Today's Reading

When and where Abram and Ethel first met isn't known. But they were together by the time the recruiters from Kiev had reached out to Abram. And soon they had a plan. About ten months after Abram first arrived in Iowa, Ethel joined him. Then on June 3, 1911, they were married in Sioux City, a fast-growing trade center whose early-twentieth-century investors envisioned its potential as a second Chicago. For the Kovals, it was a smart start.

By 1911, one hundred passenger trains moved daily through Sioux City's three railway stations. It housed the second-largest stockyard in the nation and three major meatpacking plants. It had a population of nearly fifty thousand. And for the city's Jews, of whom there were three thousand, Sioux City had become a regional nucleus. In this town surrounded by the cornfields and tall grass of America's Great Plains, there were four Orthodox synagogues; more
than a hundred Jewish-owned businesses; hundreds of Jewish tradesmen supplying some of the city's best carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, bakers, masons, and electricians; and dozens of Jewish newsboys helping to support their immigrant families.

Until Ethel had arrived, Abram rented a small, sparsely furnished room at a boardinghouse about a half mile from what was known as the East Bottoms, where new immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish, often lived in tenement-style apartment buildings. Then, after their marriage, the Kovals moved to a small house on Virginia Street, even farther from the ghetto-like settlements and four blocks from the off-white three-story wood-frame Victorian duplex they soon would share with one of Abram's sisters and her husband, also recent émigrés. This was the house at 619 Virginia Street, which the Kovals would one day own. It was where they would raise their three boys: Isaiah, born on July 22, 1912; George, December 25, 1913; and Gabriel, January 25, 1919.

For a while, the Kovals would be among the best examples of what the Galveston Movement recruiters had envisioned. From the Pale of Settlement to the house on Virginia Street, they were living what many thought was the American Dream.


George Koval grew up in a family who believed learning was the key to all dreams. His parents and aunts and uncles set the examples by reading, apprenticing, listening, and storytelling. Yiddish was often spoken at home, though both Ethel and Abram learned English and they instructed their sons to read English out loud, even to recite verses of poetry. They also encouraged the boys to attend plays and musicals, vaudeville shows and skits, as well as sporting events at Sioux City's Jewish Community Center, which was walking distance from their house and adjacent to a ballpark.

George may have learned the rules of baseball in the alley behind Virginia Street or on the often muddy playing field near the Jewish center. Sioux City baseball fans still talked about the 1891 "world series" when the Sioux City Huskers beat the Chicago Colts in a tie-breaking game. There was also the time when his high school principal let students leave early to attend a 2:30 p.m. exhibition game at the Sioux City Stock Yards Ball Park that featured the "home run twins" of the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. At the end of the seventh inning, Ruth called the game and then, with Gehrig, motioned the young fans to the outfield where the kids caught fly balls with their heroes.

In a setting of baseball, newsboys, skits, and plays, George's childhood appeared to be quite normal. But as he would later realize, as a Jew of Russian descent coming of age in America during the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a continuous reel of politics and prejudice running in the background of his life from the start.

He was three years old when the Russian revolutions of 1917 headlined the Sioux City newspapers. In March, there were the stories about the end of the imperial autocracy, the demise of Czar Nicholas II, and the bloody struggle to define a new Russia. "COMPLETE END TO THE REIGN OF ROMANOFF DYNASTY IN RUSSIA," read the banner headline in the Sioux City Journal on March 17. Though he likely wouldn't remember any details, he must have felt a jarring wave of high emotions in the Koval household, for the collapse of the empire meant the end of the Pale of Settlement. Then in early November—late October on the Russian calendar—in what would be known as the October Revolution, the radical socialist party, the Bolsheviks, seized power and began to usher in the world's first attempt to create a Communist system, which, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, pledged to criminalize anti-Semitism and to allow Jews full participation in society.

This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Sleeper Agent : The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away by Ann Hagedorn.

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