Harry Eisen, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who founded Norco Ranch Inc. in western Riverside County in the 1950s and built it into one of the state’s leading egg producers, processors and distributors, has died. He was 95.
Eisen died July 19 of complications of lung disease at his home in Beverly Hills, said his daughter, Frances Miller.
When Eisen and his Polish-born wife, Hilda, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1948, they had no money and spoke no English.
Eisen had managed a sausage factory and three outlets in Warsaw before World War II, but with his lack of English he could only get a job cleaning out meat barrels in a hot-dog factory in Vernon.
But after saving money to buy his first 100 chickens, he launched a backyard operation in Arcadia and peddled the eggs in his neighborhood.
Language was no barrier for launching his new business. As Eisen jokingly told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in 1993: “I talked Jewish to my chickens and they laid eggs.”
The Eisens moved their growing operation to Norco in the 1950s.
In 2000, when Eisen sold Norco Ranch Inc. to Missouri-based Moark, it had a staff of about 450 people and a list of major customers that included the Ralphs division of Kroger, the Vons division of Safeway, Albertson’s, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Jack-in-the-Box.
“It’s the American dream,” former Norco City Councilman Steve Nathan, an Eisen family friend, told the Press-Enterprise at the time of the sale. “He started small with a bunch of chickens, he worked hard and became a multimillionaire.”
Eisen was born May 15, 1917, in Izbica Kujawska, a small village in Poland. He left home at 13 and got a job in a Warsaw sausage factory.
Drafted into the Polish cavalry before World War II, he was captured during the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and ultimately ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was put to work in coal mines.
“I was nothing more than a number,” Eisen, who still bore his tattooed number — 144492 — on his left arm, told the Press-Enterprise in 1993.
After the Soviet Red Army began approaching Auschwitz and prisoners were forced on a “death march” toward another camp in January 1945, Eisen, his stepbrother Abe and another man managed to escape.
After the war, Eisen returned to his village, where he had gone to school with Hilda.
With the exception of his brother Moshe and his stepbrother Abe, Eisen’s entire family had been killed in the Chelmno death camp.
Hilda, who had joined the Jewish Resistance after persuading a Nazi guard to open the Lublin ghetto gate for her in 1942, lost her parents and her six brothers and sisters in Nazi death camps.
The Eisens, who were married in Munich in 1945, talked about their Holocaust experiences with their four children over the years but didn’t go into details.
“They didn’t feel comfortable burdening their children with horror stories,” Miller said.
But, she said, “they were able to take their grief and become very philanthropic about it and very Zionistic and very into giving back. They felt fortunate to be on the giving end of charity rather than the receiving end.”
Eisen was a member of several Holocaust survivor organizations and served as president of the Lodzer Organization of California, a philanthropic Holocaust survivor group.
The Eisens contributed financially to the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and attended its 1993 dedication with family members. Eisen talked about his years in Auschwitz in a videotaped interview for the museum’s permanent oral history collection.
“We are the eyewitnesses.... We went through the hell,” he said in the 1993 interview.
In addition to his daughter Frances, Eisen is survived by his wife of 67 years; his other daughters, Ruth Eisen and Mary Cramer; his son, Howard; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.