The Watchmakers: A Powerful WW2 Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust (Hardcover)
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“Inspiring. Exhilarating. Astonishing. An epic tale of brotherhood, ingenuity, and survival.” —Heather Dune Macadam, International Bestselling author of 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz
Told through meticulous interviews with his son, this is an extraordinary memoir of endurance, faith, and a unique skill that kept three brothers together—and alive—during the darkest times of World War II.
“A truly extraordinary book.” —Damien Lewis, #1 international bestselling author
Harry Lenga was born to a family of Chassidic Jews in Kozhnitz, Poland. The proud sons of a watchmaker, Harry and his two brothers, Mailekh and Moishe, studied their father’s trade at a young age. Upon the German invasion of Poland, when the Lenga family was upended, Harry and his brothers never anticipated that the tools acquired from their father would be the key to their survival.
Under the most devastating conditions imaginable—with death always imminent—fixing watches for the Germans in the ghettos and brutal slave labor camps of occupied Poland and Austria bought their lives over and over again. From Wolanow and Starachowice to Auschwitz and Ebensee, Harry, Mailekh, and Moishe endured, bartered, worked, prayed, and lived to see liberation.
Derived from more than a decade of interviews with Harry Lenga, conducted by his own son Scott and others, The Watchmakers is Harry’s heartening and unflinchingly honest first-person account of his childhood, the lessons learned from his own father, his harrowing tribulations, and his inspiring life before, during, and after the war. It is a singular and vital story, told from one generation to the next—and a profoundly moving tribute to brotherhood, fatherhood, family, and faith.
“Deeply moving.” —Jesse Kellerman, bestselling author
“Vivid and compelling.” —Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Ordinary Men
About the Author
Harry Lenga was born in 1919 to a family of Chassidic Jews in Kozhnitz, Poland, where his father taught him and his brothers the watchmaking trade that would save their lives during the war. Harry was working in Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 to reunite with his family in the Kozhnitz Ghetto. The night before the Germans murdered its entire Jewish population—including his remaining family members—Harry and two of his brothers escaped Kozhnitz to a nearby Polish-run labor camp. From there, the three brothers were transported between 1942 and 1945 to the camps in Wolanow, Starachowice, and Auschwitz, and then to the Austrian concentration camps of Mauthausen, Melk, and Ebensee. All three brothers were liberated by the U.S. Army on May 6, 1945. In 1949, Harry immigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where he married, had three sons, and went on to have grandchildren. He continued working as a watchmaker for nearly thirty years before retiring and later moving with his wife to Israel. Harry Lenga died on January 2, 2000 at the age of eighty.
Scott Lenga is the son of Harry Lenga. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, he holds a BA in economics from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UCLA. He and his wife live in Israel, where they raised three daughters who grew up listening to stories about the grandfather they never really knew. In addition to writing and speaking about his family’s experiences during and after World War II, he serves as a corporate and intellectual property lawyer for technology companies. Visit him online at ScottLenga.com.
Praise for The Watchmakers
“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.” —Jewish Book Council
“Here is a Holocaust memoir that is so well told that you feel like you are sitting in the room with Harry Lenga, listening to him as he relates the meaningful episodes of his life. His narrative, as transcribed and edited by his son Scott, is at times folksy, other times philosophical, and always interesting. ….Even if you have read other Holocaust memoirs before, reading this one will be well worth your time. Harry’s positivity, optimism and seichel are truly inspiring.” —San Diego Jewish World
“A truly extraordinary book—one full of compassion, love, and hope in the midst of unimaginable suffering and despair—The Watchmakers is a humbling account, one that is both jaw-droppingly well-written and uplifting at the same time. It reads like a thriller, and revived my faith in the enduring quality and beauty of the human spirit, even when mired in the depths of darkness and crazed evil. Once I had finished the last page I only wanted to start reading it all over again. Unputdownable, despite the cruelty, brutality, barbarism, and sheer downright hatred visited upon the brothers at the heart of this epic tale. I will return to The Watchmakers again and again.”
—Damien Lewis, #1 international bestselling author
“Inspiring. Exhilarating. Astonishing. An epic tale of brotherhood, ingenuity, and survival, told with the ticking precision of a wind-up watch. The Watchmakers reminds us of the importance of loyalty, how to persevere against aggression, and how well-timed and precisely measured audacity can ignite a hidden spark of humanity in the darkest of times.” —Heather Dune Macadam, international bestselling author of 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz and Star Crossed: A True Romeo and Juliet Story in Hitler’s Paris
“The Watchmakers is an astonishing testament to courage, guile, and brotherly devotion under impossible circumstances. Gripping as a thriller, deeply moving, it brings fresh urgency to a vitally important piece of history. Everyone should read it.” —Jesse Kellerman, bestselling author
“The Watchmakers is a hybrid first- and second-generation Holocaust survivor memoir. Based on more than forty hours of his father’s recorded oral testimonies and using his father’s own words, Scott Lenga has crafted a vivid and compelling account of survival through family solidarity and bartered watchmaker skills. The journey of Harry Lenga and his two brothers from the Kozhnitz ghetto through various slave labor camps and finally Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen, Melk, and Ebensee is a story of resilience, adaptability, ingenuity, endurance, and perseverance.”
—Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Ordinary Men and Remembering Survival
“Every story of Holocaust survival is extraordinary and few more so than Harry Lenga’s. Captured by his son, Scott, this is a saga of fortitude, resilience, brotherly love, and faith. It should be read by anyone—students, teachers, historians—who cares about preserving the memory of those who, like Harry Lenga and his brothers, found a way of remaining alive—and remaining human—in the face of evil.” —Dr. Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and member of Knesset
“The Watchmakers is an extraordinary book—gripping, inspiring, and terrifying all at once. Each Holocaust survivor is a walking miracle. Many of them volunteered to testify to their lives in hell, but most did not manage to do so in time. We feel the loss of precious untold stories from the generation of survivors whose hard-earned physical existence will soon pass from this world. It is in that context that we honor this renewed literary genre of Holocaust testimony furthered by Scott Lenga, son of Harry Lenga. Harry speaks to us in his own voice captured from more than forty hours of interviews, notwithstanding the twenty-two years since his natural death. Here, Scott Lenga offers an empowering model for future generations of survivor descendants and delivers a harrowing saga of timeless values put to the test.” —Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
“A fascinating read. The horror of Nazi Germany will always haunt us, but like most traumas there is a temptation to file the era away and pay scant attention to the experience. The Watchmakers cuts through that and lays bare the utter inhumanity of what happened in appalling detail. Its focus on the day-to-day—indeed the moment-to-moment—struggle to survive strikes home vividly. Only occasionally does Harry Lenga stop to think about the wider implications, and I think that makes his experiences come across with an immediacy that is sometimes missing from other accounts. I really came to appreciate the life and death significance of something as simple as a pair of shoes, a battered metal soup bowl, or a shave. I found myself shocked, once again, by the mindless brutality and casual cruelty of the Nazi regime and its henchmen. As Harry notes, it could happen anywhere. The Watchmakers serves as a fresh warning of the dangers of ignoring history.” —Simon Scarrow, Sunday Times bestselling author of Blackout and the Eagles of the Empire series
“World War II and the Holocaust still have lessons to teach us, and stories yet to be told. The Watchmakers presents a unique survival story that will take its place in Holocaust literature alongside works by greats such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.” —Tom Young, author of Silver Wings, Iron Cross and Red Burning Sky
“The Watchmakers is a beautiful tribute to the bond of brotherhood. Against all odds, Harry Lenga and his brothers managed to endure multiple concentration camps, ghettos, and a death march during the Holocaust. Their survival was largely based on making decisions as a team of brothers, their watchmaking abilities, and luck. Harry’s son, Scott Lenga, does a wonderful job of incorporating his father’s own words throughout the story. Additionally, the strong relationship between the brothers is undeniable as the author writes, ‘The togetherness—the will to live—was so strong.’ Even though the book documents the worst of mankind, I found their story compelling, as it manages to highlight the beautiful bond between brothers and the hope for a better tomorrow.” —Adena Bernstein Astrowsky, author of Living among the Dead: My Grandmother’s Holocaust Survival Story of Love and Strength
“A must read! This is a story of broken family relationships that become unbreakable when put to the test. You feel their quickening heartbeat and the cut of the tightrope on their feet as they face death with every step. Inspiring and unforgettable.” —Hadassah Lieberman, author of Hadassah: An American Story
“The Watchmakers is an intimate, powerful, and eloquent memoir. As told by Harry Lenga, the story is drenched in pain, brutality, and sadness, but with hardly a drop of hopelessness or despair. The focus required for precision watchmaking became a shield of resistance for Harry and his brothers in the Nazi slave labor and death camps. This craft learned from their father sustained their spirits, lifting them above the soul-crushing world of their captivity. Moreover, The Watchmakers teaches a lesson: when confronting a murderous evil, your biggest challenge is holding on to your own human decency.” —Michael Clerizo, author of Masters of Contemporary Watchmaking and George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker and His Art
“Scott Lenga’s significant accomplishment was to capture his father’s voice and portray his experience from early childhood as a young Chassidic boy into the gates of Auschwitz and beyond, from the death marches to life in postwar Germany and his resettlement in St. Louis. Survivors often mistakenly say that the reason they survived was luck—they all knew someone smarter and wiser, braver and stronger, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not make it through. Harry Lenga survived not merely by luck, but with his skill as a watchmaker, his audacity, and his ingenuity as he faced all but certain death time and again. He survived with his brothers because they too had skills, and they forged an iron bond to pull each other through. The work is compelling, the writing is riveting, and one comes away with deep gratitude to both father and son—father for telling the story to his son, and son for faithfully transmitting a story that must be told.” —Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of Sigi Ziering Institute, American Jewish University, Los Angeles
“A very personal life of a Polish Jew. The Watchmakers is an important account of Jewish life in Poland in the years preceding the Holocaust and the struggle for life during the Holocaust itself. It beautifully describes the strength of spirit that enabled some Jews to survive the Nazi onslaught.” —John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago
“The Watchmakers is an amazing story of the family bond of three brothers enduring the Holocaust. Somehow, they were able to stay together as they were moved from camp to camp, and would depend on each other for survival. Their watchmaking skills enabled them to navigate through unbelievable hardships. Their will to live and ability to have optimism in the face of death is an incredible testament to those who faced that most terrible period of our history. Our father was fated to be a liberator of Ebensee, and the overwhelming images, stench of death, and emotions he encountered when his tank entered the concentration camp were etched into his memory. We feel that our father would have been honored to meet Harry Lenga. Like Harry, he began to share his experiences as a liberator in his later years. As he told it, ‘Ebensee comes back and comes back. I can still see their eyes gazing at us and feel their crying need for help.’ He had the opportunity to meet several other Ebensee survivors, and he marveled at ‘how so many of the survivors have gone on to a very productive life after all of this suffering.’ While he always stated that he did nothing extraordinary but was just following orders on May 6, 1945, we are very proud of his service and his willingness to share his story. We know his wish for ‘Never Again’ has impacted our lives and the lives of his grandchildren. We feel a connection to Harry and to all of the Ebensee survivors whose stories we have heard.” —Alan Persinger, Peggy Giannangeli, and Linda Osikowicz, children of U.S. Army Platoon Sergeant Robert Persinger, tank commander who liberated the Ebensee Concentration Camp
“I worked closely with Harry Lenga when I directed the Holocaust Museum and Education Center in St. Louis. He very often gave personal testimony about his Holocaust experiences to students in middle schools, high schools, and universities, and his articulate manner mesmerized his audiences. Harry’s story comprises the entire gamut of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews in Europe, and his story is replete with multiple examples of spiritual resistance as well as incredible bravery, moral and ethical courage, and altruistic behavior. The Watchmakers is a magnificent testimony to the strength that lies within the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity. This book should have a central place in every course that is taught on the Holocaust.” —Rabbi Robert Sternberg, founding director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and co-author of Jewish-Christian Relations in Light of the Holocaust
“Harry Lenga was the kindest person I ever met. He was always willing to speak to many of my classes about his experiences in the Holocaust. He would explain how he and his brothers were able to survive Auschwitz and other concentration camps by cleaning and fixing the watches of Nazi leaders and guards. He had to explain to my students that watches back then had movable parts. At the end of his talk, he would roll up his sleeve and show the students his prisoner number A-19367 that was tattooed on his left arm. My students were blessed to meet Harry and hear his explanation of how he survived the Holocaust. Harry’s memoir The Watchmakers is an essential contribution to Holocaust education and research. As I read it, I could picture Harry talking to me and my students.” —David C. Oughton, PhD, Associate Professor of Religions of the World, Saint Louis University, former religion teacher at Christian Brothers College High School, St. Louis, and co-author of Jewish-Christian Relations in Light of the Holocaust
“What’s written in The Watchmakers is truly Harry Lenga’s voice. I had the great privilege of interviewing Harry for the Oral History Project at the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies and accompanying him to different speaking engagements in the early 1980s. I vividly remember the powerful expressions on the faces of the students who listened and learned from this extraordinary man. Harry Lenga once said to students at Mehlville High School in St. Louis, Missouri, ‘I hope you will repeat my stories to your children and then they will be eyewitnesses to tell future generations that things like this happened and never again should something like this happen.’ The impact Harry Lenga made on the lives of these students and countless others was truly everlasting.” —Vida “Sister” Goldman Prince, Chair, Oral History Project, St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center
“The Watchmakers is not only a powerful Holocaust survival story but an epic tale of courage, endurance, and grit on the scale of those heroic sagas dating back to The Odyssey. Indeed, Homer’s description of Odysseus—strong, courageous, and ingenious—also describes Harry Lenga as he and his two brothers undertake a journey to freedom every bit as harrowing and brutal as the one taken by Odysseus. Just as Odysseus survived a series of increasingly dangerous monsters on his long voyage home, so, too, did this brave band of brothers survive the soul-crushing slave labor camps, the brutal Nazi taskmasters, and various death camps on their long voyage to liberation.” —Michael A. Kahn, trial lawyer and award-winning author of Bad Trust
“Giving voice to his late father Harry, Scott Lenga has brought us a remarkable story of survival through ingenuity and mutual loyalty—brotherhood—that stands out even in the vast field of Holocaust memoir. Through a light-handed use of explanatory endnotes, The Watchmakers situates Harry Lenga’s harrowing personal story in the broader historical context of the Holocaust period, making it exceptionally useful in any educational setting.” —Rachel L. Greenblatt, PhD, Judaica Librarian, Brandeis University, and Lecturer in Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College
“The Watchmakers is a vivid reminder of a Jewish world erased, miracles of survival, and lives of resilience—all characteristics of an extraordinary generation we are in danger of forgetting all too quickly.”
—Daniel Gordis, Koret Distinguished Fellow, Shalem College, Jerusalem, and author of Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn
“Both shocking and wonderful, this is a memoir you won’t be able to forget. From his youth in a Chassidic community in Poland through the worst of the German Nazi horrors, we actually hear Harry Lenga’s voice, masterfully curated by his son, Scott. Harry and his brothers—the Watchmakers—managed to stay alive through a combination of their craft and wits. Beautifully written and deeply researched, The Watchmakers is a book to be shared.” —Joshua Teitelbaum, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Bar-llan University, Israel, and author of Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape
“Like so many chilling first-person accounts of the Shoah, The Watchmakers finds meaning in abject cruelty, subtle acts of kindness, and ambiguous interpersonal dilemmas. Harry Lenga’s sharp and honest voice, curated lovingly by his son, presents a survivor’s story that is full of high drama, but the narrative is equally attuned to the material details of everyday life before and after the war. Even those who have consumed hours and hours of survivor testimony will find Lenga’s account moving and illuminating.” —David Henkin, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Week
“Harry Lenga’s first-person account, as told to his son Scott, takes the reader on the harrowing path Harry and his brothers endured through the ghettos in Poland and the Nazi death camps, to eventual liberation and reclamation of their freedom and independence in postwar Europe. Over and over, their close-knit fraternal bond, their watchmaking skills, and a fair share of luck enabled them to survive another day. The Watchmakers is an inspiring story of hope and resilience in the darkest of times, conveyed in a rarely found lively, relatable, and sober voice.” —Nathan Guttman, US Bureau Chief, Israeli Public TV
“Thanks to many hours of oral testimony of Harry Lenga as told to his son Scott, we are treated to a vivid Holocaust survivor memoir that gives us an eyewitness account of hell on earth. With the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them, three brothers maintained their commitment to each other and defied their fate. How Lenga and his brothers navigated their way amid the valley of death and emerged with their humanity intact is a story that needs to be read.” —David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
“The Watchmakers is a well-written and engaging story of survival during the darkest years of the twentieth century. Scott Lenga and his father tell a story that starts in a Polish shtetl and travels through the Holocaust. It is a story ultimately about love, struggle, and resistance, and its message will resonate with many.” —Eric Lee, author of Operation Basalt, Night of the Bayonets, and How to Kill Hitler
“Scott Lenga provides us with the personal story of his father and two uncles, who against all odds managed to survive six long years of war, deprivation, hunger, disease, and loss of their family members during the Holocaust. As an educator, I found this amazing story of resilience, chutzpah, and endurance to be a powerful message to every student in every classroom. There are numerous memoirs that have been published over the years; this one, written in the first person by Scott, is both powerful and engrossing and takes the reader through the most horrific events of the Holocaust without traumatizing the reader. Above all, it leaves us with hope—always the hope—that one needed in order to survive. Harry’s ability to leverage his skills as a watchmaker is an inspiration. I highly recommend this memoir to any teacher who wants to provide his or her students with a firsthand account of the events of the Holocaust through this amazing story of the Lenga brothers.” —Ephraim Kaye, former Director for International Seminars for Educators at the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem