Fort Worth museum exhibit focuses on immigrants entering through Galveston

Sunlight streams through the wall of glass and seems to fill every corner of this contemporary home, but on this day, Arnie Gachman isn't thinking about the modern world. He settles into a comfortable chair ready to tell the old stories of struggle and sacrifice, determination and hope; stories his grandfather told him about long-ago friendships and dreams fulfilled.

He lays two framed photographs of his late grandparents on the glass coffee table: Jacob "Jack" Gachman and Edith Zodin Gachman. They are handsome people at the prime of life. Like thousands of other immigrants, Jack and Edith came to the United States through Galveston, which was a major gateway from 1845 until 1924; Ellis Island opened in 1892. Now that immigration experience is showcased in an exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Those immigrants settled in Texas towns large and small. Hundreds made their way to Cowtown. Like so many immigrants, Jack and Edith met in Fort Worth, married, raised a family and built a business.

Their stories are part of a legacy left to this city, the gift of countless immigrants who bet their lives that things could be better here and worked to make it so.

But every immigrant's story begins in another time in a land far away. Some families remember the history. Some do not. Arnie is the keeper of his family's stories.

Escaping brutal regime

Jack was barely into his teens and learning to be a blacksmith on his father's farm in Ukraine when he was conscripted into the Russian army.

"The czar can use a blacksmith," Arnie says the soldiers told his grandfather, and they took him away. He never saw his parents again.

Jack bent to the work and mastered the way of iron and anvil. Time passed, and then one day in 1904 or 1905, Jack argued with a superior. It was a life-changing confrontation. The punishment was flogging, but, warned by other soldiers that the whipping would likely take his life, Jack ran.

He traveled across Germany, hiding where he could, eating from the fields and finally making it to a port where he signed on as part of a ship's crew. "He was part of the Black Gang. That meant he was in the bottom of the ship ... below the waterline, stoking the boilers. They were all black from the coal dust," Arnie says.

When they docked in Galveston, Jack jumped ship, determined to start a new life in America. But his clothes were covered in coal dust; he spoke Russian and Yiddish, had a third-grade education, was a deserter from the czar's army and had just slipped into the country. He needed help.

Building a business

Rabbi Henry Cohen was that help, Arnie says. In only a couple of years, Cohen became the driving force behind the Galveston Movement, a project from 1907 to 1914 aimed at bringing European Jews to the United States through Galveston to settle in Texas and the West rather than the crowded tenements of the East.

The rabbi gave Jack some clothes and a little money and told him there was a job in Waco. Jack walked all the way, but there was no job in Waco.

"The job was in Fort Worth," Arnie says. So Jack loaded a wagon for a man heading north and hitched a ride to Cowtown. He went to work for North Texas Steel and found a place to stay with a Russian immigrant family named Zaletsky. At night, one of the Zaletsky girls tutored him in English and taught him to read.

"You know that Zaletsky name as Zale," Arnie says. A few years later, one of the sons, Morris Zaletsky, shortened his name to Zale and went into the jewelry business -- first selling from rented space in a Graham drugstore and later building a jewelry empire along with a philanthropic record of generosity.

Jack became a trusted employee at North Texas Steel, but he had what he thought was a better idea for buying scrap metal. Rather than wait for people to bring it to them, he persuaded his employer to let him find those who had scrap to sell.

Jack began by jumping freight trains, riding a large circuit around Fort Worth and stopping at places like Sherman and Gainesville. He became a middleman, buying, sorting and selling the scrap, and by about 1914 he had enough capital to open a shop, Arnie says.

Somewhere along the way, Jack fell for Edith Zoldin, the oldest daughter of another Russian immigrant family. When her parents and two older brothers came to America, Edith was left behind to care for four younger siblings. Like almost all other immigrants, the Zoldins sent money home and dreamed of the day when the family could be together again.

Edith was only 12 when she and the four younger kids set out for Texas. They tried to board a ship bound for Galveston but were turned away because the boys had pinkeye. "Think of that little 12-year-old girl with those four little kids waiting for another boat," Arnie says.

He shakes his head.

Bringing the family

Jack took a business partner in the 1920s but bought out that partner in September 1929. In October the stock market crashed, and so did his business.

"He went broke four or five times," Arnie says. "He lost everything." Everything but his friends. "He always said friends are the most important thing. Keep your friends."

Again the business grew, but life took bites out of this man. The Great Depression hit the family hard. In the 1940s he and Edith divorced. He remarried. Business was good some years, not so good others.

Both his sons joined him, and Gachman Metals Co. spawned Gachman Steel. In the early 1960s, grandson Arnie entered the business, too. Jack never seemed to tire of the work. He wore a suit to the office but never hesitated to jump in to do the dirtiest jobs, his grandson says.

Jack talked to Arnie about the old country, but he never returned to Ukraine. He was certain that none of his family had survived World War II. In the late 1960s, he received a letter from a sister who begged him to visit.

He was surprised to hear from her and eager to see her, but the family feared for his safety and persuaded him to bring the sister to America instead.

"We ended up getting a number of family members over here. They settled in Chicago," Arnie says.

He picks up his grandfather's photograph and considers the history he lived, the choices he made. What might have happened to all of them, he wonders, if not for that long-ago confrontation with a soldier in the czar's army -- that catastrophe that made Jack a fugitive and brought them all to America through a gateway on the Texas coast?

Mary Rogers is a freelance writer.