March 31, 2022: STF mourns the loss of William (“Bill”) Harvey, who generously shared with students his heartrending story of surviving the Holocaust, including two of the infamous Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In 2020, right before Covid closed our schools, Bill spoke at the STF Winter Workshop. How fortunate we all were to meet and learn from his testimony.
Afterwards, STF student leader Iris Erwin wrote on behalf of STF:
“Dear Bill, Your life story and wisdom has impacted and inspired us as future activists and change-makers. What really stuck with us was how you said that we come into this world as we leave it — with nothing, and all we can do during our time here is make a positive impact on others. Many of us have now adopted this as a life motto. We know that we will not have a fulfilled life if we spend it just indulging ourselves, but we will fulfill our lives if we spend our time helping others and making our world a more just and equal place. Thank you for being so truly inspiring!”
Later in a note to STF Executive Director Pam Bruns, Bill wrote, “I was very gratified to spend the evening with such wonderful teenagers. They were all extremely bright students and their involvement in human rights will surely make this world a better place to live in. And if I left even the smallest impact on their lives, then my day was made.”
Bill’s impact endures and is treasured, especially because the opportunity of meeting with witnesses to the horrors of Nazi genocide is becoming rarer with their passings each year. Annually, STF commemorates the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned, especially during April Genocide Awareness month.
Excerpts from Bill’s video testimony housed at the USC Shoah Foundation:
Born on May 20, 1924, in Berehovo, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), Bill was the youngest of two boys and four girls. His father, Aron, a veteran of World War I, was a winemaker, and his mother Zali was a dressmaker.
Bill grew up in a traditional Jewish family. In 1943, Berehovo was occupied by the Germans and his family was forced into the town Ghetto. The following year his father was beaten in the street by the Nazis and later died, soon after which Bill and the rest of his family were deported to Auschwitz.
In his recorded testimony he gave to the Shoah Foundation in 1995, Bill describes that moment.
“They put us into wagons and transported us to Auschwitz. It’s very difficult to describe the whole thing. It didn’t seem real that these things were possible, that this was really happening, that we were treated like animals. You had no future, and you could see it.”
After 12 days at Auschwitz, Bill was moved again, this time to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Thereafter he was forced to work on a labor crew that was cleaning a nearby oil refinery damaged by Allied bombers and digging mountain tunnels. Bill was subsequently injured and shipped back to Buchenwald in such terrible physical condition that the people unloading the cattle train used for transport presumed him to be dead.
Bill was miraculously able to survive until Buchenwald was liberated in 1945. At the time U.S troops entered the camp, he weighed just 72 pounds. He then spent a year in a German displaced person’s camp, where he learned that his siblings had survived the war but that his mother, aunt, cousin, and her children had been murdered immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz.
Bill recalled encountering his neighbors from Berehovo soon after his liberation from Buchenwald.
“Our neighbors, who practically used to live in my mother’s house—her door was always open to help anybody, she was that type of person—those same people told us that it was too bad that Hitler left a few of us behind to hate,” Bill recalled.
“I was astonished. I didn’t know how to answer. I thought that when we come out of the camp and we’re going to walk on the street, everybody will bow to us, that they wouldn’t believe a human being could survive such a suffering what I endured, what I witnessed, what I had seen. So, to me, it was unbelievable that people still had that much hatred and that much discrimination.”
In 1946 Bill immigrated to the U.S. and settled and worked in New York City before moving to Los Angeles in 1950, where he soon earned his California cosmetology license. He subsequently opened a pair of well-known beauty shops.
Bill Harvey dedicated his life to countering the hatred and discrimination he endured during and after the Holocaust by sharing his story widely with schools, museums, and even a California state prison.
He is survived by his two daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. May his memory be a blessing.”
Thank you, Bill, we will not forget you or your story and inspiration.