrue. There was also an appeal to the public for donations of physical items and digital content — a collective memory, made by collective means.  

The Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center has collected thousands of letters written to individuals and organizations within the local Jewish community following the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. // Image courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.

Lidji describes an archival process with three tiers: 

1) Real-time collection, which in this case means gathering mementoes from programs, events, Tree of Life vigils, and one-year commemorations as they happen

2) The compiling of a massive digital trove (currently 71 GBs and growing) of news coverage and related content that’s been posted to the internet 

3) Collecting memorial objects, including items from two roadside memorials — one outside the synagogue at Shady and Wilkins avenues and one at Wilkins and Murray avenues — that began growing around police cordons as news of the massacre broke and which continued to grow in the weeks and months that followed. 

There is no exhibition currently planned. For now, these items remain with the History Center, many for safekeeping.

Looking forward, Lidji envisions something like the publicly accessible digital archive of letters, oral histories, and memorial objects created in Boston after the 2013 marathon bombing there. 

“I’d like to do something similar here,” Lidji said, noting that it would all depend on funding.

“The reason we have these organizations loan these objects to us rather than give them to us is we don’t want them to have to rush to make a decision about which objects they want to keep and which to donate when they’re busy with other things. (…) So a website like that would allow us to showcase everything comprehensively and still not preclude the individual organizations from keeping certain items they want to keep.”  

Chad Dehmer, 33, of Lawrenceville, brings flowers to Tree of Life on Oct. 28, 2018. // Colin Deppen / For The Incline.

Lidji faces a similar dilemma himself. 

Despite the volume he’s already collected, Lidji said there are items and materials he’s missed. This includes those connected to debates about gun control that cropped up in the aftermath of the Tree of Life shootings. It’s sometimes hard, he said, from an archivist’s perspective, to decide how broad the focus should be. 

“I kind of regret that I didn’t go to that protest and at least try to see if there was something there (to collect),” Lidji said of a Downtown demonstration against a local set of gun restrictions inspired, in no small part, by the massacre at Tree of Life. 

He added, “But the nice thing about an archive is, like, it can always make its way back around to you.”  

Now at the one-year mark, the urge to preserve is only growing. Tree of Life leaders recently announced they plan to rebuild and reopen the synagogue for the first time since the anti-Semitic attack.  

And while a memorial is planned for the 11 people killed, and while a public memorial is also being discussed, an ocean of material and human emotion remains out there. 

Lidji says the archive has only just started combing through it.

He says they’ll still be combing through it when one year becomes two.