By B.A. Van Sise

Liberated from Buchenwald at the end of the war, Yankele Gross turned up in the small town of Elwood City, Pennsylvania on December 16th, 1949. He’d found out some uncles lived there, in a town that was much smaller, but much larger, than the crowded barracks he’d lived in before.

He took work at a knitting mill in Elwood City, and then a lens factory in Chicago, and then found himself in the very army that had freed him just a few years earlier. Thanks to his time in the camps, he passed qualifying exams in seven different languages, and was placed on an enlisted track to a job with U.S. Army Intelligence. By the time his security clearance came through—a long slog, as a foreigner—America’s new war was almost over. He was flown to Korea. He was flown right back.

Yankele and his brother, Beresh, made their way back to the Midwest, became Alex and Bill, and started working together, creating a company named after the names they’d given themselves: Albee Homes. They produced precut, packaged homes for sale first in the Midwest and then nationwide. Alex was their salesman; over thirteen months he drove his 1949 Chevy 143,000 miles back and forth across the continent. They started from nothing. They became the largest package home dealer in America.

Portrait of Alex Gross by B.A. Van Sise
Portrait of Alex Gross by B.A. Van Sise

When liberated from Buchenwald, he was homeless. In his first eight years in business alone, he put 20,000 families into new houses every single year.

It’s been a long journey from Elwood City to here. Some things have changed, some haven’t: even now, moving slowly with great purpose, he has a youthful spring that betrays an older frame, a coiled energy undone by honest legs.

“I showed up in Elwood City, nothing was there. I was so young,” he says, “but I was the same age then as I am now. 21. I liked it, and I stayed that age.”

Stories Survive is made possible by the Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation.