Walking through a rainbow to the American Dream

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William Herskovic with comedian Red Skelton behind the counter at Bel Air Camera, circa 1960. Skelton was a regular customer who liked to get behind the counter and help sell cameras.

Malibu resident William Herskovic tells how he and his family lived through the horrors of war to achieve their dream.

By Stephen Dorman/Special to The Malibu Times

In 1957, William Herskovic and his wife, Maria, packed their belongings in Brussels, gathered their three daughters and came to the United States in search of the American Dream.

The dream became a reality that same year when Herskovic, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday on the shores of Zuma Beach, opened Bel Air Camera in Westwood, at the core of the UCLA campus.

However, it was a long road to achieving this dream.

Herskovic’s birth coincided with perhaps the bloodiest 30-year period in the history of Europe. The year was 1914, and within less than a month of being born, his homeland of Austria-Hungary-following the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand-would be thrust into what would become known as The Great War.

Six months later, Herskovic’s mother died, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents while his father sought employment in America. Herskovic’s father returned to his native land late in the year, but was required to join the Austrian-Hungarian Army.

During the four-year period of World War I, Herskovic remembered his family being forced to “run from the village to different houses to avoid the shootings.” When the war ended, in 1918, Austria-Hungary dissolved and Czechoslovakia was born. “So I’m actually four years older than Czechoslovakia,” Herskovic said.

As Herskovic proceeded to enter his teenage years, he quickly developed a passion for photography. At 14, he captured his first award in the field for a self-portrait photo he had produced a year earlier. With a small bit of recognition and growing confidence, Herskovic embarked on a four-year apprenticeship with the intent of one day making it to America to further develop his craft. “My idea was to be in Hollywood and to make portraits of the actors and work on films,” he said. “I also wanted to [buy] a convertible-that was my dream.”

Those dreams, however, would be placed on hold as Europe again braced for war.

Having moved to the Belgian city of Antwerp nearly a decade before, Herskovic was now operating his own private studio and supporting his first wife, Esther, and the couple’s two young daughters, Germaine and Giselle, when all four were detained by German SS officers while attempting to cross the Belgian boarder into France during the summer of 1942.

Shortly thereafter, the Herskovics were loaded into a cattle car destined for Auschwitz. However, 30 miles before arriving at its final destination, a group of European Jews, including Herskovic, were removed from the carrier at Cosel (Kozle, a subcamp of the Auschwitz complex). There, amidst tears and screams, Herskovic unknowingly waived goodbye to his family for the last time.

After arriving in Cosel the men were transported to Peiskretchan, another satellite camp near Auschwitz, where they were forced into hard labor while receiving a mere 130 calorie-per-day diet. “If you didn’t work you could survive, perhaps,” Herskovic said. “Only if you have to work, too strong, too fast, after one week your blood turns to water and the person [becomes] swollen. Then they were finished.”

Faced with certain death, Herskovic and three other prisoners began planning their escape. “There were about 10 escapes from our camp,” he said, “and everybody was caught-one after an hour, one after a day. They were all caught and brought back to be killed in front of us.”

Herskovic said there were two reasons he wanted to escape the concentration camp. The first was to “tell people what was going on.” The second was to find his wife’s English passport and present it to the German government with the hope of obtaining her release (they would later scoff at the idea). Three weeks following the men’s daring escape, in which Herskovic said he received “a miracle every five minutes,” they would get their shot at alerting the world to the German atrocities.

Upon arriving in Belgium, Herskovic met with Ch. Perelman, a professor at the University of Brussels who was a leader in the Belgian Underground Press, a composition of several unauthorized newspapers designed to inform against German propaganda. The meeting was a success and soon word spread to other publications and broadcast outlets-including the BBC-warning Jews to resist Nazi capture. It was one of the first factual accounts of the events that were unfolding inside the walls of German concentration camps. (William and Maria’s daughter, Patricia Herskovic, a writer and film producer, recounts her father’s journey in “Escape To Life: A Journey Through The Holocaust The Memories of Maria and William Herskovic.”)

Although his path would never again reunite him with his family, Herskovic was able to form a special bond with another woman who had also lost her first spouse and two brothers to the horrors of war.

Maria Herskovic was the sister of Esther. Her husband, Itzhak Maschkivitzan, was deported and died in a camp before the end of the war. Once William had escaped, he was able to seek out Maria during his time in Brussels. The two, along with Maria’s parents, lived together until the war concluded in 1944.

“When we saw the liberating tanks rolling in, I was the first one on top of the tank throwing down chocolates and cigarettes to everybody,” Maria said. “And there was a big rainbow arch, an unbelievable rainbow, it was like we were walking right through it. We’ll never forget the rainbow.”

Two years later, Maria and William married. By 1957, they packed their belongings and brought their three daughters to the United States in search of their American Dream.

In the hotbed of UCLA’s intellectual congregation, the Herskovic’s camera shop grew and expanded for 47 years; through John Wooden’s four 30-0 seasons; through Francis Ford Coppola, Louis Ignarro, Jim Morrison and Robert Shapiro; through riots and rebuilding.

Today, William and Maria, along with daughter Suzanne Herskovic Ponder, continue to oversee the day-to-day operation of the family business. The Herskovics moved to Malibu in 1997. Their other daughter, Micheline Keller, lives in Los Angeles and is a television producer.

Herskovic continues to reap the benefits of his hard work. He likes to play golf “at least three times per week,” and he has recently captured a pair of second place finishes in local tournaments. With a great grandchild on the way, the future could not look brighter for a couple that has experienced the best and worst life has to offer.