The Watchmakers by Harry and Scott Lenga is a father-son collaboration.

Anyone who has read about or has listened to a survivor speak about the Holocaust realizes they possessed essential personal attributes. They were blessed with physical and mental toughness; they also had to have some luck. 

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

Famous Jewish-Italian survivor Primo Levi, who wrote one of the early and best-known firsthand accounts of life in Auschwitz, If This Were a Man (English version, Survival in Auschwitz), believed that good fortune was the deciding factor as to whether one survived the Holocaust or not. A recent work, however, demonstrates that it also helped to have quick wits, in-demand skills and brotherly solidarity.

The Watchmakers by Harry and Scott Lenga is a father-son collaboration. The primary writer, Scott Lenga, is the son of survivor and watchmaker, Harry Lenga. Scott has a degree in economics from Berkeley and a law degree from UCLA and now lives in Israel. He grew up hearing firsthand, detailed accounts from his father about his life before and during the Holocaust.  

Scott decided that his father’s personal history should be documented. To this end, Scott conducted 37 hours of interviews with Harry and, from these oral histories, constructed an informative and moving first-person narrative. It is a history of a poor Jewish family living in Poland prior to World War II and a saga of survival during the Holocaust. 

The story begins with Harry’s birth as Yekhiel Ben Tzion, or “Khil” for short, into a poor Yiddish-speaking family of Chassidic Jews in Kozhnitz, Poland, in 1919. His father, Mikhoel, was a watchmaker from Warsaw. His mother, Malke (nee Reyle Wildenberg), was from a prominent religious family in Kozhnitz. 

Tragically, she died in childbirth when Khil was 4 years old, leaving behind her husband, Khil, two older brothers and a sister — Mailekh, Yitzkhak and Khalale — and a younger brother, Moishele. This traumatic experience haunted the family forever.

Khil’s father struggled to sustain his family, and this is a story of everyday survival as poor Jews in Poland, which was home to Europe’s largest pre-war population of Jews, along with plenty of antisemitic Poles. Mikhoel, however, provided his sons with a most precious gift: skill in watchmaking.

The bulk of the book follows Khil and two brothers, Mailekh and Moishele, in ghettos, work camps and death camps after the Nazi invasion. The brothers experienced them all but resolved to stay together no matter the consequences. The narrative is a finely detailed account of Khil’s escape from the Warsaw and Kozhnitz Ghettos, reuniting with his family, and the lives that he and his brothers then led as they were moved through various camps, including Auschwitz, to their final liberation from Ebensee in Austria in 1945. 

How They Survived

Watchmaking was key to the brothers’ survival. Nazi officers and guards needed repairs for their timepieces, and watchmakers were hard to find during the war. The brothers could make repairs and thereby gain extra bits of food or better working conditions. In addition, spare watches carefully hidden in bars of soaps were crucial gifts for critical moments in concentration camps when the brothers faced separation or worse fates.

Khil and his two brothers survived together. After liberation and some time in DP camps, they discovered that Yitzkhak was also alive. Sadly, the rest of the family was not. In 1949, Khil immigrated to St. Louis and, for 30 years, was Harry the Watchmaker.

This is a well-written, finely crafted book. The oral history of Harry Lenga is first-rate and provides a superb structure for the narrative. Moreover, as demonstrated by his bibliography and endnotes, Scott’s research goes well beyond interviews with his father. Scott also addresses his translation of Harry’s Yiddish-English in the narrative and provides the reader with a useful glossary of Yiddish/Hebrew/German terms that appear in the text.

Lenga points out that his father did not have a definitive answer to the question that all survivors grapple with: Why did I live while so many died? 

The strength of this book is that Harry provides great insight into the decisions he and his brothers; decisions that, along with some good luck and personal toughness, allowed all three to survive the Holocaust and to thrive in the aftermath of World War II. 

As Israeli American historian Michael Oren has noted, “Every story of survival is extraordinary.” Scott Lenga’s telling of Harry’s story is one of the best renditions of an extraordinary tale that one can find preserved on paper. It is a compelling book that leaves the reader in awe of the journey of Harry and his brothers, The Watchmakers. 

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