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.”