Bill Harvey was as close to death as a human being can be. He already had survived a stint at Auschwitz, months of forced labor, barefoot death marches, and then, early in 1945, he and other prisoners were crammed into a frigid cattle car for transport from Poland to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. He lost consciousness and woke up five days later in the barracks, barely able to move. There, he was told that someone had pulled his body out of a pile of corpses stacked by Buchenwald’s crematorium. “I was frozen; they thought I was dead,” he recalls. “I was the age of 21. I weighed 72 pounds.”
Now 91, he harbors no hatred for the Germans. “My humble explanation for all the tragedies and the bad people who want just to kill is that maybe there have to be some bad things in order to appreciate all the good things that this world gives you,” says Harvey, who went on to be a cosmetologist to the stars, working in New York before coming to Los Angeles in 1950. He owned two salons, including the Continental House of Beauty in Beverly Hills, doing hair for Judy Garland, Mary Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and a young Liza Minnelli.
One of six children, Harvey grew up in a winegrowing region in Czechoslovakia. Life was not easy — his father was always ill, his mother supported the family as a dressmaker and Harvey started working at a vineyard when he was 10. Two years later, Harvey heard Hitler on the radio: “He said, ‘I’m going to kill every Jew in this world.’ ”
Those words seemed very real on a day seven years later, when the Germans knocked on their door and gave the family five minutes to gather a few possessions and leave. The next stop was a ghetto, and six weeks later, they were crammed into a cattle car bound for Poland. “I cannot tell you what a terrible journey it was,” recalls Harvey, weeping as he remembers his arrival at Auschwitz. “It looked like a Twilight Zone. Big chimneys going to the sky. Smoke was going all over. We didn’t know where the smoke was coming from — that they were burning human beings.” On that awful day, Harvey lost his mother, his aunt and many cousins. And the next 18 months were filled with suffering.
Though recalling his Holocaust experience is wrenching, Harvey feels he has “no choice” but to share it. “This story can not die,” he says. “I have to be strong enough to tell it.”