William Herskovic

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William Herskovic, a part-time Malibu resident who founded Bel Air Camera and was an Auschwitz escapee, died March 3 after a long battle with cancer at his home in Encino. He was 91.

Herskovic was born in Hungary. His mother died when he was just six months old and he grew up mostly on his own. Herskovic become an apprentice photographer at 13 and by age 15 he gained fame as a master photograph retoucher while managing several photo studios.

Still in his teens, Herskovic moved to Belgium and soon operated one of the largest camera stores and portrait studios in the country. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, his studios were confiscated and he was sent to the Auschwitz death camp with his wife, Esther, and their two young girls. Although he didn’t discover the awful truth until many years later, all three had been killed in a gas chamber almost immediately after they arrived.

After surviving months of starvation and hard labor at the hands of the Nazis, Herskovic began planning an intricate escape. In the dead of winter of 1942 on the first night of Chanukah, he and two other men cut through the barbed wire fences of the camp and traveled miles through a blizzard. They miraculously survived a three-week odyssey through Nazi-occupied Europe.Finally back in Belgium, Herskovic immediately contacted the newly formed Belgium resistance and gave one of the first eyewitness accounts of the atrocities of the Holocaust. They quickly mobilized and stopped a transport train in the dead of night, aiding in the successful escape of hundreds otherwise bound for the gas chambers.

Herskovic then used his skills in photography and as an artist to create false identification papers for himself and others, and-determined to further aid the resistance-he used his new identity to secure work camouflaging the beaches of Normandy for the Germans, using his days off to make sketches of the missile launchers that he would then pass to Chaim Perelman, head of the Belgium resistance.

He has been recognized time and again for his “invaluable contributions” during the Holocaust and afterward.

Most recently, he was honored with the Humanitarian Award by the Israel Cancer Research fund for his extensive philanthropy.

After the war, William Herskovic married his deceased wife’s sister, who had also suffered the loss of her husband. They began their family of three daughters in Belgium before moving to America in 1957. Herskovic founded Bel Air Camera in Westwood Village only months after his arrival in Los Angeles, and it has since become a landmark of the city, where he, his children and grandchildren proudly serve the community.

At 91, Herskovic still played golf and was passionate about business and his family.

He is survived by his wife, Maria, his three daughters, four grandchildren and great-granddaughter. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Israel Cancer Research fund, www.icrfla.org, or to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org.