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Escaped From Auschwitz

His bravery saved hundreds of lives.

William Herskovic was a Czech Jew who escaped from Auschwitz to warn the Jewish community that the so-called “labor camp” was actually a mass murder machine where thousands of Jews – including his wife and two babies – were being gassed to death every day. His eyewitness testimony saved hundreds of lives.

Born in Hungary in 1914, William’s mother died when he was an infant. His father remarried and had many more kids while William was raised by his maternal grandparents. William was an exceptional young man. He spoke 9 languages and dropped out of school at age 13 to help his family by working as photographer’s apprentice.

By 15 William was managing multiple photo studios in Czechoslovakia, supervising the work of adult photographers.

The family moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where William opened Studio Willy, a camera store and portrait studio. It was such a success that he opened multiple Studios Willy. Around 1937 William got married and he and his wife Esther had two daughters – Giselle, born in 1938, and Germaine, born in 1941.

After Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, the Nazis confiscated William’s studios and all his photographic equipment. William was arrested along with Esther and their daughters – one a newborn and the other a toddler . All four were sent to Auschwitz, where Willam was separated from his family and sent to do hard labor. He never saw his wife and daughters again. Only years later would he learn that they were gassed the same day they arrived.

At Auschwitz, William was forced to do back-breaking labor and subsisted on a starvation diet. He began plotting his escape. On the first night of Chanukah 1942, a frigid, snowy night, William and two other men cut through a barbed wire fence. William was motivated by more than the desire to live – he was desperate to get the word out to Jewish communities in Europe that Auschwitz was not a mere detention camp but a mass murder factory.

Emaciated, and in rags they made their way through the forest in the middle of a blizzard. They jumped onto a freight train that took them to Breslau, Germany. There, the escapees found a local rabbi and started to tell them about Auschwitz, but he refused to listen and kicked them out. This disturbing episode haunted William for decades. His daughter Patricia later said, “It was as if [the rabbi] had no heart, and still today, my father hopes that in his particular case, it was simply fear.”

William and the other escapees kept moving for three weeks, staying alive as they traveled through Nazi-occupied Europe. Their travel was funded by William’s shoe – or more precisely, the 3-carat diamond that a shoemaker had embedded in his heel.

Finally, they reached Belgium and William reached out to the newly-formed Belgian resistance, providing one of the first eyewitness accounts of a Nazi death camp. He said, “They are killing us by the thousands. Do not go peacefully…” Unlike the willfully blind rabbi in Breslau, the Belgian resistance took William’s report seriously. They mobilized to stop a transport train headed to Auschwitz, placing bricks on the tracks to force the train to stop. In the chaos, William and the other escapees forced open the cargo doors and about 250 Jews escaped.

William’s survival and brave determination to bear witness had saved hundreds of Jews from the gas chambers.

For the next three years, William stayed alive in Belgium, moving between several hiding places. He continued to work with the Belgian resistance. He went undercover with false papers and got a job camouflaging the beaches of Normandy, when he was actually drawing sketches of military installations to give to the resistance.

In 1945, when the war ended, he learned the tragic fate of Esther and their two darling babies. Esther’s younger sister Mireille survived but didn’t know what had happened to her husband. William put her on a train to find him, saying, “If he’s not alive when you get there, I want you to marry me.”

William and Mireille were married in a displaced persons camp in 1945. For the rest of his life, William kept a small picture of Esther in his wallet.

After the war, William reestablished Studio Willy, and he and Mireille had three daughters. In the late 1950’s they immigrated to America, settling in Los Angeles, where William founded Bel Air Camera, which was an LA institution for decades. According to his daughter Patricia, although he owned a popular camera company, he stopped taking any pictures himself. “He never wanted to be an artist again. The things he saw – his artist’s soul was pretty tromped on.”

The Herskovics were dedicated philanthropists and supported many educational and medical institutions. William was a founding supporter of the US Museum of the Holocaust in Washington DC, where a plaque commemorates his beloved first wife and their two innocent babies, who never had the benefit of gravestones.

William died in 2006 at age 91. He was survived by his wife, children, grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. William was eulogized by luminaries such as Rabbi Marvin Hier and California Gray Davis but it was William’s family that missed him the most. Grandson James Freedman remembered, “My grandfather was the best man I ever knew. He taught me the most important lessons of my life. He taught me how to be a good, decent person, and his unwavering faith in me gives me strength.” Daughter Micheline Keller said, “Our father epitomized the ideals of a righteous man – honesty, wisdom, and love for all humanity.” Daughter Patricia wrote a book called “Escape to Life: A Journey Through the Holocaust” about her parents’ experiences in World War II. The book meant a great deal to William. Patricia said “He had made a commitment to those in the camps to never let them be forgotten. With the book, he started to feel he had fulfilled some of that promise.”

For bearing witness to genocide and saving lives, we honor William Herskovic as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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