Nova Scotia

'Through eternity, away forever': Halifax Explosion historian Janet Kitz dies

Janet Kitz, the woman who rescued the stories of the Halifax Explosion and largely created the modern understanding of the 1917 disaster, has died.

Kitz wrote Shattered City and 'helped define the way Halifax looks at itself'

Janet Kitz largely created the modern understanding of the Halifax Explosion. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

Janet Kitz crouched on the floor in the basement of Nova Scotia's Province House, shaking with the cold as she examined the 400 linen bags containing the last relics of the dead.

The rings, receipts and other personal items had been found strewn near the bodies of hundreds of people killed in the 1917 Halifax Explosion. The items were carefully gathered and placed in bags next to the bodies in the makeshift morgues. Many were claimed by grief-stricken families.

But the ones Kitz was looking at in the dingy basement had not been touched in more than 60 years; they belonged to the lost dead. The very first item she saw sent a shiver through her. It was a child's notebook from Richmond School, the community forever destroyed by the historic blast.

"There was a list of spelling words on the first page, which ended: 'Through eternity, away forever,'" Kitz told CBC in 2017 as the city marked 100 years since the disaster killed nearly 2,000 people and hurt 10,000. It destroyed the community of Richmond in today's north end.

Kitz would go on to rescue the stories of those who had survived the disaster and piece together what happened to those who didn't, groundbreaking research that led to several books and largely created the modern understanding of the Halifax Explosion.

Kitz died at her home on Friday. She was 89.

This is one of the mortuary bags Kitz rescued from the basement of Province House. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

An immigrant rediscovering the Halifax Explosion

Kitz was born in Scotland and came to Nova Scotia in 1971 when she married Leonard Kitz, who in the 1950s had served as Halifax's first Jewish mayor.

Her interest in the Halifax Explosion started when she was studying at Saint Mary's University in 1980. A professor, Dr. Harold McGee, asked her to write a paper, but none of the topics interested her.

"And then the professor said, 'Do you know much about the Halifax Explosion?' I said no. He said, 'Well, you might be interested,'" she told CBC.

At the time, there were just a couple of books on the topic and no major museum exhibitions about the day two vessels, one laden with explosive cargo, collided in the harbour during the First World War.

This colourized photo shows one of the many buildings destroyed by the Halifax Explosion. (Library of Congress)

Kitz tracked down the origins of the mortuary bags, often learning why no one had ever claimed the mementos. "If I checked an address, the whole family had gone," she said.

Her work led her to curate A Moment In Time at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the first museum exhibit on the explosion. The current permanent exhibit grew from her original.

'She left a wonderful legacy'

Dan Conlin worked at the museum for many years and now curates the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Conlin and his wife visited Kitz just a few weeks ago.

"She was clearly frail, but just as concise and direct as ever about everything," he told CBC's Information Morning Monday. "She left a wonderful legacy which has really helped define the way Halifax looks at itself."

Conlin said Kitz had a mix of sincerity and a stiff upper lip, which helped her win the trust of the survivors and their families. "She was the wife of a former mayor, she lived in the south end, but she won the trust of all these north-end families," he said. 

In 1989, she published Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery. She followed that up in 1992 with Survivors, Children of the Halifax Explosion and in 2006 with December 1917: Revisiting the Halifax Explosion. She also co-wrote a book about Point Pleasant Park.

Kitz speaks to CBC about Point Pleasant Park in this archival shot. (CBC)

"It was forgotten for generations. So many people in Halifax figured that you just put it behind you and never discuss it again. There were no annual events, only one tiny monument in front of the North End library," Conlin said.

"She really defined the explosion as an event experienced by families of ordinary people. And I think that's the way we perceive the explosion today, thanks to Janet."

Throughout the 1980s, she interviewed explosion survivors at length. She was invited to a Richmond School reunion and held tea parties at her home. She organized annual harbour cruises with survivors and would prompt them to share their stories as they passed significant landmarks.

"I think they quite enjoyed telling their stories. Some of them would tell me, 'My mother would never talk about it,'" Kitz said. "I was extremely surprised that so little was being made of it. It was a major event, not only in Canada … but international news."

Finding stories hidden in hills of Scotland

As more survivors died, Kitz became a voice for the departed. Her passion never wavered.

Once on a visit to her mother in Scotland, she headed to a village in the hills to get a watch repaired. The repairman asked where she was coming from. "'Halifax,' he said. 'That was a terrible explosion you had there.'"

Ever the researcher, she probed and learned his aunt had been living in Halifax in 1917 and wrote them a detailed letter about it. She got the man to search for the letter, but he couldn't find it.

In 2018, Kitz was named to the Order of Nova Scotia. She was also part of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Women's Auxiliary of the IWK hospital and the Point Pleasant Park Commission.