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From the Forverts archives, Influenza 1918: Scenes from a Jewish drug store

Healthcare was similarly overloaded during the 1918 influenza as it is today during the coronavirus epidemic, as seen in this article originally published in the Forverts 11/6/1918.

Yente Serdatsky, a staff writer at the Forverts, was a contentious figure known for her stories, novellas, and dramatic sketches. Here, she uses her descriptive talents to paint the scene at a busy drugstore in the midst of the Spanish Influenza, juxtaposing sorrow and pranks as the druggists have a mean-hearted laugh at the expense of a female customer.

Let’s treat each other better this time!

-Mira Fox


You can find the drugstore on the corner, on the 6th floor of a stone house. Its sign, seen from both directions, is filthy and narrow. Inside, the shop’s walls, once painted white, are flaking and leaving behind a strange color. The ceiling is low enough to touch by hand. Worn out linoleum covers the floor.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day, but inside it was gloomy. The owner and the two clerks looked dejected and tired. And it’s no wonder as from sunrise on they’ve been handing out medicines and guidance to the weepy. It’s as if each customer sought to leave bits of their sorrow in the shop.

It’s 4 pm on a busy day. One prescription after another to fill. Pouring and pouring, measuring and grinding.

The cash register rings and the owner, a middle-aged, middle-class sort, got a happy glint in his eye once more, reminded of his mortgage. The two clerks, both 30-something-year-olds, were less excited about all the “busy.” They were in the mood for a little bit of fun, and so the gloomy mood started to lift.

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Jaded, they dispensed medicines, when a young woman entered the store. She seemed around their age and was tall and strong, with big hands and wide feet. Her eyes were black and angry and her face was round and red as an apple fresh out of the barrel. She approached the counter really pissed off and in a slightly hoarse loud voice said:

”Mister Druggist, give me some kind of medicine!”

The clerks poke their heads out from behind the divider where they fill prescriptions, take a look at the “sicko,” and yank each other’s sleeves, standing aghast. Their strict boss notices and feels his inner scorner awaken.

”What’s the matter with me?”she says loudly. ”Oy, you shouldn’t know from it. I’m afraid I’m catching!”

“What are you catching?” the boss asks, and the clerks’ eyes bob gleefully.

“What am I catching? The ‘fluenza.’”

“What hurts?”

“What hurts? You shouldn’t know from it. My kishkes are spinning. I’m totally nauseous, my sides are killing me and so is my chest and my eyes.”

“And what kind of medication would you like?”the druggist tosses back at her.

“What do I want? Something for my stomach.”

“Give her something for her stomach,”the boss orders the first clerk and winks.

“Make her medicine,”the first clerk says, grabbing the second one’s sleeve.

The second clerk retreats behind the divider screen, followed by the first one and they crack up laughing.

The boss, despite being older and more mature, can’t hold back. He mixes a glass of castor oil with something to dissipate the odor. The woman takes it, pays and opens her bright red lips. The medicine rolls in and down as if into an abyss. She returns the glass and calmly heads to the door. The boss disappears behind the screen. And all three rock with laughter.

The woman stands by the door, turns and looks around the store, intuiting something but not knowing quite what it is. For a second, it seems she’s going to sit down, but then out she goes, on her way.

The laughter ceases and the gloom returns. The day and all its teary faces coming and going, with more new sighs and moans filling up the store. And the fear and funky thoughts. Here a doctor has died, and then another one, and there a druggist. And here a customer, and there a brother-in-law, and there a sister and a child.

The druggist offered a customer some old dried-up medicine from the shelves and the two clerks behind the dividing screen bent, heads bent over their work, filled prescriptions.

Evening was just as dejected and eerie as daytime. Previously, all three phones in the shop were working, and evening would be such a joyful time. Young men and women came around to use the phone, laughing and telling jokes and planning dates. Now only one of the phones still worked, and it was only to be used to speak with a doctor. Each ring now meant a doctor was calling to talk about another tragedy.

Suddenly, in the midst of the misery, the woman ran inside again. This time she was coughing and her hair was damp. Her red face was even redder and she seemed nearly feral. She only addressed the owner:

“What do you have against me?” she yelled angrily.

The two clerks spin out from behind the screen and watch her.

“You too. You bums,”she yelled noticing them. She went over to them waving her hands.

“What happened?” asks the cool owner. The two clerks turn slightly pale.

“What!” the woman yells. “You’re still asking! Such bastards you are. What did you give me to drink?”

“Castor oil, what happened?”

“Castor oil!” the woman squeaked. “It should happen to you. Bums that you are. Pirates should snatch you. My guts are churning and I feel horrible. You gave me something spiteful to drink and ran back behind your screen laughing. I saw you.”

At the words “something spiteful to drink” all three cracked up laughing. The woman got madder and started screaming louder, approaching them with her hands outstretched.

Who knows how it would have ended. A 10-year-old boy waiting in line for a prescription to be filled saved them.

“Misses,”he tapped her arm,”you’re sick, so how are you able to yell so loudly?”

“Ha!”she yelled, and went over to grab him. Had he been older, she’d surely have fixed him up but good. But she just stood stock-still.

In the meantime, the two clerks hid behind the screen. The boss was busy. Two weeping women entered the store to use the phone. The woman looked around as though embarrassed and quickly left the store.

Research and translation by Chana Pollack

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