June 15, 2010

Two Vignettes on a Pocket Watch

by Professor Emeritus Mortimer D. Schwartz

Knowing of my hobby of collecting pocket watches, my wife, Giovanna, surprised me by showing me a pocket watch made by the Tavannes company. The watch once belonged to her late husband, Martin, who was a professor of labor economics at UCD. Martin received the watch from his father. Both father and son were held by the Nazis in Bergen-Belsen, one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II. Anne Frank and her sister, and the sister of actress Marlene Dietrich, died there. Martin’s father did not survive either, but Martin was there, hardly alive at 15 years of age, weighing 50 pounds and suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases, when the British army liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. His task as an inmate and young teenager was to cart bodies to burial pits. Somehow, the watch had been successfully hidden from the Nazi camp guards.

Photo credit: Glowna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, German National Archives

On liberation day, when a British soldier noticed the watch, he took it from Martin and gave in return a Mickey Mouse wrist watch. A sergeant nearby grabbed the watch and gave it back to Martin. When I looked at the watch, I saw a broken crystal, and I knew that the watch had not been used for at least 25 years or more. Obviously, the attention of a watchmaker was needed because the watch would require cleaning, oiling and adjusting along with a new crystal.

I immediately got in touch with my pocket watch guru, as I call Darryl Lesser of Darlor Watch up in Montreal, Canada. He has given me reliable guidance. I have bought three wonderful railroad grade pocket watches from him so far, and I know that he is a first rate watchmaker too. When I told Darryl the history of this watch and asked him for a quote on servicing it, his immediate reply was to instruct me to send the watch at once, and, further, he could not charge for servicing a watch with this history. In less than a week, the Tavannes pocket watch was serviced and returned to me, with a new crystal and obvious watchmaker’s attention to the case and movement. The watch is now in the hands of Martin’s son.

Sometimes and item such as this watch is less important than the story behind it. I describe my experience as the joy of watch collecting.