You often can’t tell the story of a place just by looking. Such is the case with Three Brothers Bakery in Houston, which seems like any other typical American family-run business. Except this particular bakery’s story starts all the way back in pre-World War II Poland with 8-year-old Sigmund Jucker.
Jucker began helping out at his Jewish family’s bakery as a young boy, making the rye bread, pumpernickel bread, whole wheat bread, cinnamon rolls, Danish pastries and more, all by hand.
“I was in the bakery every single day from 10 at night to 10 in the morning,” Jucker, now 93, told ABC News. By the time he was 13, Jucker finished school and worked in the bakery full-time through his teenage years.
That is, until 1939.
“When the war broke out, everything was gone to hell. We got nothing left and we started a new life under German occupation. It didn’t take long when they arrested my mother and my father and they sent us to a concentration camp,” he said. “And that’s when I started my life.”
Sigmund Jucker survived, though, and has now lived to tell the tale. But how he got from that concentration camp to running a successful Houston bakery is a history worth hearing, especially on today of all days: Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
So, to honor the day and ensure we never forget, this is the important story of Sigmund Jucker, and how he managed to survive the Holocaust and make it all the way to Houston, Texas to leave a legacy that lives on every day.
“Whatever I went through, I never thought I would live to the next day,” Jucker said. “But I lived through and I thank God I lived through all what I’ve seen in my eyes.”
When German forces first occupied his neighborhood in 1939, Jucker and his brothers, Sol and Max, hid in the floor of the house for several months to avoid the routine capture of young Jewish men at the time. Finally, Jucker escaped to Russia where he first worked in a coal mine before getting sick and finding a job at a bakery. He lived in poverty and slept on the top of his employer’s oven.
“The job was hard work. I had to mix dough three times a day by hand, and every dough was 1,100 kilo,” he recounted.
Finally, Jucker’s mother sent a man to look for him to come back home, where the family had managed to so far stay.
“I was lucky to get away the same day,” Jucker said, because as he remembers it, the day he left was the same day Germans came into that city and rounded up the Jews for a mass killing.
After five or six weeks back at home and two years since Germans first occupied their town, the Jucker family’s time came for enslavement. Jucker, his two brothers and sister Jeannie were taken to hard labor camps, and his mother and father were sent to Auschwitz. Jucker bartered to get his siblings into better camps by gifting a tie clip to a German soldier.
From there, Jucker went to eight hard labor camps (Sosnowitz, one in the Polish mountains, Lipowa, Czestowa, Klobuck, Annaberg, Klagenfurt and Waldenburg) over the course of four and a half years performing various tasks such as taking apart houses, mixing cement by hand and cleaning the kitchens.
“With three other men, we used to carry pianos by hand and everything was ‘March fast!’ ‘Fast walking!’ If you didn’t walk fast, you got a big stick over your head, so we had to run fast,” he recounted. “And that’s all for a little piece of bread. I was so exhausted I couldn’t even lift up 10 pounds. Thank God I got out of that camp and went to another camp.”
Jucker’s meals during that time were erratic, to say the least. He would often subsist on one potato or a single piece of bread a day.
“They gave you spinach full of sand. If you eat sand, you swell up, so I was there with one of my friends [who knew this], and we didn’t eat no spinach,” he said. “We had a bag of cocoa we smuggled in, and we ate one spoon of cocoa each when the dinner was served. We survived three months that way.”
Jucker was separated from his siblings during this time, but he eventually found himself back at the same camp, Klagenfurt, as his sister Jeannie, who managed to get their brothers Sol and Max there as well.
“Everybody that was in these camps has a horrible story, but what’s really unique about what happened to them is, how did these three brothers all get together?” Jucker’s son Bobby told ABC News. “Well, he had a sister, who – I don’t really know the whole story – but she was a young and attractive woman and she got in good with these upper SS officers. She did some things that they never talk about. We can only imagine, but she got them together.”
One of Jucker’s brothers was nearly dead when he arrived at Klagenfurt. To nurse him back to health, Jucker gave up his daily piece of bread to him and subsisted on four small potatoes for dinner. All the while, he was working in the kitchens keeping the floors and kettles clean.
“God forbid if the SS men come in and he found on his finger a little dirt, you got right away on your head a big stick. So I had to wash really clean with one sink and on your knees I washed that for almost 12 months,” Jucker recalled. “I got four pieces of potatoes; that’s what I ate every day. Giving my younger brother my piece of bread.”
Finally, after four and a half years of internment, on May 8, 1945, Jucker and his brothers were freed.
“The Russians came in, and I was the first one to cut the wires and get out of the camp. One of them gave me so many boxes of sardines and meat, but I couldn’t eat anything,” he said. “My throat was closed for three days and three nights. I couldn’t eat or drink just for nerves and to be free. Just because to be free. And nobody can imagine what that means to be free.”
The Jucker brothers reunited with their sister Jeannie and spent the next year in a repatriation camp with 10,000 other people. They were never reunited with their parents, who died at Auschwitz. Jeannie married a man at the repatriation camp and headed to America, where she wrote to her brothers that “the streets were lined with gold,” so they followed her to Houston in 1949.
The brothers went back to doing what they knew best: baking. After working for local grocery chain Henke & Pillot, they opened their own business called, “Three Brothers Bakery” on May 8, 1949 – four years to the day of their liberation.
“It was everything that I used to make in the old country. Pure rye bread, pure pumpernickel, 20 kinds of rolls,” Jucker said. “I worked every single day, seven days a week.”
They moved locations two times to Braeswood Street in 1960, where the original location still stands. As a Jewish heritage bakery, they made classics such as challah, bagels, bialys, onion pockets and more before eventually expanding to cakes, cookies and pies per customers’ requests.
Jucker met his wife during a Passover trip to Israel, the only time the bakery closed, and their son Bobby, a fifth-generation Jucker baker, now runs the business with his wife Janice and aunt Estelle (Sol’s wife). Sol, Max and Jeannie have since passed away.
“I do this to keep my family’s tradition alive. It’s almost 200 years they’ve been baking, and I really didn’t want to see that disappear. It’s a very difficult business; I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not great hours, it’s working on the holidays, but for me, I really enjoy the bakery,” Bobby said. “It’s something you can’t explain to people. It’s very comfortable in there for me. I like to say I got a lot of dough, but it’s the wrong kind. But as we say, we’re memory makers that happen to be bakers, and we make people happy every day and it’s a great feeling.”
Under Bobby’s supervision, the bakery has expanded to three locations and has won numerous awards and accolades from local and national media and business councils for their food, but they’re still making product the same old way, with no preservatives and the foundation of the family’s traditional recipes. Most importantly to Bobby, though, they have paid homage to their family’s tough history. When Jim Crow laws mandated segregation in the South, Three Brothers Bakery refused to have separate areas, and the bakery has long been giving away food to the homeless.
“We give away probably 400 loaves of bread a week and I bet we give away 400 dozen rolls to homeless shelters,” Bobby said. “Bread is the lifeline for a lot of people. That was really important to my dad and his brothers, and it’s kind of a tradition that we keep going.”
Tradition is something very important to the bakery. This week, 10 percent of all rye bread sales in store and online will be donated to the Houston Holocaust Museum. In these ways, though Jucker has taken a step back from running the bakery, his presence is still very much felt, and he still visits every Monday for lunch.
“It is my pleasure in my life to see the bakery is running like I would be there because my son takes care of it,” Jucker said.