The Family Business (or How My Jewish Family Got the Hell Out of Romania) -The Toast

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There’s true history in this family history – the kind that can be documented by ships’ manifests and fascists under oath at their own trials – but there is also family history, the kind where cousins and in-laws insist the other one is wrong, misremembering, incorrigible. Wry old men snort and amused old ladies “tch!” So we understand each other going on.

Heinrich Weiss, my great-grandfather, was a brilliant jeweler, but was by all reports on the kindly-but-vague side as a person, who would have come to grief without his sharp young wife, Salome. They came from Chernowtiz, a town in Romania people nicknamed “Little Vienna,” where, Salome’s cousin Lena said, education levels were so high that “even the dogs wouldn’t come if you didn’t call them ‘Herr Professor.'” Salome kept his books and helped in the shop; my own inheritance from their jewelry shop is a bracelet made of three strands of seed pearls which she threaded.

Heinrich Weiss

(Heinrich Leon Weiss, being dapper)

In the 1920s, the royal family of Romania caught wise to how good at his work my great-grandfather was, and he became jeweler to the crown. He made medals for WWI soldiers honored by King Carol II, and a gold cigarette case for Queen Marie. Heinrich and Salome lived in Bucharest; they had two sons, and a nice life.

Salome & Fred

(Salome Loty Weiss with her older son, Alfred)

They were about as assimilated as Jews could get, but there’s a joke in Romania:

Question: How can you tell a Jew from a Romanian?

Answer: He looks the same, but he’s always checking over his shoulder.

In the 1930s, the Nazis did not bother to invade Romania. The Romanian government was so busy trying to be just like the Nazis that it would have been a waste of German resources to actually take the country over. Romania nominally retained its monarchy, but was ruled by a dictator named Antonescu in an uneasy alliance with a party called the Iron Guard. They shared the Nazis’ enthusiasm for killing Jews and the Roma, but lacked the German bureaucratic resources to go about it efficiently. There was no pipeline from ghetto to camp to crematorium – just a series of increasingly cruel laws, haphazardly passed, and a vague public mandate for murder.

This may make it sound like Jews had better odds in Romania, and in fact the lack of organization may have made it easier for people to aid Jews – two thousand Romanian gentiles are recognized in the list of the Righteous Among Nations. But for most Jews, all it meant was that theft, torture, and murder were committed not by uniformed men under cover of night and fog, but by neighbors and colleagues in broad daylight. Jews and Roma were mutilated, set on fire, raped, shot, and crammed together into trains that went up and down the tracks until all the passengers were suffocated, crushed, or starved to death.

And then, in 1941, the Romanian government switched to a policy of liquidation, shipping some Jews to Auschwitz, and then establishing two concentration camps of their own. No orderly system awaited the prisoners there, to take down their names and give them numbers, only freezing cold, hard labor, and contaminated animal fodder for food. 420,000 Romanian Jews died between 1933 and 1945. Many of them died with their names unrecorded; they are numbered by a counting of corpses. Historian Raul Hilberg said that no other country besides Germany was involved at such a scale in the murder of Jews.

In the camps, Lena said, the people of Chernowitz said to each other, as the guards watched over their labor, “Bitte, Herr Professor;” “Danke, Herr Doktor.”

The stories of the European Jews who did not die are the stories of exceptions. They are faces picked out of crowds; one sister out of five; one brother out of three. My family was lucky. The camps came in 1941; in 1940, Heinrich and Salome were lucky: they had visas to the US. There was a quota for Jewish immigrants, and it was very low, but they were in the sliver of the population that made it. (Salome, sharp-eyed and aware of danger, applied very early.) So they packed their bags. Or tried to. Their business had been taken from them, and the laws did not allow Jews to take anything of value out of the country. But to leave occupied Europe, they would need boat tickets. Erich, their younger son, was a Type 1 diabetic; wherever they went, he would need insulin. And U.S. immigration would turn people away if they arrived with insufficient funds to support themselves, no matter what papers they had.

Heinrich was, as I say, an excellent jeweler, and although he had lost his business, he had kept some of the precious metals from his stock. Erich carried a diabetic’s case, with syringes and bottles of insulin inside. Heinrich took the case apart. Every part which was made of stainless steel or tin – the case itself, the bottle tops, the plunger on the syringe – he meticulously copied, down to the dents and the scuff marks, in solid platinum. He took the handles and the clasp off Salome’s purse, and remade them in solid gold.

Their ship left from Lisbon; they had meant to go through Greece and cross the Mediterranean, but just as they left Romania, the German army entered Greece and began searching for Jews. They had to reroute, and so they decided to go through Yugoslavia to Switzerland. Erich had gone to a boarding school in Switzerland, where met Plüdi, a gentile girl, at a dance class. They’d fallen in love, and her parents didn’t mind that he was Jewish. They rented their house to a Portuguese consul, and perhaps he could help. So Heinrich and Salome set off through Yugoslavia and Austria — still through occupied Europe, but through places where the search for Jews was less urgent and less active — most of the Jewish population having already been rounded up and taken away. Salome sat on the train, clutching her handbag, staring straight ahead and pressing her lips together, trying not to draw attention. She was silent for almost 24 hours — something of a feat for her, according to Plüdi.

On their way there, the Romanian government revoked the citizenship of Jews. Their passports became invalid. Switzerland was not keen on taking refugees; they were a tiny country, constantly afraid that the Germans would invade and not anxious to provoke them. They knew very well what was happening to Jews and Roma in German territory — let’s be honest, Plüdi says now, everyone in Europe knew. There were refugees at the border who threw themselves into the Rhine rather than go back into Nazi hands. But once again Salome, Heinrich, and their sons were lucky; Plüdi’s parents prevailed with the Portuguese consul. Passports were a much cruder affair in 1940 than they are now, and some conveniently-placed staples fastening their Portuguese visas to their other papers obscured the fact that they were now citizens of nowhere. They made it safely to Lisbon.


(From the manifest of the boat to America – “Hebrew” isn’t a language they spoke; it’s what’s listed in the “Race” column.) 

They came first to New York City, where Salome had sent samples of Heinrich’s work to impress American jewelers. Heinrich became Henry and Erich became Eric; Alfred and Salome stayed the same, because there was no reason to change Alfred, and I don’t think you would have wanted to tell Salome to change anything she didn’t want to change.

Eric tried to send for Plüdi. People in Switzerland were threatening her, telling her parents there were consequences for girls who associated with Jews. Eric couldn’t get Plüdi a visa to America, but he got her one to Cuba. They married there, and stayed until the U.S. relented and let them in, a year later.

Henry and Salome moved to Los Angeles, where Eric studied at CalTech, and opened a new shop on Rodeo Drive. (That sounds very impressive now, but it wasn’t at the time a very fancy place to have a shop.) They were desperately grateful to be in America; a boring middle-class life was their dream. They assimilated in Los Angeles as they had in Bucharest.

Some time later, Henry’s old position in Romania came in handy in a court case; the former King Carol II of Romania was claiming in the US courts that he had in fact secretly married his long-time mistress Madame Lupescu in 1927, so as to avoid charges of Moral Turpitude. Henry took the stand, described by the N.Y. News as “cordial and suave,” and testified that he had made their rings.

In her old age, Salome was famous in the family for insisting on the divine right of Richard Nixon to rule. (She watched the Watergate hearings with great outrage.) Everyone agreed with her to her face about it; everyone agreed with her to her face about just about everything, because they were terrified to argue back.

Henry had trained Eric as a jeweler, but he took his skill for precision metalwork and his CalTech degree into making pinball machines for arcades. He was quite innovative in the pinball field, apparently, because he was recruited into a project that built the first computer on the West Coast, a machine called MADDIDA.

MADDIDA (short for Magnetic Drum Digital Differential Analyzer, and pronounced “Mad Ida”) was a vacuum tube computer which solved differential equations. A report said that is was remarkable among machines of the time for its “compactness, its simplicity of construction, and its accuracy.” Eric became of a designer of computers, working with a team that made servos which confounded MIT designers who didn’t believe his team could understand servos,let alone design them. In the Smithsonian’s collection of an oral history of early computers, the interviewer incredulously makes Eric’s colleague repeat himself — a jeweler? By way of pinball machines?

By the time his work was deemed worthy of the Smithsonian’s attention, Eric was unable to speak for himself. He died young, of diabetes complications. MADDIDA, for all that it was compact for its time, took up 7.5 square feet of floor space just to solve differential equations, and is only a footnote in computer history. But something about computers must have appealed to his nephew, my father, because he dropped out of college and became a programmer, working on machines which took up much less floor space and did much, much more. He married another programmer (my mother, the dirt-bike-racing Philadelphian with half a doctorate in anthropology) and had two kids.

I spent my childhood toddling around in computer rooms, water-cooled in the California weather to prevent the machines from overheating. My parents made me a punchcard which, when fed to the computer, printed out the first lines of “Jabberwocky.” The punchcard, with its pattern of tiny, perfect perforations, has to me a visual echo of the tiny, intricate stone settings that characterized Henry’s jewelry designs.


(A bracelet my great-grandfather designed when he lived in Los Angeles.)

I admit that I’ve failed to become a programmer, but my brother Zev more than makes up for my deficiency. My parents and my little brother now sit around the kitchen table having long and impassioned discussions about chip architecture, the evils of Flash, and Zev’s innovations in file-system benchmark suites. I’m not sure if the connection between the skills that made tin from platinum and the skills that incorporate the nondeterministic I/O behavior of multithreaded applications in trace replay is exactly a straight one, or crystal clear, but all the same it does feel like some kind of family inheritance — if only because we have survived to live it.

Samara Weiss usually writes plays, which are occasionally produced. She's entertaining herself by keeping a tumblr for one which opens March 20th here. There is a link to tickets on the top of the page, but you can also get them here.

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