Portrait of a Survivor

Enter Bel Air Camera in Westwood and you’ll find William Herskovic, owner of the popular photo supply outlet. While the story behind his store — a local fixture since 1957 — may be interesting, the story behind the man is absolutely jaw-dropping.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Herskovic opened a photography studio in Antwerp, Belgium, at age 17. Throughout the 1930s, even as Jews arrived from Germany in droves with lurid stories of persecution, Herskovic’s Belgian existence remained largely unperturbed. In 1936, he married Esther, an English Jew, with whom he had daughters Katie and Germaine.

But in 1942, as the flames of Nazi tensions consumed Belgium, the Herskovic family was forced to flee. Captured in France, they were herded into cattle cars at Drancy. Shortly before reaching Auschwitz, the train halted at Cosel (Oberschlesien), where the 52 men (including Herskovic) were forced to dismount.

“When I went out, it was a terrible moment,” says Herskovic. “My little older girl, 4 years old, started to cry, ‘Daddy, Daddy…and I lost my mind.’ “

Herskovic was dragged off to Peiskretchan, a hard labor camp where exploited slave laborers barely lasted a fortnight installing railroad tracks in freezing weather. Cognizant that his chances of survival were next to nonexistent, Herskovic covertly assembled an escape team that would best promote survival through Nazi-occupied Europe. The group included a German-Jewish friend who had a non-Jewish wife in Cologne; a wealthy Austrian Jew with U.S. dollars sewn into his coat’s shoulder pads; and a native Belgian — their spokesman should they reach Belgium. For that was Herskovic’s mission — to retrieve his wife’s English passport from their Antwerp apartment and save his family (Hitler’s regime was more lenient on English citizens).

On the second night of Chanukah, a blinding blizzard and a skirmish between camp guards and kapos provided the perfect cover. The four men, after meeting at a prearranged spot, cut through the barbed-wire fence with a smuggled pair of pliers. The overwhelmed Austrian turned back mid-escape. Through harsh weather, the remaining three endured difficult terrain and near-disastrous run-ins with Nazis.

Narrowly reaching Cologne, the runaways located the German Jew’s wife, who had been separated from her husband for nearly two years. She aided the men, who spent a tense week in hiding before hopping a bus to the German-annexed Eupen-Malmedy region. From there, the three fugitives swam through subzero waters across the Belgian border, finding refuge with a sympathetic Verviers woman whose Italian husband was abducted by Gestapo. After three heart-stopping weeks on the run, they reached Brussels and went their separate ways.

At Antwerp, Herskovic located his wife’s passport. But, despite evincing Esther’s documentation, he failed to persuade stonewalling Nazi bureaucrats to spare his wife and daughters from Auschwitz.

Yet, where Herskovic was helpless to rescue his immediate family, the photographer may have saved countless others. After pleading on the deaf ears of a Nazi-manipulated chief rabbi, Herskovic found an ally in a professor with the Resistance Movement, whose communication with the underground press led to a transmission that detailed concentration camp atrocities to English news outlets and the world at large.

In the war’s aftermath, Herskovic married his sister-in-law (who had lost her husband in the Holocaust). Together, William and Maria Herskovic started anew. Blessed with three daughters, they resettled by the mid-1950s in Los Angeles, where Herskovic opened his thriving Westwood business.

For the last 42 years, the durable Bel Air Camera has survived Westwood’s dramatic economic highs and lows. But if anyone is equipped for survival, it’s obviously Herskovic.

“By the time I came to America, I was used to starting businesses,” says Herskovic, alluding to the moneymaking Belgian studio he had to forfeit to the Germans. Herskovic attributes his store’s success to his personable and knowledgeable staff.

Bel Air Camera took over a new Westwood storefront 18 months ago. At 17,000 square feet, the shop is now nearly twice the size of the original location and has seen a more-than-50-percent increase in profits. In addition to selling state-of-the-art photography and film-related equipment, Bel Air Camera also offers year-round classes in photography.

While Herskovic lost interest in pursuing a career in art photography following the war, he never dropped his love for portraiture. In the Westwood outlet’s early days, celebrities such as Pat Boone and Red Skelton would sit for Herskovic in his back room. An under-the-weather Eddie Cantor once summoned Herskovic to his home to show him how to operate some photo equipment, and the store owner wound up photographing the entertainer as he lay in his sickbed. Herskovic still tinkers with his Ariflex, occasionally shooting staff members and retouching the portraits by hand, as he has done since the age of 3.

These days, Herskovic divides his time between family life, golf and running his business. He also contributes to Jewish charities, including Sheba Medical Center and the Technion Institute. And even today, with his Holocaust ordeal far behind him, Herskovic still finds his past resurfacing in odd ways.

“I got a letter from Washington last year that this person,” says Herskovic, “[who] said, ‘You know, my father survived [Peiskretchan]. He married…came to America…I was 7 years old when he died.'”

Indeed, Herskovic knew the man’s father well: It was the Austrian who had developed cold feet during the escape.

“I heard rumors that he survived. … Fifty-five years later, his son comes to find me,” says Herskovic, with a bittersweet grin, obviously touched by this parallel story of survival; another miracle conceived amid the chaos of the Holocaust.