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Hilda Eisen, Holocaust survivor, California entrepreneur and philanthropist, dies at 100

Hilda Eisen, Holocaust survivor, California entrepreneur and philanthropist, dies at 100
Hilda and Harry Eisen (Michael Rubinstein)

When Hilda Eisen arrived in America, she had no money and spoke little English.

She had survived the Holocaust but lost her entire family to the Nazi death camps.

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Living in Boyle Heights, she and her husband got by on the paltry wages he earned cleaning out meat barrels at a Vernon hot dog factory. On the side, they raised chickens and sold eggs in the neighborhood for extra cash.

It proved to be bountiful work.

Within years, Hilda and Harry Eisen were the largest egg distributors west of the Rockies and emerged as multimillionaires and generous benefactors when they sold out to a Minnesota-based agribusiness.

A constant voice for the remembrance of the atrocities of World War II, Eisen died Nov. 22 in Beverly Hills at age 100. Her husband died in 2012.

Eisen was born April 25, 1917, the second of six children, in Izbica Kujawska, a small town in central Poland. Her father was a grain dealer, her mother a baker.

Eisen was 22 when she and her first husband were rounded up and imprisoned in the Lublin ghetto, a sprawling Polish neighborhood invaded by the Nazis and then used as a way station where Jews were hauled off in cattle trucks to labor camps.

With the help of a guard, Eisen escaped and joined resistance fighters in the Parczew forest, where she was later captured by German forces.

Taken to a local police station for interrogation, she jumped from a second-story window to get away, breaking a bone in her foot — an injury that would trouble her the rest of her life.

As she ran away, a Nazi guard seemed to take compassion on Eisen, her grandson Michael Rubinstein said he was told, firing low when she jumped a fence and high when she hit the ground on the other side.

When the war ended and she returned home, she learned her parents and siblings were all dead. Her husband had been killed searching for her. A few high school classmates remained, including Harry Eisen.

“She always joked that she married Harry because he was the only suitable man left,” Rubinstein said.

In America, the couple’s fledgling chicken business began to grow when they saved up enough money to buy 100 chickens and move their operation to Arcadia.

In an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Eisen recalled opening the front door to fetch the newspaper on their first Christmas morning in Arcadia and discovering that their neighbors — whom she feared might be standoffish because of their thick accents and still-clumsy English — had delivered toys by the armful for her young daughter.

“How did they know who we were? How did they know where we came from?” she said. “And then I realized it didn’t matter. We were part of the community.”

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Looking for more room to expand, the couple moved their booming chicken ranch to Norco in the 1950s. Over the decades, Norco Ranch supplied grocery chains and restaurants throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. When the two sold out to Moark, a subsidiary of Land-O-Lakes, it had become the biggest egg distribution and processing facility in the West.

Eisen and her husband turned their attention to philanthropy and led the Lodzer Organization of Southern California. They were also early supporters of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“We are the eyewitnesses,” Harry Eisen said in an interview taped for the museum’s oral history collection. “We went through the hell.”

Eisen is survived by daughters Ruth Eisen, Mary Cramer and Frances Miller; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A son, Howard, died in 2014.

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