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.