I was named after my grandfather, Saul Young. This is his story, but it does not have a happy ending.
Saul Young was born in 1895 in Lithuania, then a part of Russia. In the early 20th century, tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews emigrated to the United States due to anti-Semitism and pogroms throughout the Russian empire. In this flight of Jews, Saul Young traveled by boat — alone — and eventually made his way to Aliquippa, Pa., at the age of 13 in 1908. It is hard for me to conceive that I’d travel 4,500 miles by myself from the home that I knew to a new land that I had never seen. Saul must have been a gutsy young man.
But in Aliquippa, 30 miles from Pittsburgh, there were Jewish families for Saul to live with as he went to school. To support himself, he worked in retail stores, beginning a lifetime of hard work and long days.
The population of Aliquippa peaked at around 27,000. The main employer was the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. The steel mill along the Ohio River dominated the town.
Last April, I traveled to Aliquippa to get a better feel for small town Western Pennsylvania life. Old detached brick homes and small stores still line Main Street. Since the collapse of the steel industry, the town’s population has decreased to 9,000, many of the town’s businesses have left and the town looks economically depressed.
Like many other small town Jews in western Pennsylvania, Saul eventually became a merchant. He opened a shoe store, Young’s, and prospered enough to relocate to Ambridge, another small steel town. The Ambridge store had a better location on Merchant Street. Clothing stores, restaurants and a jewelry store lined the thoroughfare, which sat a few blocks from the Ohio River.
Ambridge is located about 16 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The town was named after the American Bridge Company, which owned much of the town’s real estate. Population peaked at around 20,000 in the 1930s; today the population is down to about 7,000.
The shoe store became the focal point of Saul’s life. He knew many if not all of his local customers and was well liked. He sold all types of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes — dress and casual, along with accessories like stockings. Customer service was the hallmark of his business; Saul made sure the shoes fit and customers could return anything that did not fit well. Woman’s pumps, oxfords and sandals were the backbone of the business.
Most of the male customers worked in the plants that manufactured steel and produced metal molding, iron pipes, oil piling and tubes. Many of them, like Saul, had come to Western Pennsylvania from Central or Eastern Europe.
Saul met Mildred, my grandmother, in Aliquippa. They married and had two children, Natalie and Geraldine, my mother. Everyone worked at the store.
Saul eventually moved to Pittsburgh to be near his Jewish friends and reduce his difficult commute to the shoe store. He occasionally attended religious services at Congregation Beth Shalom and rented a house on Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
Saul was deeply loved by his wife and two daughters. He was devoted to his family. His most prized possession was his car, a Pontiac. At home, Mildred cooked dinner for the family, often making such dishes as stuffed cabbage and borscht.
In the 1940s, Saul bought a house on Douglas Street, a duplex numbered 6337 and 6339. He rented out the first floor to different families to help with finances. Years later, I lived on the first floor of this house for the first 14 years of my life with my mom, my sister Susan and my dad. After Saul’s death, the second floor was occupied by my grandmother Mildred, my aunt Natalie and my first cousin Sally.
On Sundays the store was closed. Saul often talked with his older brother Jake on Sundays about shoes. Jake owned a shoe store in the East Liberty/Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A favorite topic of discussion was the week’s “take.”
Jake Young was gruff compared to Saul. He lived in “sliberty,” the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh, with his wife Mary and three children: Dorothy, Henrietta and Julius. Saul talked less frequently with his brother Louis. Louis also lived in Pittsburgh and owned a dress shop in the Shadyside neighborhood. Saul’s younger sister Lena and her husband Sigmund Block owned a women’s clothing store.
Saul suffered from headaches throughout the evenings of his life. In those days, men did not run to the doctor for this particular symptom; Saul just toughed it out. The long hours and hard work took a toll on his body. In the evenings, he spent many hours reviewing business paperwork.
Tragedy struck early one morning after my mom picked up the phone. The call was from the Ambridge fire department — a fire had ruined Young’s shoe store. Most of the stock and store lied in ruins. My mom told Saul, who immediately suffered a stroke and died in his daughter’s arms. He was only 56.
When he passed away, the town of Ambridge’s stores closed in his honor. Mildred, Natalie and Gerri received condolence calls for months after his death. My mom wore a black band on her arm for one year at Taylor Allderdice High School. It was the most difficult time in their lives.
On March 18, 1956, I was born in Pittsburgh at Magee Women’s Hospital. I was named Saul Young Schwartz.
Saul Schwartz grew up in Squirrel Hill.