The Watch­mak­ers: A Sto­ry of Broth­er­hood, Hope, and Sur­vival Dur­ing the Holocaust

  • Review
By – July 11, 2022

Three broth­ers spent the war years in a total of sev­en slave labor, con­cen­tra­tion, and death camps, stay­ing togeth­er and sur­viv­ing them all by sheer force of will, an inex­plic­a­ble sense of hope, com­mit­ment to each other’s sur­vival, some lucky breaks, and their skill at repair­ing watch­es. That, in brief, is the sto­ry of The Watch­mak­ers. Sev­en­ty-sev­en years after the lib­er­a­tion of the con­cen­tra­tion camps, it is one more exam­ple of Holo­caust sto­ries not yet told. It took the next gen­er­a­tion — the son of one of those sur­vivors — to set down the details.

Broth­ers Yekhiel, Mailekh, and Moishe Lenga were born in Kozh­nitz, Poland, where their father was a fol­low­er of the Kozh­nitzer Rebbe. Their sto­ry has been told in the voice of Yekhiel (who when he came to Amer­i­ca in 1949 took the name Har­ry, after Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man) by Harry’s son Scott, based on inter­views with Har­ry. Telling the sto­ry as a third-per­son nar­ra­tor would have dilut­ed the graph­ic pas­sion of [Harry’s] will to sur­vive,” his son writes, explain­ing his uncon­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive decision.

It was a good deci­sion. The read­er hears Harry’s voice bring­ing his expe­ri­ences to life with all their dai­ly hor­rors and cru­el­ty yet imbued with the broth­ers’ devo­tion to each oth­er and their deter­mi­na­tion to live. It is a pow­er­ful voice recount­ing an inspir­ing sto­ry of hope in the face of unimag­in­able hardship.

Like their father before them, the three sons became watch­mak­ers, lit­tle imag­in­ing that the trade would pro­vide not just a liveli­hood but life itself.

The first time Har­ry trad­ed his watch-repair­ing exper­tise for food was in 1942, when he was in the Gor­czy­c­ki slave labor camp, after the War­saw Ghet­to and the Kozh­nitz Ghet­to. But it was in the next slave labor camp, Wolanow, where he suc­ceed­ed in using his skill to avoid being sent to hard labor each day. Soon his broth­ers were able to join him. As they were moved from camp to camp, Har­ry would seek out oppor­tu­ni­ties to per­form what he called his watch­mak­ing trick” to make life for him­self and his broth­ers just a lit­tle bet­ter than it would oth­er­wise have been.

Then in July 1944, the Lenga broth­ers were sent to Auschwitz. Noth­ing about our sit­u­a­tion indi­cat­ed that we had a chance of sur­viv­ing…. We worked hard to keep hope in our minds and not to become meshuga…. But the mind turns. Some­times we fell into despair…. But our episodes of despair were tem­po­rary…. We want­ed to live.”

They still had to face a death march and the camps of Mau­thausen, Melk, and Ebensee, but through it all, the broth­ers sur­vived. All three went on to build their lives after the war, two of them in St. Louis, Mis­souri, and one in Paris.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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