If you came from a small town in, say, the American Midwest, or maybe in the English countryside, or some small secluded French market village, you might have a three- or even four-generation business. You’d consider yourself lucky to be able to look back to your grandparents or even your great-grandparents.
That’s not so true of American Jews whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. Most left with very little beyond their lives, or maybe, if they were lucky, some mementos someone had kept hidden for them.
But Will Bauer, the grandson of Holocaust refugees, who grew up in Closter, now runs a company called Royce New York, a luxury leather goods firm that now sells to high-end stores but began as a small leather manufacturing company in Vienna in the 1880s.
“It was a very basic company back then, in Vienna, when it started,” Mr. Bauer said. Eventually Mr. Bauer’s grandfather, Eugene Bauer, went to work with his father, Josef.
Eugene Bauer survived a French labor camp during World War II; eventually he was reunited with his four siblings, each of whom had survived the war separately. Eugene went on to open a small leather goods company in New York. “He wasn’t able to take anything except his skills with him, and he didn’t speak English,” Will Bauer said.
Eugene’s son, Harold, who took that business, grew it, renamed it, and transformed it to create what is now Royce New York, died on March 13.
Will Bauer both mourns his father and is comforted by the example his father set. “I feel very lucky to have had him as my father,” Will said. “I am trying to do a little mitzvah here and there to keep honoring him.
“One of the things that I found very inspirational about my dad is that he embodied the Jewish values that we all should strive for. I try to share the message about him because he was a role model in so many ways.”
Harold Bauer’s mother, Augusta Blitzer Bauer, was born in Poland and grew up in Dusseldorf, in a family wealthy and clear-sighted enough to be able to escape Germany right after Kristallnacht. The Blitzers headed first for Ecuador and then, after six months or so, to New York. “She got here when she was about 18 or 19,” her grandson said. “She was a seamstress.” The fortune had been left behind.
The Bauers did not get out in time. The four siblings’ parents were deported to Auschwitz and murdered there. “I don’t know what happened to my grandfather in the labor camp, what he did there,” or if his skills at leatherworking helped him. “He never talked about it, not even to my father,” Will Bauer said.
Eugene Bauer and Gusti Blitzer married and had two children, a son and a daughter. They lived in a small apartment in Washington Heights, surrounded by many other Holocaust refugees, when they started their leatherwork business. Eugene imported some leather goods and made others himself; Gusti was the bookkeeper. When they could, they moved to a larger apartment in Rego Park, in Queens; the business was in the Flatiron District, now chichi but then a manufacturing area in southern Manhattan. The Bauers’ son, Harold, born in 1947, became a track star at Forest Hills High School, and then at college, at St. John’s; he lived at home, worked for his father, and helped care for his sister.
That sister, Doris, had neurofibromatosis, the disease that notoriously disfigured the Elephant Man. She lived at home with her parents until she died, at 58, in 2003.
But Doris Bauer had a passion that brought her a community of beloved friends and some fame, enough to get her a loving obituary in the New York Times. Doris Bauer was Doris from Rego Park. As Corey Kilgannon wrote in the Times on November 16, 2003, Ms. Bauer, “distinguished by a chronic cough and a fierce loyalty to the New York Mets, was perhaps the best-known caller to the overnight program on WFAN, which attracts insomniacs, graveyard shifters, taxi drivers and second-guessing sports fans whose phone calls make up a constant drone of New York sports chatter.” Her childhood devotion was to the Brooklyn Dodgers; when they betrayed Brooklyn and Queens by moving to California, she, like many devoted fans, transferred her adoration to the Mets.
Meanwhile, Doris’s brother, Harold, went into business with their father. “He was successful; he started branching out and got a bigger workshop and store across the street. He still worked for his father, but then he took over from my grandfather,” Will Bauer said. “It grew a lot when he took it over.”
In 1974, Harold renamed the business. “The story goes that when my grandfather came to the United States, he had a utopian idea of what it would be like,” Mr. Bauer said. “He expected the streets to be lined with Rolls-Royces.” They weren’t, “but the name stuck with him. We do some gifting projects now with Rolls-Royce, and they got a kick out of that story.”
Harold Bauer had three children; his daughter, Celine Spiro, is married to Steven. The Spiros live in Ridgewood and have two children, Brandon and Brianna. Harold and his widow, Kathy, have two sons — Will, who is married to Joanna, and Andrew, who lives in Miami.
In 2001, Kathy Bauer started working for the company; now she and her son Will run it together. In March, right after Harold Bauer died, Kathy and Will Bauer were among the families featured in a New York Times story about successful multigenerational family businesses. The story, by Martha C. White, is called “When Your Career, and Retirement, Are the Family’s Business.”
“My dad was a true hustler,” Mr. Bauer said. “He would drive around the country, getting us into boutiques, department stores, catalogues, corporate gifting programs. He’d be on the phone at 8 o’clock on a Friday evening. I’d say, ‘Dad, who are you calling at 8 on Friday?’ And he’d say, ‘There are stores in Alaska and Hawaii!’ He’d come in on Sundays. From the time I was a kid I’d see his work ethic, and it stuck with me.”
Mr. Bauer was deeply involved in many philanthropic enterprises, although much of his philanthropy was one-on-one. Many of the people in whom he saw promise and whom he helped have gone on to head their own successful companies. The Jewish organization that seemed to be closest to his heart was the Blue Card — it’s at bluecardfund.org — which provides for Holocaust survivors. “It meant a lot to him, and it means a lot to my wife and me too,” Mr. Bauer said. “Empathy is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how the world judges you. You have to do right for others without expecting anything back.”
About 30 years ago, “the business was doing so well that we were too big for our warehouse in the Flatiron,” Mr. Bauer said. “My dad saw a great opportunity in Secaucus. Land was cheap there then. We’re still in the same warehouse now.” When the business moved to New Jersey, so did the family.
Will grew up in Closter; he went to the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, and then to McGill University in Montreal. Now he and his mother run Royce. “She’s an amazing force,” Will said of Kathy Bauer. “They were incredible hustlers, both of them. We definitely have a lot to live up to.”
Harold Bauer, who had moved to Neptune with his wife, suffered from kidney disease for the last eight years of his life, Will Bauer said. “You’d never know from the way he carried himself. Even in the last couple of days, he would laugh and joke.
“His famous line, the one he’d always tell my brother and sister and me, was ‘I have lived.’ He must have been to 40, 50 countries. He’d experienced so much in his lifetime. It seemed like he passed with no regrets. Of course, you always want more time with your family, but it seemed like he’d accomplished all he wanted to accomplish. He took a two-person family business and turned it into a recognizable name brand, and he left an indelible mark on other people.
“For the last eight years, I shared an office with him. My desk was five feet away from his. I saw him five, six days a week. I miss him greatly, but now I look over at his desk and smile and think about the arguments and the jokes and the smiles we have shared over those years together.
“He was a great man.”