On their second attempt to leave Europe, in 1921, my grandfather and his family spent three days in an outdoor potato cellar. The potatoes don’t seem to have been much help; my grandfather would later recall that they subsisted, for those three days, on stale bread and water. He was 12, or maybe 14—official immigration records conflict with family lore. His father and older brother had already settled in the U.S.; my grandfather, along with his mother and two of his siblings, had left their Ukrainian village once before, but had been caught by the Bolsheviks, jailed, and then returned to their village. This time, having successfully crossed the river into Romania, they were determined to evade that outcome. They left the cellar and traveled mostly across open fields. Eventually they reached a road where they encountered Romanian soldiers, who debated whether to arrest them and send them back to the Russian border. Somehow, the soldiers lost interest, and the family continued on.
In early 1922, they arrived in Pittsburgh, a world away from Eastern Europe’s revolutionary violence and its pogroms. My grandfather learned English; his name, Itsik Vaisman, became Isadore Weiss. He went to school and worked in his father’s dry-cleaning and tailoring business. He got a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and became an accountant. He struggled to find work—in the depths of the Great Depression, my grandparents would say, accounting firms were loath to hire Jews, especially Jews with foreign accents. “As a Jewish child in Russia, Judaism meant to me physical and mental pain,” Isadore said later, on the occasion of receiving a leadership award from a local Jewish group. “As a young man in the United States, Judaism meant to me subtle exclusions from professions in which I wanted to engage.”