USC Shoah Foundation Mourns the Passing of William (“Bill”) Harvey—Holocaust Survivor, Friend and Cosmetologist to the Stars

Tue, 04/05/2022 - 8:00am

USC Shoah Foundation mourns the loss of William (“Bill”) Harvey, a friend of the institute who survived two Nazi concentration camps and later became a well-known cosmetologist with a client list that included Judy Garland, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a young Liza Minnelli. Bill recently passed away in Los Angeles at age 97.

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 and attended synagogue on the High Holidays. 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 testimony he gave to USC Shoah Foundation in 1995, Bill describes the moment.

“I don’t know the exact time, 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—his foot broken by a piece of fallen track—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 hold on 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.

In 1946 Bill immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City where, three days after his arrival, he found his first job—and lifetime passion—at the Madame Fischer Beauty Salon beauty shop on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue.

“By the end of [my first year], I was styling hair for the stars of Radio City Music Hall, Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera. These beautiful ladies showered me with tips, and after three and a half years, I saved enough to move to Los Angeles,” he said in a 2020 interview with Oprah Daily.

Bill moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and soon earned his California cosmetology license. He subsequently opened a pair of well-known beauty shops.

Soon after his arrival in Los Angeles, Bill met and married native Angeleno June Gardiner and the couple had two daughters.

Bill was one of the survivors featured in “Bearing Witness,” artist David Kassan’s multi-figural painting of 11 Los Angeles-area Auschwitz survivors that was featured in the “Facing Survival” exhibition in 2019 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. It was also displayed at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles that year in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January)

In his testimony now housed in the Visual History Archive, 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 go 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.”

He dedicated his life to countering this sentiment 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.

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William Harvey on his career in cosmetology

After surviving the Holocaust, William Harvey immigrated to New York City and started working at a beauty shop simply because he needed to work. William Harvey continues to describe how his skill flourished and the A-list and celebrity clients who visited the shop.