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William Herskovic, 91; Bel Air Camera Founder Escaped Auschwitz, Fueled Belgian Resistance

Obituaries

March 07, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

William Herskovic, an escapee from Auschwitz during World War II whose eyewitness account of the concentration camp horrors is credited with fueling early efforts of the Belgian resistance and saving hundreds of lives, has died. He was 91.

Herskovic, who founded Bel Air Camera in Westwood soon after moving to Los Angeles in 1957, died Friday at his home in Encino after a long battle with cancer, said his daughter, Patricia Herskovic.

On the first night of Hanukkah in 1942, Herskovic dug a pair of wire cutters from a snowy hiding place and, with two other prisoners, cut though chain-link to freedom.

Armed with the memory of a map drawn in the snow, the trio ran for hours before boarding a train that took them to Breslau, Germany. When the escapees tried to tell a local rabbi about conditions in the camps, he threw them out.

"It was as if he had no heart, and still today, my father hopes that in his particular case, it was simply fear," Patricia Herskovic wrote in "Escape to Life: A Journey Through the Holocaust," a 2002 memoir of her parents' World War II experiences.

To finance the next leg of their three-week odyssey across Nazi-occupied Europe, Herskovic turned to the heel of his shoe. A shoemaker had embedded a 3-carat diamond in its center, and its sale paid for train and bus tickets to Cologne, Germany, and, days later, Antwerp, Belgium, Herskovic's prewar home.

Wanting to save others, he met with a member of the Belgian resistance and gave him one of the earliest firsthand accounts of the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Herskovic is quoted as warning, "They are killing us by the thousands, do not go peacefully...."

The British Broadcasting Corp. soon aired the escapee's tale, and it appeared in a publication of the Belgian underground, Herskovic said in a 1995 letter to the Wall Street Journal.

The resistance quickly mobilized, placing bricks on the tracks to stop a transport train filled with hundreds of Jews bound for the camps. The cargo doors were thrown open, and about 250 prisoners escaped.

"His survival saved hundreds," the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said in a tribute.

En route to the concentration camp in 1942, Herskovic had been violently separated from his wife, Esther, and two young daughters. He didn't find out for some time that his family had been murdered upon their arrival at Auschwitz.

Throughout his life, he kept a tiny portrait of his first wife in his wallet.

"You get through grief by moving forward," Herskovic said, and this was especially true after his three months in what he called the "slave/work/death camps."

For three years, he went in and out of hiding in Belgium, and in about 1945 married Mireille, the younger sister of the wife he had lost.

When Herskovic put Mireille on the train to find her first husband, he'd said, "If he's not alive when you get there, I want you to marry me," Patricia Herskovic recalled.

In Brussels, Herskovic reestablished Studio Willy, his photography business, and the couple had three daughters, all of whom survive him. In addition, he also is survived by two brothers, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Born in June 1914 in what was then Hungary, Herskovic lost his mother to the flu when he was 6 months old. Raised mainly by his grandparents, he spoke nine languages, although he dropped out of school at 13.

An older brother had taken an apprenticeship at a photography studio, and when he complained about how much he hated the work, Herskovic went in his place.

By 15, he was supervising the work of a dozen adult photographers in what was then Czechoslovakia, and winning awards for his photography, his family said.

At 17, he followed his family to Antwerp, Belgium, and set up his own photography studio. Although he returned to photography for at least a decade after the war, it would never be the same.

"He never wanted to be an artist again," his daughter said. "The things he saw -- his artist's soul was pretty tromped on."

In Los Angeles, loan officers talked Herskovic into buying a camera business in Westwood that the family still owns today.

Almost 50 years after escaping, Herskovic sat down with his film-producer daughter to work on his memoir of the Holocaust.

"He had made a commitment to those in the camps to never let them be forgotten," she said. "With the book, he started to feel he had fulfilled some of that promise."

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