William Herskovic (June 1914 – March 3, 2006) was a Holocaust survivor and humanitarian. His escape from Auschwitz in 1942 and early eyewitness testimony inspired Belgium's opposition to Nazi Germany during World War II, and alerted the Resistance to the atrocities that were taking place in the concentration camps. Because of Herskovic's escape and testimony, hundreds of lives were saved.
Herskovic was born in June 1914 in what was then Hungary.
His mother died when he was only 6 months old, and his father had many children by a second wife, so he was raised mainly by his maternal grandparents.
Herskovic, who spoke 9 languages, dropped out of school at the age of 13 in order to take his brother's place as a photographer's apprentice. By the age of 15 he was running photo studios across Czechoslovakia and winning awards as an artist for his skill in photographic retouching.
By the age of 17, he had started his own photo studio, Studio Willy, that quickly gained fame across Belgium.
He married his first wife, Esther, and they had two girls—Giselle (Katie) Herskovic, born in 1938, and Germaine Herskovic, born in 1941.
Herskovic's businesses were confiscated by the Germans and he, his wife and their two baby girls were sent to a concentration camp. All though he wouldn't find out until a long time later, his wife and two daughters were killed in a gas chamber almost immediately upon their arrival.
Herskovic was sent to an Auschwitz hard labor camp where he wasn't expected to live long on about 130 calories a day.
Herskovic set about planning an escape, and on the first night of Hanukkah, 1942, Herskovic and two others dug a pair of wire cutters out from beneath layers of snow where they had hidden them, and cut through chain-link fences during a blizzard.
The three ran through the snow for hours towards freedom.
Herskovic then warned the Belgian underground of what was going on in the camps. "Do not go peacefully, they are killing us by the hundreds," he is quoted as saying in Escape to Life: A Journey Through the Holocaust, his biography.
The resistance quickly mobilized, stopping a transport train and rescuing hundreds bound for the camps.
"His survival saved hundreds," according to a Simon Wiesenthal Center tribute.
Herskovic then went undercover, carefully crafting false papers and getting a job camouflaging the beaches of Normandy, where he was in fact observing military installations and drawing sketches to send back to the resistance.
After the war
Herskovic, discovering that his wife and children had been killed, asked his first wife's younger sister, Maria, for her hand in marriage (her husband had also been killed in the Holocaust). She accepted.
From the moment he immigrated to the U.S. with his wife, Mireille, they began their heartfelt dedication to philanthropy, contributing to communities whenever possible. With an understandable commitment to his history, he was a founding supporter of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. where a plaque proudly commemorates, and hopefully puts to rest, all the beloved family he lost who were never given the benefit of gravestones. He was also dedicated to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in hopes, “that education and awareness will prevent prejudice and hatred in the future.” Additionally, he and his wife have been loyal supporters of numerous organizations including: UJF, ADL, Friends of Sheba Medical Center, Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans, Technion, UCLA’s Hillel, Milken Community High School, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Jesters (a charity helping blind children), Israel Cancer Research Fund, and others.
William Herskovic died on March 3, 2006 at his home in Encino, CA after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 91. Herskovic is survived by his wife, Maria, their three children, four grandchildren and great-grandchild.
- Bel Air Camera
- From The Times of London: Photographer who spent the war on the run from the Holocaust and survived it to find prosperity in America
- AP obituary via Washington Post: William Herskovic, Witness to Holocaust
- Archived Excerpt of the Los Angeles Times obituary: William Herskovic, 91; Bel Air Camera Founder Escaped Auschwitz, Fueled Belgian Resistance
- European Jewish Press obituary: Auschwitz escapee Herskovic dies at 91
- CBS 2 video clip: Bel Air Camera Founder, Holocaust Survivor Dies