“You have to leave your home. We’re taking you to work.” Rifle-carrying soldiers banged on William Harvey’s (then Wilheim Herskovits) door, giving the family five minutes to pack. William grabbed his best coat, which his mother had fashioned from a mohair blanket he had received from escaping Polish soldiers. William, his mother and two of his sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, were led to the overcrowded ghetto in Beregszász, Hungary (formerly Berehove, Czechoslovakia), a brick factory with a long, rectangular roof and no walls. “We were terribly scared,” William recalled. He was 19; it was April 1944.
William was born May 20, 1924, in Berehove, Czechoslovakia, to Aaron and Zali (Weis) Herskovits, the youngest of six children. Aaron owned wineries, but after being imprisoned in Russia for six years during and after World War I, he returned home a sick man, living mostly in hospitals. “I barely knew my father. I saw him maybe 15 times in my life,” William said.
The vineyards lay fallow as Zali supported the family with her dressmaking skills. “She used to fall asleep on the sewing machine,” William remembered. Zali had immigrated to New York with her mother and three siblings in the 1800s, but she and her mother returned to Czechoslovakia sometime after 1902.
The family lived in a large house, which William’s parents had built, but with high taxes and interest payments, Zali struggled. William tried to help. From age 7, he washed and ironed his own clothes. At 10, he began working after school and on weekends in a vineyard on the mountain slopes.
William’s brother Gilbert died in 1928, at 18, because of medical malpractice, according to William. His sister Giselle left for Brussels, Belgium, in 1933, and his sister Helen followed a few years later.
On Nov. 2, 1938, Berehove was annexed by Hungary under the First Vienna Award, becoming Beregszász. Still, William was able to graduate from the gymnasium in 1942.
He then worked various jobs and took a cosmetology course. With two aunts and an uncle in America, he had aspired to emigrate from a young age, but he knew he needed a profession.
Shortly before the family was taken to the ghetto, William’s father was beaten by German soldiers and died two weeks later.
In the ghetto, William worked in the infirmary, calming people. Life was difficult, with deplorable sanitary conditions, little food and constant fear. But, William said, “The biggest suffering was that you are stripped of every inch of human dignity for no reason. Just that you are born a Jew.”
After six weeks, William and his family — his mother, two sisters, two aunts, four adult cousins and two young cousins — were crammed into a cattle car, arriving five days later at Birkenau.
“Schnell, schnell” (“Hurry, hurry”), the SS yelled. Men and women were quickly separated, and William was directed to a large wooden room where he was ordered to strip. He was shaved, disinfected and given a striped suit.
As he was marched away, he glanced into a room full of women. There he saw his mother and two aunts standing naked. “They looked like they were in a daze already,” he said.
William and his group of prisoners were marched to Auschwitz and placed in a barracks. Roll call was at 4 a.m., and rations consisted of a bowl of watery soup shared by five people. William couldn’t eat, but friends from Berehove forced him. “If you’re not going to eat, you’re going to die,” they said.
On the 12th day, as William was lined up to be tattooed, he and some others were pulled out and shipped to Buchenwald. There, they were again processed and put in a cellar, where they sat waiting on a cold cement floor. “We were told if they needed workers that day, we would survive,” William said.
Suddenly someone entered the cellar, asking if anyone knew the Herskovits family. It was William’s brother-in-law, Masu Resman, his sister Giselle’s husband, who was a kapo, a prison functionary.
William was given clothes and put in a barracks. Then, six days later, he again found himself in a cattle car, this time bound for Leuna, where IG Farben operated a huge synthetic oil refinery. Prisoners were needed to clean up after Allied bombings.
Housed 4 miles from the refinery, William and the others were forced to walk barefoot to and from work on rock-covered roads, carrying their canvas-topped wooden shoes. At the job, they lifted heavy stones and pieces of iron, always risking being struck by guards with a rifle butt or baton.
Two months later, they were moved to tents set up in a vacant lot across from the refinery. There, they dealt with cold, rampant lice and shrapnel falling from bombs the Allies continued to drop.
In September 1944, when bombing destroyed the refinery beyond repair, the prisoners were shipped to a camp high in the mountains to dig tunnels. At night they slept in a horse barn. During the day, in the cold and snow, they carted railroad tracks from the station to the tunnel.
The following March, a piece of railroad track fell on William, breaking two toes and cutting his knee. He continued to work. Shortly afterward, the prisoners were returned to Buchenwald.
Five days later, William woke up on the third tier of a bunk bed. “I looked down and thought I was in a five-star hotel. Nobody was beating me. Nobody was hollering at me,” he recalled. He learned that he was frozen and had been presumed dead when he reached Buchenwald. He was taken to the crematorium, where a prisoner working there realized he was still alive and transferred him to the infirmary. He weighed 72 pounds.
Buchenwald was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945, but William remained in the infirmary until he gained some strength. He then traveled with his brother-in-law to Brussels, where he was reunited with his sister Giselle.
Two months later, William learned that his sisters Margaret and Elizabeth had survived. He met them in Berehove, and the three eventually made their way to the Deggendorf displaced persons camp in Germany. There, William worked distributing food. He also spent three months in the hospital recuperating from a breakdown.
William and Elizabeth then immigrated to New York, arriving on Aug. 31, 1946. Margaret came the following year.
William found a job as an errand boy at the Madame Fischer Beauty Salon on Lexington Avenue. “I was very, very happy,” he said. He dedicated himself to learning the business and was cutting customers’ hair within a year.
In March 1950, William visited his uncle in Boyle Heights, then a Jewish neighborhood east of Los Angeles. Surrounded by sunshine and greenery, he immediately knew he wouldn’t return to New York.
By the following September, William had earned his high school diploma and cosmetology license and had secured a job at David’s Beauty Salon on Wilshire Boulevard, near Hauser Boulevard.
In 1953, William opened his own salon, The Continental House of Beauty, at 216 S. Robertson Blvd. “I loved people and enjoyed every day of work,” he said.
That same summer he met June Gardiner, a 21-year-old native Californian, at a dance at University Synagogue, and they married on Nov. 8, 1953. Their daughter Wendy was born in January 1956, and Laurie in October 1957.
In 1960, William opened Mr. Harvey’s Coiffure at 109 N. Fairfax Ave., closing the Robertson shop. He retired from the salon in 1980 and invested in real estate, in which he’s still active.
June died on July 8, 1995. William now has four grandsons.
Now 90, William has been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance since 2006. He teaches people about the Holocaust as well as how to succeed in life.
For his own success, and his survival, he credits his mother.
“I was thinking about her when I wanted I give up. I was thinking about how hard she worked and how I had no right to quit,” he said.