There’s the history of nations, the history of kings, the history of wars — all of it written down in textbooks and taught to generations of school kids.
Then there’s the history of people, of individual lives in all their mundane, complex glory. You find it in diaries, old letters, newspaper obituaries and family photos — and to some scholars it’s infinitely more interesting than all those names and dates they had to memorize in high school history classes.
At DU, a major source of such information is the Ira M. and Peryle H. Beck Memorial Archives, a repository of Colorado Jewish history located in the basement of Penrose Library. Among the treasures stored there are more than 10,000 patient records from the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS), a Denver-area tuberculosis sanatorium that opened in 1904 on a site that now houses the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.
Enter the shelves, open a box of file folders and you’ll find stacks of hospital forms with the usual data — name, age, date admitted, nearest relatives — but you’ll also find unexpected glimpses into patients’ lives: letters from home, poems, songs, photos, stories, plays and other materials that give a fuller picture of the men and women who spent time at the JCRS.
“One of the most exciting things about the JCRS records is that they offer us an intimate window into the everyday lives of tuberculosis patients,” says Jeanne Abrams, a professor at Penrose and DU’s Center for Judaic Studies and curator of the Beck Archives. “During the late 19th and early 20th century, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. It played havoc with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The JCRS records reflect the challenges the patients faced emotionally and physically and what daily life was like in a sanatorium.”
The fresh air state
In its heyday, the JCRS served 300 to 500 patients per year and was one of the country’s best-known TB sanatoriums. Colorado’s dry air was thought to be part of the cure for the disease, and sufferers from around the country came to the state for copious doses of fresh air, healthy food, rest and exercise. The JCRS was one of more than 40 sanatoriums in the state.
“Probably more people came to Colorado in search of health than came in search of wealth,” Abrams says. “We think of the gold and silver boom — but one early report revealed that by 1925 probably as much as 60 percent of Denver’s population was here because they or a family member had had tuberculosis.”
Abrams, who first started organizing the JCRS archives as part of her PhD dissertation in the early 1980s, recently completed a biography of Dr. Charles Spivak, the Russian-born physician who founded the JCRS. Spivak — who at one time taught classes at DU — was adamant that patients be treated at no charge, relying instead on thousands of small donations from people around the country for his funding.
“He started out as a radical socialist, and he became a successful physician in the U.S. eventually, but I think his socialist roots stayed with him in the sense that he wanted [the JCRS] to be a people’s institution,” Abrams says. “He wanted it to be funded by ordinary, working-class people and to make this a different type of institution.”
And though the JCRS and the nearby National Jewish Hospital (now National Jewish Health) admitted non-Jewish patients as well, the majority of their patients were Jewish immigrants, who were among the major sufferers of the disease in the early 20th century. As Abrams writes in her book, “by the turn of the century it was evident that the poor — especially immigrants — suffered disproportionately from the disease. Many in the Jewish community came to believe that treating Jewish patients … in a welcoming environment that respected their cultural practices and religious beliefs contributed to an improvement in their health.
Over the years the JCRS files at DU have served as rich sources for historians, sociologists, ethnologists and more — even a literature professor from New York University who recently journeyed to campus to study the noted Yiddish poets who spent time at the JCRS.
One of the most innovative uses of the archives is the brainchild of Martin Mendelsberg (MFA ’72), a DU art grad who now teaches graphic design courses at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. He brings his students to Penrose at the beginning of each semester and lets them loose in the JCRS files, challenging them to find a personal connection with a patient — same hometown, father with the same occupation, whatever resonates. Using the files as raw material, the students use their design skills to produce short books about the patients, incorporating typography, pictures, illustrations and other printed matter.
“The first time I looked at the files I thought, ‘Here’s some gold.’ And I can’t tell you how these kids’ lives are transformed,” says Mendelsberg, a Denver native whose grandmother was treated at the JCRS. “You’re going through these dusty old folders and you find typewritten pages, you find handwritten letters — most of us are used to living in front of a computer monitor or in front of our laptop. But when you see real handwriting that’s 50, 60, 80 years old, it makes quite a difference.”
Recent Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design graduate Shawn Wills agrees. His work was part of a display of JCRS books at Penrose this fall.
“That was the pleasure of the whole thing — you were holding somebody’s personal letters from 100 years ago,” he says. “It was more than just a medical record; you started seeing these people come to life. Where they’re from, what they did for a job, addresses — you can start to piece together a map of their lives, which may have been forgotten for some 90 years.”
Wills’ research into JCRS patient Sol Lustgarten, a musician and vaudeville director, took him in some unusual directions. Piecing together clues from personal letters and business stationery, Wills discovered that Lustgarten had arranged a tune called “Take Me Out to Lakeside,” an ode to the Denver amusement park located near the JCRS campus. He also found mention of a song Lustgarten had composed, but that his family was unable to locate after the composer died in 1913. Wills found the copyright notice online and located the piece through the Library of Congress, which mailed him a photocopy of the score. Wills hired a musician to perform the composition and placed a greeting-card-style recording of the song in the dust jacket of his book.
“With each piece [of information] I found out and wrote down, I connected to more and more people,” says Wills, who plans to write a second volume on Sol Lustgarten on his own time. “My story became a story in itself.”
In the five years he’s been working with Abrams and the JCRS records, Mendelsberg has seen students incorporate photographs, song lyrics — even a play written by a former patient — into their books. Students will track down relatives and research hometowns for their nonfiction books, or use a patient file as a starting point for a work of fiction.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that art students are able to use this,” Abrams says. “My favorite was a woman who found a patient who was here and he left his fiancée back East and they corresponded. She was able to track down the descendants and got permission to use letters and pictures.
“These extraordinary resources are not preserved here for us to hide away in a little corner,” she says of the archives. “It’s extremely gratifying to see young people really engaged with these materials — this is living history for them, and the books make it come alive.”