The Epic Tale of How Three Brothers Survived the Holocaust Through Watchmaking
An intimate, powerful, and eloquent memoir, The Watchmakers chronicles how Harry Lenga and his brothers – all three Jewish watchmakers from Poland – survived the horrors of the Holocaust by plying their father’s trade.
At Hua Hin, Thailand the beach traces a nearly two-mile-long curve of white sand along the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Most days in January the temperature swells into the 90s and an unforgiving sun demands layering on sunblock as thick as frosting on a birthday cake.
January is also peak tourist season in Hua Hin, and the beach is a fun place. Children splash in the shallow water as, further out, kite-boarders dangle from their inflatable kites, often taking pratfalls worthy of Buster Keaton. Meanwhile, hawkers amble by selling sweet pineapples cut into bite-size triangles or hot corn-on-the-cob roasted on small pots of coals and smeared with globules of coconut butter. Others specialize in more typical tourist wares like hats, bikinis, t-shirts, or silk tablecloths; all the while, locals dressed as cowboys offer rides on horses.
Under bamboo-ribbed umbrellas tourists splayed on wooden beds are rubbed, stroked, patted, and squeezed through the twenty-minute ceremony of a Thai massage (a tradition believed to date back over 2,500 years). Meanwhile, beneath different clumps of umbrellas a few minutes down the beach, cooks turn out Thai street food like fresh fish and seafood curries, thick shrimp omelets, and grilled sea bass with garlic and lemongrass. For a more formal dining experience, there are always restaurants in luxury hotels just a few steps off the beach.
January in Hua Hin is, for many people, the perfect winter escape. But, after ten days and my third pot-boiler novel, I was sucked into a wormhole of boredom.
Luckily, back in my hotel room, my laptop offered deliverance: new emails.
One email was from Scott Lenga, a name I didn’t recognize. Was he trying to sell me something? In all honesty, I was briefly tempted to delete without reading. But I had time on my hands, so I opened Scott’s email dated January 17, 2018.
My late father, Harry Lenga, was a Jewish watchmaker from a family of watchmakers and lived in a small town in Poland. That skill enabled him to survive the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, so watchmaking is a sinewy theme in his stories of survival. Although I can’t claim objectivity, I will say that it is quite an amazing tale.
I am writing my late father’s memoir. I am not a watchmaker but would like to do justice to this theme in writing his story. I ordered the Watchmaking book by George Daniels to learn something about how watches work. I would also like to find some watchmaking folklore or other works that relate to apprenticeship, the watchmaker’s world view (if there is such a thing), or watchmaking as a metaphor for other things.
Have you run across anything like this that you could recommend?
Thank you for your time and consideration.
I answered and recommended several books and websites. Then, only a few days later, Scott started sending drafts of his father’s memoirs. The main source material for the book is forty-six hours of interviews Scott did with his father during the 1980s and 1990s.
Reading Harry’s memoirs ended my Thailand vacation.
I was still physically in Thailand, where the beach at Hua Hin retained its attractions, but Harry’s memoirs banished my boredom. I was in his world.
One reason why the world and personal history contained in Harry Lenga’s memoirs became as tangible to me as the Hua Hin beach outside my window is that he is a great storyteller. And as I expected from the early drafts, the subsequent book that officially hit the shelves today – The Watchmakers: A Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust – offers startling, shocking events, manifestations of profound love, displays of white-hot hatred, and an all-conquering will to survive.
Born in 1919 in Kozhnitz, Poland, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Warsaw, Harry’s parents were Chassidic Jews, and his father was the town’s watchmaker. Harry’s English, mostly acquired after arriving in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1949, possesses a Hemingwayesque simplicity.
Harry’s prose is vivid, lucid, and perfectly suited to his stories: the delivery of water to homes in the town by the bucket heaving vasser treyger (water carrier), doing homework with a gentile Polish friend, confronting the town’s anti-Semites, the heart wrenching description of his mother dying during childbirth, evading the roundups of Jews in Warsaw (where he worked as a watchmaker) when the Germans invaded in 1939, he and his two brothers, Moishe and Mailekh, saying good-bye to their father in full-knowledge the older man was to be sent to the Treblinka deathcamp.
Learning from Harry
One revelation from the book I didn’t previously know: In the early days of Nazi rule in Poland, prisoners in slave labor camps were allowed personal belongings.
So, naturally, the brothers brought watchmaking tools and components.
Then, after months of lugging bags of cement in all weathers with little food, Harry displayed gargantuan chutzpah and approached a camp bigwig and ardent Nazi with an offer to fix a watch for him. The Nazi agreed to bring one to Harry but indicated that failure to repair the timepiece meant certain death.
When Harry returned a now smoothly functioning watch, his camp life changed. The Nazi arranged for Harry and his brothers to work in a warm space repairing watches, and the three spent most of their time for the next two and a half years, approximately, in camps fixing timepieces.
Where did the timepieces come from? The Germans stole them from camp inmates, and after services and repairs, the watches were sold or given as gifts. And it was because Harry and his brothers had become a profit stream that they were kept alive.
By the time the brothers landed in Auschwitz in July 1944, they no longer had their tools. Harry improvised.
He fashioned a screwdriver from a nail and tweezers from the head band of earmuffs. For cleaning he used a toothbrush. Harry repaired watches with these primitive tools, often sitting in a ditch while armed men who could kill him without fear of retribution stood nearby.
The brothers were near death in the Austrian concentration camp known as Ebensee when it was liberated by American troops in April 1945, only about a month before Germany unconditionally surrendered on May 8 and the war in Europe was over.
After finishing that chapter, I more clearly understand why we call the men and women who fought for our side in WW2 “The Greatest Generation.”
I have interviewed many watchmakers and, far more often than not, found them contented and satisfied with their lives. One reason for this positive outlook is that watchmaking is full of challenges that are overcome successfully on a daily basis. It is tremendously satisfying work.
Moreover, the concentration watchmaking requires while at the workbench helps watchmakers block out the troubles of everyday life. And it is for these reasons I believe watchmaking fed Harry’s unflinching optimism and, along with brotherly love, helped all three survive hell on Earth.
On the website of La Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie several pages are devoted to Famous Watchmakers. There is a name missing from that list: Harry Lenga (1919-2000).
Where to Get Your Copy of The Watchmakers
Available now, The Watchmakers: A Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust is published by Citadel Press part of Kensington Publishing Corporation.
For more information, visit Scott Lenga’s website, where you’ll also find Michael Clerizo’s interview with Scott at this year’s Watches & Wonders.
(Book photography by Liam O'Donnell)