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From the Forverts archives: Influenza 1918, everyone does the flu their own way

Reading the Forverts in 1918 you’d be forgiven for thinking revolution—rather than an influenza pandemic—was in the air. In June they thrilled to America’s military victory over Germany due to the spread of flu among Germany’s soldiers, not realizing it would make its way here, a viral passenger along for the ride with soldiers returning home from Europe and WWI. News of peace accords for Europe and Russian events post-revolution were companions on the front page. Upcoming November elections were also there, when local socialist party (and Forverts) favorite, Representative Meyer London stood for re-election for district 12, bringing local Lower East Side concerns to DC.

By October 1918 influenza was making its way into the paper through political reportage as well as a steady stream of humor and man (and it was usually a man) on the street interviews like the one below, from October 22, 1918, in which an unnamed Forverts reporter gamely walks the beat with your local druggist and then rides shotgun with a local doc to a tenement ringed with grief.

Research & translation by Chana Pollack

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Where’s it at now with this influenza? Whose suffering the most with the Spanish influenza that’s so suddenly trendy? To find out, we sent our Forverts reporter into the hardest hit neighborhood pockets of the disease.

Entering a well known druggist’s shop our reporter attempted schmoozing about the epidemic.The harried druggist got right down to business: ‘Hello, if anyone’s sick at your place you’ll have a two hour wait before your medicine’s ready.’

‘No, everyone’s still alright. I just wanted to talk to you about the influenza.’

‘Whose got time for a conversation now? Come back later.’

Alrighty. I said goodbye and started to leave when he pulled himself up short and pivoted:

‘You’re from the Forverts? Apologies for what I just said, come into my bek rum where we can talk and I can keep working. ‘

The ‘back room’ appeared completely different than usual. In quieter days, his work table was a tidy example of orderliness and his shiny appearance overdone. Flasks and dispensary containers were never left out. He’d bring them down from the shelf and return them pronto. Now, his work table was covered with flasks and bottles, boxes and containers, papers and leftovers that had dropped off the scales along with tiny weights rolling all over in a huge jumble.

‘ Something seems not quite right.’ the reporter observed.

Waving his hand gesticulating, the druggist tried speaking, but somebody had already run into the store banging loudly on the counter out there.

He returned to the back room with two new prescriptions, grabbed his weights and scales, mortar and pestle and poured his heart out.

‘It’s like I’m on fire here. A few days ago I bought one pound of aspirin, and it’s barely going to last until this evening. Magnesia? The bottles get torn from my hands. As much as I prepare—it’s not enough. I’m on my own here and I’m just wrecked.’

Suddenly we heard a woman’s voice from inside the store:

‘No Saidy, stay off the phone! Oy, what a scourge. No, I’m telling you you’ve also got to lie down. ‘

Apparently the woman had brought Saidy to the store to place a call to the doctor, when she noticed a note from the telephone company in the receiver telling folks not to over use the phone because too many telephone operators were out sick. The woman understood the note in her own way, thinking the Board of Health was trying to tell us the telephone receiver is teeming with influenza.

Beyond aspirin, magnesia and ice bags, there wasn’t much more the reporter would hear from the druggist. Exiting the druggist’s, he recognized a doctor acquaintance driving by in his car and stopped him.

Before they even exchanged a greeting, the doctor began pleading:

‘Sorry but no more calls, today nor tomorrow.’

‘No doc, I don’t need you to make a ‘call.’ Take me along for the ride.’

‘Jump in!’

In all the time we rode around together, he only spoke about ‘calls.’ He was also drained with his older patients to attend to, but the new patients were actually the ones in serious condition that needed attending to first. And he was limited in the amount of ‘calls’ he could make. What’s a man of conscience to do? He can’t neglect the harder cases, given that they’re new. We headed off to one where he tries to prevent a young woman from catching pneumonia.

On one of the most crowded streets he stops in front of a tenement where there’s already a couple of other cars there and a black wagon hitched to two black horses. Moaning could be heard coming out of the house and all around it housewives were heard sobbing and wailing.

The doctor’s case was a young woman of 25 whose husband was in Chicago on business. She was living here alone now, with her two-year-old daughter. The tenants had no great love for her because she puffed and polished herself up as if she was in fact a ‘millionairess.’ Her husband was now sick in Chicago but she didn’t know about that.

An older tenement resident who risked her life keeping an eye on the sick ones there, discreetly told the reporter about it.

‘What’s to be done about this? We can’t allow a child of the Jewish faith to die this way. You know, I have enough problems. I had a young woman here, may you be well, die of scarlet fever and my daughter-in-law died of fever also —what haven’t I been stranded with and yet survived? Thank god I’ve been granted life so far but here lies a child of the Jewish faith…’

The patient’s child began crying too, and the granny calmed her.

The doctor saw another pair of patients in the same building, spending a total of twenty minutes there.

‘How do you think the epidemic is going? Asked the reporter.

‘Meanwhile, not so well, the doctor answered, sitting back down in his car. ‘Everyday brings more ‘calls.’

‘What do you think can be done to prevent getting influenza?’

‘Fresh air, good food but not too much, good hygiene and no stress. Wait till it comes to you. In the meantime, it’s on the road.’

The reporter bade the doctor farewell and left for another neighborhood where the epidemic was also raging.

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