A watchmaker’s son: A family of Holocaust survivors

In a new book, Ra’anana resident Scott Lenga tells the story of how his father survived the Nazi death camps by fixing watches.

 HARRY LENGA and his son Scott Lenga, in 1993. (photo credit: SCOTT LENGA)
HARRY LENGA and his son Scott Lenga, in 1993.
(photo credit: SCOTT LENGA)

Khil Lenga survived the Holocaust in six Nazi concentration camps, along with his two brothers, by fixing watches for his captors.

After moving to the US, the Polish Jew renamed himself Harry (after Harry Truman), married and raised three sons – Michael, Mark and Scott – in St. Louis, Missouri. Unlike many survivors, Khil began telling his sons the stories of how he and his siblings were saved from the gas chambers from an early age.

“I was hearing these stories from the earliest age and so they were always part of my upbringing. So, I just didn’t know anything else... My father loved to tell these stories and he loved to tell them to young people,” Scott Lenga told The Jerusalem Post in a recent Zoom interview from his home in Ra’anana, where he moved in 1994.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Scott decided to preserve his father’s legacy, by interviewing and transcribing some 37 hours of his stories.

“My father and his brothers set a powerful example for all of us to know about the hidden resources and capabilities that we all have inside of us. Every day, they strive to keep a single-minded focus to stay together for that day and survive.”

Scott Lenga
 THE FOUR Lenga brothers at a wedding in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1975. Harry is third from left.  (credit: SCOTT LENGA) THE FOUR Lenga brothers at a wedding in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1975. Harry is third from left. (credit: SCOTT LENGA)

Beginning in 2015, with the support of his family (and a light push by his daughter Orly), Scott started the painstaking process of transforming the transcripts into “a hybrid 1st and 2nd generation memoir.”

The result is a book called The Watchmakers: A Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust.

Released on June 28, the book has already found its way to the New York Times bestseller list – a surprise for Scott, whose profession lies in law as general counselor for a software development company.

“I decided that I had to do something with those interviews,” he said. “What? I didn’t know exactly. So, I started an experiment. What would be the result if I turned the interviews into a monologue and sorted all of his testimony chronologically? The result was staggering. A new and vital coherence in my father’s story took shape from the scattered fragments of his testimony. I was hooked.” Scott states.

“In retrospect, it seems obvious. But you must understand that I had always heard these stories as standalone flashbacks. Even in the interviews, there was a lot of time travel in the dialogue and a lot of story fragments within other stories,” he explained.

“From then on, my methodology was to preserve my father’s voice and style of communication and to minimize my footprint. The reader steps into my shoes to hear my father tell his story.” The preservation of his father’s legacy lies in the moral of the story, a precedent for the generations to follow. “My father and his brothers set a powerful example for all of us to know about the hidden resources and capabilities that we all have inside of us. Every day, they strive to keep a single-minded focus to stay together for that day and survive.”

THE BOOK begins in the pre-Holocaust world of Koznitz, Poland, where Khil grew up in the 1920s and 30s. His father, a hassidic watchmaker, raised five children on his own. He taught his sons the watchmaking trade, ensuring a bond between himself and his sons in the depths of poverty. Little did the Lengas know this bond would save their lives.

“When my father and his brothers were learning how to fix watches from their father, they never could have imagined how valuable that skill was going to be for them in the war,” Scott says. “When my grandfather gave them that suitcase full of watchmaking tools, when they left [Koznitz, it was] the night before the Germans were going to evacuate the Jews from the town and put them on a train.

“Those tools bought their lives over and over again; they were literally tools of survival for them in the slave labor camps,” the original watchmaker’s grandson said. “But just as important was what those tools came to symbolize. They were like an amulet – they were a physical connection to their father and his tears and prayers. Those tools gave them a lot of spiritual strength.”

Khil Lenga, and two of his brothers Mailekh and Moishele, escaped from the Koznitz ghetto just in time on that fateful night.

Not everyone survived

KHIL’S FATHER, stepmother, step-aunt and step-grandmother were killed in Treblinka the next day along with the rest of the Kozhnitzer Jews, but the brothers lived on, loyally refusing to separate throughout the entire ordeal of the Holocaust. “When they were thrust together in a time of crisis, they stuck together and made that the guiding principle of their lives – and that’s what enabled them to survive.” Scott Lenga described.

First, it was the Goyczycki camp at Wolka. They promptly learned the fate of their family in that camp and were forced to sleep outside in the cold with little to no food to sustain themselves. A few weeks later, they were moved to the Wolanow slave labor camp. There, the prisoners worked at back-breaking labor in the brutal cold of the Polish winter while enduring arbitrary beatings day after day.

One day, Khil Lenga mustered up the courage to make an offer to Corbinus, the sadistic foreman at the work site, to do him a “favor.”

 “My father was able to take the initiative and it worked” – meaning he didn’t get killed, Scott said. “He said ‘I would like to have the honor of fixing a watch for you.’”

Suddenly, Khil was sitting in a warm office doing watch repair work instead of unloading bags of cement from a train and other backbreaking work. A few months later, Bartman the camp’s Lagerfuhrer (head SS officer) found out about this arrangement and placed all three Lenga brothers in a special barrack inside the camp to work on watches for him.

That strike of luck formatted a model that took courage to enact. They would use this framework of approach throughout their stays in other concentration camps, such as Starachowice, Auschwitz and Ebensee. “That sort of became a model that he used over and over again in the camps, and it kept working for him. Watchmaking gave [the Lenga brothers] a card they could play to influence their fate in a way that most other prisoners didn’t have.”

Liberation and independence

THE LENGA brothers made it to liberation and had a few years of adventure together as free young men in post-war Europe. Eventually, Mailekh moved to France where he changed his name to Marcel, and Khil and Moishe moved to St. Louis and changed their names to Harry and Morris.

Scott said that they only reunited some 25 years later at the wedding of Morris’s daughter. “In the 1950s and the 1960s, international travel was not something usual for [working] people. They needed an excuse; they needed a wedding of one of the nieces to make it all happen. Just a couple of weeks after the wedding, my uncle Marcel died of a massive heart attack.”

Scott slowly found his way to Israel and brought his father Khil along with him, before he passed away in 2000.

“I made aliyah in 1994,” he said. “I came to Israel on a six-week trip when I was 15 [in 1976] and fell in love with the place. In 1994, I was working for a Silicon Valley hi-tech company that got acquired. That was my chance to take a severance package and come to Israel for a year. My wife and I left [to Israel] two months after we got married and we are still here on our honeymoon. We have three beautiful daughters that were all born here.”

Ironically, Scott never learned to repair watches, nor did his brothers. He mentions that his father never pushed him and his brothers to follow in his footsteps, but to find themselves through their own passions.

“I used to sit with my father at his store many times, and had I taken the initiative and said I wanted to learn watchmaking, he for sure would have taught me, but he never pushed it,” Scott said. “I would have loved to have learned how to fix watches; I think it’s the coolest thing. But, then it all seemed quite different and my father was quite happy to let us find whatever interested us. He didn’t want to limit us or confine us to his perspective or his profession.”

The Watchmakers: A Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust is available on Amazon, Kindle, Apple Books, The Book Depository and all major on-line booksellers.