My father, Harry Londoner, was a holocaust survivor—Bunzlau, Markstatt, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps—before being liberated in 1945. He also managed to survive the Watts riots in Los Angeles twenty years later.
After bringing his family out to California from Cleveland in 1962, he worked various jobs before ending up in Watts and working as the manager at Mr. G’s Liquor and Deli Market located at 11752 South Wilmington. He would commute to Mr. G’s from the Fairfax area, which was far away from Watts—I don’t mean just geographically, but culturally, too.
My father was from Sosnowiec, Poland. Even though it was a city with modern concrete buildings, cable cars, and electricity, it was still Poland in the first half of the 1900s and as such, my father had never seen canned food, refrigerators, or, most importantly, racial diversity. Everyone in Poland was white, and the largest minority group was the Jews. My father had never seen a person of color until he walked off the boat upon immigrating to the U. S. For the first time in his life he saw an African American man. This astonished him so much that he stared. And when that man noticed, he came over and greeted him—in Yiddish! This was my father’s introduction to America.
When Harry first came to Watts, he had no idea of the racial divide that segregated the neighborhood into a ghetto. He quickly figured it out though. As a Polish Jew in WWII, he and his family had been forced into ghettos and camps. He was no stranger to racial hatred: The Nazis dehumanized people by turning them into numbers, allowing no one to have an individual identity. He saw the same thing happening in Watts where people were dehumanized by not being treated with respect by the government, law enforcement, and society at large.
He barely made minimum wage at Mr. G’s Liquor and Deli Market. As a result, we were always poor. But he was always was sympathetic to those even less fortunate. He readily cashed checks for free even though his boss frowned upon this practice. He frequently dispensed free food to those in need. And he took no hesitation in sternly lecturing those men who might spend their money on booze rather than food, clothing, and rent for their families, or encouraging young dispirited men to strive through their struggles by relating his Holocaust survival stories.
His customers loved him for this, and they demonstrated their love for him during the violent Watts riots, which concluded 50 years ago on Monday.
As Watts descended into chaos, looters began torching the stores and businesses nearby Mr. G’s Liquor and Deli Market. In order to prevent looters and rioters from setting the store on fire, or looting it, my father’s customers came out of their homes and formed a human ring around Mr. G’s. It was one of the few liquor stores spared.
About six months after the riots, there was a robbery at Mr. G’s. Sauntering into the store came a young man so tall he has to duck his head underneath the top of the doorway. My 5′ 6″ father had to crane his neck skyward to address this giant. “Can I help you sir?” my father asked. The tall, young robber replied by pulling out a gun, then very politely asking for the money in the register. As my father emptied the register, the giant chit-chatted with him about the weather. He asked for a pack of Camels. The cigarettes were in a display case too high up for my father to reach. But rather than telling the giant he needed to get the step stool, he told instead told him with a straight face, “Listen, why don’t I hold the gun for you and you come around the counter and get the Camels yourself.” They both had a good laugh. The giant came around the counter and helped himself to the Camels. Then just as casually as he came in, he left—with the money and the Camels.
Of course though my father may have been beloved by many, he was not immune to the ever-present threat of violence that came part-and-parcel with working in a liquor store in Watts. In fact, a year after the riots he was mugged. Two men snuck up behind him as he was closing the store and smacked him over the head with the butt of a gun. He went down, bleeding profusely from the large gash on his head, but he remained conscious. But then he recognized one of them as being a regular customer and said: “Hey Johnnie, why did you hit me over the head?”
Johnnie’s partner immediately said, “Shoot him.”
Without hesitation, my father sprang to his feet and kicked Johnnie—who was holding the gun—in the balls, causing him to drop it. My dad quickly retrieved it and held the gun on both of them as blood gushed out his head wound, partially obstructing his vision.
My father screamed, “Police, police!” When they arrived, the two miscreants were arrested but didn’t take my dad to the hospital; instead, he drove himself to Saint Frances Hospital in Lynwood where they stitched him up in the ER.
One year later, my father he received a letter from Johnnie who requested my dad to come and visit him in prison “to discuss things” and to bring Johnnie’s mother (whom my dad also knew) along with him. Talk about Chutzpah! My father never visited, but he also never threw away that cheeky letter.
Even after the riots, my father continued to work in Watts. He had a tremendous love and respect for the people in that community who were suffering as a result of racial inequality. As a Holocaust survivor, he truly believed that people should be judged by merit and not skin color, race, or religion—a respect that had not been afforded him as a Jew in Poland.