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Remembering Jacob

A visit from my grandfather came 17 years after his death.

A yizkor candle. Photo: Valley2city/Wikimedia
A yizkor candle. Photo: Valley2city/Wikimedia
Jerold S. Auerbach
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).

My grandfather Jacob came to visit when I was four years old. I was fascinated by him because he was my only relative with a beard. He sat quietly and I hesitated to speak to him. I never saw him again.

When I pestered my father, Jacob’s son, about why he had not returned, I was told that he had died 13 years before I was born. But I vividly remembered his visit, so that was hard to believe.

My father showed me his only photograph of Jacob. Dressed in a suit with his jacket buttoned and a pocket handkerchief visible, he is seated on a chair in front of a stone wall. A wide mustache and long beard covered much of his face. A dark fedora hat rested on one knee. It was some consolation that our first names both began with the letter “J.” That, I eventually realized, was meant to bind us together and preserve his memory.

I learned that, as a wave of antisemitism loomed near Kishinev in the 1880s, Jacob’s father Mendel relocated his family to Botosani, the second-largest Jewish community in Moldavia. But Jewish life was no less precarious there. Near the end of the century, synagogues were desecrated and violent rioting against Jews increased. One-third of Romanian Jews, Jacob among them, left their country behind. The United States was his destination.

It was not an easy transition. Prospering German-American Jews did not welcome Jews from eastern Europe. Jacob Schiff, a prominent philanthropist, suggested that other countries be their destination. Even the New York Romanian Committee criticized the arrival of “beggars” and urged a monthly quota of 200 immigrants.

Leaving his wife and young child behind, Jacob, then 45 years old, arrived at Ellis Island, the major American immigration center. Newcomers were processed through a series of medical examinations for “contagious and loathsome” diseases. If health problems were discovered, compulsory return to Europe loomed.

After an overnight train ride from New York, Jacob arrived in Pittsburgh. He was met by Israel Cohen, a family member who guided him to the Hill District, a shabby neighborhood uphill from the railroad station and the center of Jewish life. Jacob’s first impression of Pittsburgh could not have been pleasing. Visitors described it as “dark, dismal and dirty” and “an unattractive, smokey city.”

Jacob soon began to work in Cohen’s stogy factory, where he earned three to seven dollars weekly for 65 hours of work. It must have been tedious. A photo showed a cramped and shabby room without windows. Two middle-aged bearded men wearing kippot are working at a cluttered table. An open carton filled with stogies was nearby.

Within a year, Jacob was able to bring his wife Minnie and their young daughter to Pittsburgh. One year later, she gave birth to a son named Menachem Moshe to honor the memory of his grandfather. His name was Americanized to M. Maurice, eventually abbreviated to Morry, the name by which my father would always be known.

Life was not easy for the Auerbach family. Jacob left the stogy business to work as a railroad watchman while Morry sold newspapers and shined shoes to help financially. He fondly remembered Jacob singing Romanian folk songs and their time together for high holiday services in the nearby, oldest Pittsburgh synagogue. Although the life of impoverished immigrants was not easy, American possibilities were preferable to Romanian realities. In 1907, there was a pogrom in Botosani where Jews were robbed and murdered.

Early in the evening of Jan. 22, 1923, as Jacob was driving a horse-drawn bakery wagon, it was struck broadside by a car. Flung to the street, he suffered a fractured skull and died that night. Jacob was buried in the Kasa Torah cemetery, where his gravestone—with a Star of David at the top—identifies him in large letters as “Father.” He was 58 years old.

A yahrzeit candle will commemorate one hundred years since Jacob’s tragic death. How I could remember a visit from the grandfather who died before I was born is a mystery. But that embedded yearning has enabled Jacob to remain with me. A solitary photograph may be all there is, but as I light the candle and watch it flicker, Jacob will surely return, if only in wistful memory.

My son Jeffrey, our third generation “J” and fellow historian, was my companion researcher for this article.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including Jacob’s Voices: Reflections of a Wandering American Jew.

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