The Watchmaker’s Daughter
The Watchmaker’s Daughter begins with the story of the child of two refugees, a watchmaker who saved lives within a Dachau prison, and his wife, a gifted concert pianist about to make her debut when the Nazis seize power. Growing up under the shadow of catastrophe, their child, Sonia, is driven to achieve the highest peaks of worldly success. Her daring ambitions take her from Barnard to Yale’s Law School to Oxford University, where she meets a man outside her faith who will change her life, and her family’s, in ways she would have never imagined. Taitz’s coming of age takes place in the heyday of the youth revolution in New York: sexual freedom, political rebellion, and cultural experimentation run up against the deep caution and conservatism of Taitz’ parents and the immigrant community in which she lives.
We first meet Sonia living in a small, dark apartment in an immigrant community in Washington Heights with her brother, parents, and grandmother. Sonia grows up speaking Yiddish and learning the lessons of her faith. Nonetheless, as a young girl, the “American Dream” she learns about every day on the television enthralls her, even while it baffles her parents.
Sonia’s parents could hardly be more different. Her father is a stoic, pragmatic and mechanical, running the household as a “strict officer.” He starts, without any means, a watch repair business across from what will one day become Lincoln Center, only to see it rise to success, and later broken, when a robbery leaves him once again bereft of everything he’s earned. Taitz’s mother, a dutiful housewife, is still a child in many ways: hoping to be romanced, filled with memories of the past, both heartbreaking and joyful, quixotically encouraging her child into a more traditional feminine role despite all resistance. Working as an able assistant in her husband’s shop, the only thing that seems to unite the couple is their constant arguments and fighting; their struggle to maintain the values of old Europe despite the uncertainty and changing circumstances of their new American freedom.
It is with the final passing of her parents that Taitz’s story comes full circle. She now has a beloved family of her own, providing a different sort of fulfillment from her successful career. As her parents pass on, we can still see those complicated emotions of longing to please, an effort to understand, and a final appreciation of both her parents’ teachings and how far she has ventured, happily, to form a life of her own.
James Wolcott, New Yorker and Vanity Fair cultural critic, and author of the memoir Lucking Out
“A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion, Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter has the dovish beauty and levitating spirit of a psalm. The suffering and endurance of Taitz’s parents – Holocaust “death camp graduates” who met at the Lithuanian Jewish Survivor’s Ball in a New York hotel (imagine Steven Spielberg photographing that dance floor tableau) – form the shadow-hung backdrop of a childhood in a high-octane, postwar America where history seems weightless and tragedy a foreign import – a Hollywood paradise of perky blondes, Pepsodent smiles, and innocent high-school hijinks where our author and heroine longs to fit in.
‘Although the wonder years that Taitz scrupulously, tenderly, beautifully, often comically renders aren’t that far removed from us, they and the Washington Heights she grew up in, the shop where her father repaired watches like a physician tending to the sick tick of life itself, the grand movie houses where the image of Doris Day sunshined the giant screen, have acquired the ache and poignance of a lost, Kodachrome age.
‘A past is here reborn and tenderly restored with the love and absorption of a daughter with a final duty to perform, a last act of fidelity.”
Mark Whitaker, former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek, Managing Editor of CNN, and author of the memoir My Long Trip Home
“This memoir of growing up as the daughter of a master watchmaker who survived the Holocaust is also a haunting meditation on the nature of time itself. [Sonia Taitz writes] with a painter’s eye and a poet’s voice.”
“An invigorating memoir about coming of age as the daughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Taitz’s (In the King’s Arms, 2011, etc.) childhood was punctuated by stories of her parents’ and grandmother’s loss as well as their faith during their time in the ghetto and Dachau. Here, the author explores her early awareness of standing out as a child; the transition from desiring assimilation to appreciating her Yiddish heritage; personal relationships; a vow to her father; travel to Israel; the differences between life on the West and East coasts; the search for meaningful work after she realized a Yale law degree did not align with her artistic impulses; study at Oxford; marriage, divorce and remarriage; and the deaths of her parents, Simon and Gita. Motifs of time, filial love, the preservation of memories and the biblical story of Queen Esther weave throughout these chapters, which also stand alone as essays that capture the spirit of the postwar decades. Taitz evokes popular culture, from the silver screen to commercial jingles, and intersperses lighter moments with deeper considerations of suffering. Though the author focuses mostly on her experiences, it is Simon and Gita’s perseverance that truly shines—the former a respected watchmaker who began life anew more than once, the latter a concert-level pianist whose dreams were thwarted by war and who rescued her own mother from the Nazis’ infamous selections. Taitz portrays her parents with tenderness while acknowledging their imperfections.
An affecting, brisk read, especially noteworthy for its essential optimism and accomplished turns of phrase.”
Excerpt from The Watchmaker’s Daughter
Prologue: The Man Who Fixed Time
You could say that my father was a watchmaker by trade, but that would be like saying that Nijinsky liked to dance. Fixing watches was not only his livelihood but his life. This skill had saved him when he had been imprisoned at the death camp of Dachau, during the Second World War, and he continued to fix watches until the day he died. Simon Taitz was nothing less than a restorer of time. And I was his daughter, born to continue in his life work – restoration and repair.
The minutes in my childhood home went by slowly and deliberately. They were accounted for by an endless series of clocks. Like the burghers of some old village, they sat around me as I listened to their secrets. Some kept the true hour; others were broken, chiming irregularly with dings and false, elaborate windups that led to weird silence. A few bombastically tolled the hours with notes that spread and reverberated. I was mesmerized by the whirly rotations within glass bell jars. I loved and feared the old cuckoos, with pendulums like overgrown Bavarian acorns. Clang and tick, pickaxe and wheel, a real hurly-burly.
My favorite was the one that sat on the breakfront in our apartment. Despite its size, this small mantel piece boomed throughout the house like an eight-foot grandfather clock. “Westminster chimes,” my father proudly explained as he wound it, a beautiful British diapason of notes, sometimes long, sometimes short, and ending with a hearty, chest-full Boom-Boom-Boom. My father’s chest was large and round, his voice deep and resonant. I often thought that clock spoke for him and the dignified truth inside him. Time was company; it never left you. A look at a pleasant, numbered face, and you’d practically hear it say: “Yes, I’m here. See? I’m still marking the minutes. You can count on me.”
When I think of my father’s face, I see the loupe, the watchmaker’s special magnifying glass. It was a small tube of black-painted metal worn on one eye, a mini-telescope that fit into the optical orbit as though it were part of the skull. Through the glass, my father surveyed a microcosmic ward of ailing tickers. His domain opened up with the tiny click of a pocket watch door, releasing a magical world in which minute gears spun clockwise, counterclockwise and back and forth, each with its own rhythm. Daily, he sat at his wooden workbench, presiding over the internal secrets of clocks, each revealing its tiny pulse as he restored it to the natural, universal order.
I thought of my father as a magical man and was in awe of him.
“See what’s inside? Still alive,” he’d say, opening the back of a pocket watch. My father could reverse time; my father could reverse fate. He could fix a broken face, a cracked and faded lens, and make it clear and true again. He could make a dead heart beat.
Though the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” was the notorious banner welcoming doomed souls to slavery in Auschwitz, my father did, in fact, feel freed by his work. It relaxed him into a state of patient grace. By the time I was born, he had been fixing clocks and watches for nearly three decades. Simon had learned his trade back in Lithuania, apprenticing to a master as a boy of fourteen. His father had died when he was three, when Cossacks, rampaging through his village, shot the young miller, leaving behind a young widow and three helpless children. This story was my first narrative.
“Poor Bubbe Sonia!” I would say about my paternal grandmother, after whom I was named.
“’Poor’ nothing,” my father would answer. “She was a special woman, strong and brave.”
This Sonia Taitz, the original one, buried her husband on their land, sold the millstones, and fled their riverside home, escaping into what my father called “deep Russia.” I always imagined a dark, Slavic forest, and a young, Snow White-like woman, surrounded by menacing branches. Bright eyes in the night, sadists and murderers watching her and her three little children, my father, as in a fairy tale, the youngest. Her favorite.
The eldest, a bookish, lanky boy called Aaron, was sent away to wealthy relatives. They were not kind to him, and ultimately he ran away to Palestine and did manual labor with other raw immigrants. The middle child, Paula, was blue-eyed, dimpled and flirtatious. After marrying hot and young, she and her husband were sent to Siberia by the Communists.
Simon was left alone to support his mother. A gifted athlete, he enjoyed the Lithuanian winters, skating around Kovno (as the Jews called Kaunas), racing through woods and villages, flying forward into his manhood. Though he would rather have studied and become a doctor, he considered himself lucky to find that he loved his trade, and by his early twenties was a master himself, with a workshop and trained apprentices of his own. When inducted into the Lithuanian army, he enlisted with enthusiasm and loved the physicality of it, the discipline. On his return, flush with confidence, he opened a watch store, then another; he bought himself a Harley Davidson, top of the line. But when the Communists invaded, he was forced to “nationalize” his business as well as the Harley. Still, he survived, he thrived; he supported his widowed mother. In the evenings, he danced at parties.
When, however, the Nazis invaded Lithuania, Simon began planning ways of escape. Good Christian friends had offered him documents, and he had considered booking passage to Australia with his mother. She, however, was frightened of starting her life again so far away. So he stayed behind with her.
“That’s why she died, right?” I was trying to figure out causes and avoidable, fixable mistakes. He had almost died as well; he was one of the very few Jews from his part of the world who had not.
“Who knows why she died?”
“No, Daddy, she had to keep moving. She got stuck!”
“I, too, my little Sonia. We all got stuck somewhere. But by a miracle, God heard my prayers, and I survived.”
My father considered himself lucky to have become a watchmaker. Lawyers, businessmen, and even doctors went to the gas chambers, but his humble, practical skill was needed. This portable trade saved his life. Simon had been assigned to fix the time for the Nazis, who prized punctuality. As he explained to me, Germans respected his ability, eventually giving him his own workshop within the camp. A part of him reveled in this odd esteem, even (or especially) coming from his enemies and captors.
“The Germans admired a well-functioning machine. They loved order and discipline and I gave them that. Their watches and clocks came in broken and came out ‘tick-tock’ perfect. So in some way we understood one another.”
The watchmaker’s trade was all that my father carried with him when he came to America in 1949, but again it was enough. After a few years of working in-house at Omega, the prestigious watch company, he began renting a little shop on the West Side of Manhattan, on Broadway and 63rd street. Eventually, Lincoln Center would be built next door to this modest location, and he would befriend (and fix the watches of) great artists and impresarios; for now, he sat in his little jewelry shop in the middle of a tough neighborhood.
Hooting groups of teenagers ran by the store, hitting the windows with baseball bats. On a few occasions they smashed in the glass, shattering his storefront and grabbing watches by the tray-full. My father chased them down the street, tackling the stragglers, grabbing back his treasures from their loosening fists. Carefully, he laid them back in their usual places in the trays, unafraid of anything but more degradation, more loss. He would truly rather die, now, than be bested by bullies and criminals. And he was not about to die. He installed heavy iron gates that at the beginning and the end of his long workday he slid over the windows with a long, loud set of clangs and a final bang. Then he installed a sensitive alarm system, so sensitive that any rattle of the gates would lead to an emergency call to the police, and another to our home. There was always a sense of potential disaster in that little West Side store, and the gates themselves, fastened by an enormous lock, seemed more a shock than a comfort to me.
Interspersed with the drama of thugs and thieves came the peacefulness of my father’s labor. Simon was, I suppose, used to functioning around crises, always able to restore himself to calm productivity as maelstroms faded. A laminated wooden OMEGA, written in large gold letters, hung over his head as he sat quietly at his workbench, attesting to his ranking as a master. Omega was my father’s Yale and his Harvard. Around him lay a little store lined with glass showcases and mirrors that my mother endlessly polished. Within the showcase lay velveteen trays holding jewelry; my mother wiped these treasures daily with a chamois cloth to make them sparkle.
And work soothed his soul as nothing else could. With the loupe in his eye, my father seemed to see everything. Even when a customer came into the store, he might not look up, so immersed was he in the intricate mysteries of his timepieces. My mother, his assistant in the shop, would dash up to them and eagerly say, “Can I help you?” Sometimes they were there to look at a ring, or try a bracelet on their arms, and she would get busy and pull out some velveteen trays. Most often, however, they had heard of my father, and wanted a bit of his time.
“I’m waiting for the watchmaker,” they would say.
A glass separated him from his customers, the way a curtain might separate the holy from the Holy of Holies. Only when it was time, only when an issue was settled in his mind, would my father lay down his work, pop out his loupe, and look up. Then he would say, with utter seriousness, each word seeming to take on its fullest meaning:
“How may I be of service to you?”
From deep within pockets, purses, bags and briefcases would emerge a beloved old wristwatch, an antique pocket watch, or a large, priceless antique clock. Unwrapping, exposing, handing treasures over to my father’s side of the glass, they would part with their heirlooms. He would look at the timepiece, first without the loupe, and then with it – opening the back with tiny tools as the customer stood back, scarcely breathing. Sometimes he would admire the secret paintings within secret doors (pastorals, portraits) or a clever repeater, a special toll or ticking capability.
“Yes, I think I can make this repair,” he would finally say. “When you come back, your treasure will be beating.”