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."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.