The hands of time
September 21, 2006
Growing up Jewish in 1930s Austria, the birth nation of Adolph Hitler, the man who for decades was Aspen’s only watchmaker might be forgiven for having a less-than-cheerful outlook on life.But the fact is that Kurt Bresnitz, who will turn 89 in February, looks back on his life with satisfaction, humor and quiet pride. He considers it “a miracle” that he and his wife, Lotte, who died two years ago, made it to Aspen at all back in 1950, let alone that they settled here and prospered for more than half a century.And now that he is well into his retirement years, Bresnitz is capping off a lengthy list of volunteer activities by using his skills to help The Thrift Shop, the Aspen nonprofit that sells used clothing, household goods and other accessories for life. The shop channels the proceeds into a wide range of local social and humanitarian causes.When a box of donated clothes and other goods includes a watch that won’t work, the timepiece gets tossed into a basket and ultimately ends up on Bresnitz’s work bench – where he coaxes it back to life. It then goes back to The Thrift Shop for sale, and the proceeds go into the organization’s community benefit funding pool.”I do it to give back to the community that gave me so much,” Bresnitz stated simply during a recent interview, sitting in the living room of his home at the edge of the Aspen municipal golf course.
Bresnitz was born and raised in Vienna. While he was attending the commercial academy – equivalent to a business college in the U.S. – he was thrown out in 1938 “because Hitler marched in with his troops on the 11th of March.”At the time, the Third Reich was eight months away from the infamous Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.” On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi soldiers reportedly destroyed 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, burned 267 synagogues and killed 91 Jews throughout Germany, Austria and other strongholds. Along the way, the Nazis ransacked the Bresnitz family home.Hitler annexed Austria in March of that year, giving the Nazis control and dashing Bresnitz’s hopes for taking over his father’s import/export business after finishing his education.Bresnitz was drafted into the German army, but as a Jew, he was forbidden from carrying arms. Instead, he was assigned the job of digging trenches for the troops at the front.”That I did not want to do,” he said, so he skipped out of his induction and fled Austria to Germany, where “the Nazis were not as vicious” as in Austria. Once in Germany, he found shelter with a family sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. His goal was to get to the United States, where he had an uncle who would help him start a new life.That new life, he decided, would be to follow in the footsteps of another uncle, his “hero,” a renowned jeweler in Vienna until the Nazis plundered his shop. In despair, his uncle committed suicide.
Bresnitz succeeded in finding his way to the U.S., arriving in 1938. He made his way to Cincinnati, where his uncle was a thriving businessman after living in this country for several decades. But Bresnitz was forced to make his own way, he said, because his uncle felt he would become a better citizen through adversity and hard work.Bresnitz worked as a “cutter” in a ladies’ wear factory for a time, and met his future wife through an immigrants social club and married her.In the spring of 1940 he volunteered for the U.S. Army and went to fight the Nazis in Europe, where he served for four and a half years and earned commendations for his intelligence work.He rejoined Lotte in New York City, where she was working as a nurse, and after an eight-month course in watchmaking he opened a shop just across the street from Macy’s Department Store on 36th Street. “It was on the third floor of a roach-infested building, one flight above a Gypsy tea room,” he recalled with a chuckle.Working 19 hours a day, he mainly repaired watches sent over from the Army’s PX, and after a couple years of that grinding schedule he decided his career needed a boost. He enrolled in a watchmaking engineering school in Denver in 1948, paying for it through the GI Bill, which also paid for the tools and equipment, which he still has and uses, and went to work for a jeweler.In the fall of 1950, at the urging of friends, he took some time off and went on a car tour of the canyon country in Utah and Arizona. On the way back he and Lotte decided to stop off in Aspen “to see the world’s longest chairlift.
“The miracle of my life was to be at the right place at the right time,” he says now. “The story here is how one day can change your life.”He arrived in Aspen during the offseason. There were no rooms except at Moore’s Travel Court at the corner of Monarch and Main, operated by James [or “Jimmy,” as Bresnitz calls him] Moore, who also happened to wear the hats of real estate agent, barber and a few other entrepreneurial activities.Warming to the Bresnitzes, Moore told them the patriarch of the town, Walter P. Paepcke, was “looking for some qualified craftsmen …a dentist and a watchmaker,” an invitation that suited Bresnitz just fine.Before long, Bresnitz purchased a small leather-goods shop that was going out of business, inventory and all. The owners left town that night, taking with them the best of the inventory and leaving Bresnitz with the dregs. But he overcame that initial disaster and, over the years, gradually built up, what for a long time was, the only jeweler’s business in town. He earned a master’s degree in horology, the science of watchmaking. Finally, in the 1960s, he was able to build a handsome brick shop on Hopkins Avenue, just across from the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, where he stayed until he retired in 1987.Possessed of a fine memory, Bresnitz regales listeners with a range of tales of Aspen over the past five and a half decades. From his associations with early power brokers such as Moore, Tom Sardy and Judge Shaw, to his membership in such organizations as the Lions and Rotary clubs, the Aspen Hall of Fame and the Sister Cities organization, he has been deeply involved in the life of the town.Looking back on his working life with evident fatigue, he said frankly, “You’re got to be insane to become a watchmaker. No wonder it’s a dying art.”
Only by diving into his great hobby, stamp collecting, could he alleviate the stress that accompanied the intricate work. Driven to distraction by the watches, he would shut his shop and scurry to his collection room, where he would immerse himself in the world of stamps until he felt calm enough to return to work.Over the years he built up a massive collection of albums, most of which have been turned over to an international auction house for sale around the world.And now, when the need arises, he fixes the occasional watch for the Thrift Shop ladies, spending his own money for parts and batteries, as a way of saying thanks to the town he’s called home for so long.”I’m happy that I don’t have to do anything, anymore,” he said of his present circumstances, which consist largely of making the rounds of his ample circle of friends, playing with his cat and puttering contentedly around in his house, his shop and his stamp collecting room, reminiscing about a life well lived.John Colson’s e-mail is email@example.com