By FRANK SWERTLOW
Alicia Kaye picked the wrong time and place to be born.
She came into the world in a Siberian labor camp in 1941, outside the town of Ossino. Her father and mother, both Poles and Jewish, were shipped to the camp when Russia and Nazi Germany sliced up their country in 1939. Polish Jews who were in the Nazi sector went to death camps like Auschwitz, while Jews who came under the rule of Stalin were sent to forced-labor camps in the Siberian wilderness.
Either way, they faced death.
"I remember how desolate it was," Kaye recalls. "We lived in barracks on cots. My father had a facility with languages and he learned Russian. I recall playing in the snow. We boiled grass to eat."
Kaye's reversal of fortune could hardly be more dramatic. Today she is co-owner of London Temporary Services, which averages $13.5 million in annual revenues and ranks among the top women-owned businesses in Los Angeles.
Kaye turns heads when she walks into a cocktail party. (A flamboyant dresser, she often wears a blouse that resembles the Union Jack.) Never shy, she strikes up conversations with strangers about the latest Hollywood film, politics or fashion, but at some point she'll almost always discuss business, handing out her business cards to prospective clients.
"I am out at least three nights a week," says Kaye. "Benefits, premieres, openings. You have to be out in the community."
Her life in L.A. is a remarkable contrast to her days in Europe as a young child, when she was kept alive with scraps of extra bread her father managed to scrounge. Most of the people sent to the gulags died there, Kaye said, but she and her family made it until the end of the war.
They returned to Poland to claim their lost property, but it wasn't a happy homecoming. The Poles were killing Jews who came back. "We literally left in the middle of the night and fled to a displaced persons camp in Austria," Kaye says.
Their next move was Munich, and a DP camp run by the American forces. Here, the 5-year-old saw first-hand the way life in the camps could affect people today it would be called traumatic shock syndrome.
"They would walk like zombies," she said. "They tried to reconcile what they did to survive. Some people snapped. My parents were lucky. There were no atrocities in the gulags. You just died from the cold, the elements, but you didn't die in the gas chamber."
Kaye's father had a knack for survival. He dabbled in the black market, and always told his family they would go to America, where he said the streets were paved with gold.
While in the American camp, the family was placed on a list of those who could come to the United States. A Jewish refugee committee and a cousin of her father's would sponsor them. After several delays, Kaye and her family arrived in New York in 1951.
There was no gold in the streets. They were sent to what might be described as a welfare-style hotel on the Lower East Side.
"It was like a holding pen," she said. "We had one room for the four of us. There was a communal dining room, and we all shared a bathroom."
The family soon found an apartment in a poor section of the South Bronx, even then a hard-scrabble area of immigrants and shabby housing.
"It was $19 a month," she said. "My sister and I shared a bedroom. My parents slept in the living room on a Castro convertible sofa."
Kaye's father learned English in night school and pushed a cart in the garment district. He made $12 a week. Her mother operated a clothing stand in Harlem, working six days a week.
The teen-aged Kaye started hanging out in Greenwich Village, the center of Bohemian life in New York. Saturdays, she spent at the Museum of Modern Art. She also began taking classes at City College, the so-called Poor Man's Harvard, where many of the children of the Holocaust got their education. Nearly 18, Kaye met and married her first husband in 1959.
In 1961, they moved to Los Angeles, where she settled into being a housewife. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter. The marriage lasted 13 years. Divorced, Kaye now had to support herself.
"I said, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' " Kaye recalls.
At 31, she turned to the want ads, answering a call by a temporary employment agency for someone to work at a travel agency. She didn't get the job, but an aptitude test revealed that she had a knack for sales. Ironically, she got at job at the temp agency. She stayed nearly five years.
In 1975, Kaye married Norman Rose, a Beverly Hills divorce attorney. Four years later, backed by a $25,000 loan from Rose, Kaye and two partners Ileen Bernard and Gail Angel opened London Temporary Services. Kaye repaid the loan within a year. Today, clients include DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures.
Kaye attributes at least part of her success to Los Angeles, where even someone born in a Russian gulag could grab onto the American dream.
"Los Angeles never cares where you are from," she said. "It's not about where you went to school, like in New York or San Francisco. Here, it's what you bring to the table and how you have contributed to the growth of the city. It's not who you are, but what you can do."
There's something else, too, that propels Kaye forward.
"I am a survivor," Kaye says. "I always look at the glass being half full, and not half empty."
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