Blog Article / 12 February 2021
Most famous Jews who survived the Holocaust
The facts on how many Jews died in World War 2 are horrifying, but there are some amazing survival stories that give us the feeling of hope. These people survived the horrors of the Holocaust and went on to become acknowledged masters in their fields. They created, inspired, and bore testimony of the unimaginable cruelty of World War 2. Learn more about those who survived the biggest hell of the 20th century.
Roman Polanski - movie director
He was born in Paris as Raymond Liebling. In 1937, when he was 3 years old, his family moved to Krakow to escape rising anti-Semitic moods in France. After the outbreak of World War 2, the Polanski family was relocated to the Krakow ghetto. Roman's mother worked as a cleaner at the Wawel castle, which had been turned into the seat of the general governor Hans Frank. Thanks to Roman's Aryan physical appearance, Roman often left the ghetto through holes in the barbed wire fence. He witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto on March 13, 1943. Eventually, he escaped the ghetto for good. He was initially hiding with the Wilk family (to whom he was allegedly distantly related), and later with several other families in the villages near Krakow. Roman's parents were transported to concentration camps - his mother died in Auschwitz, his father survived the camp in Mauthausen, and later married Wanda Zajączkowska. Under her influence, he changed his name and from then on was known as Ryszard Polanski. Roman also changed his surname to Polanski, but for some time after the war, he still used the surname Wilk. He did not maintain a close relationship with his father or his young stepmother and did not live with them, but in rooms rented from different families, among others his uncles. Before pursuing a career as a director, he was working as an actor in theatre plays and movies. Despite his numerous roles, the acting schools in Krakow and Warsaw declined his applications. In 1954 he was admitted to the Directing Department of the prestigious Lodz Film School, from which he graduated in 1959. Polanski's directorial debut was the 1962 film Knife in the Water - the first Polish film nominated for an Oscar. After the movie's success, his international career took off. His most famous films include Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist, for which he received an Oscar for Best Directing in 2002. He was married three times. His second wife - Sharon Tate was brutally murdered in their house in Beverly Hills by Charles Manson's gang in 1969. In 1977, Polanski was accused of rape and fled America. Since then, he has been shooting his films abroad, mainly in France. He has 2 children - a daughter and a son.
Wladyslaw Szpilman - pianist and composer
Thanks to the Oscar-winning film The Pianist by Roman Polanski, the history of the extraordinary survival of Wladyslaw Szpilman became known to the entire world. In 1935, he started working as a pianist at the Polish Radio. The first scene of The Pianist is Szpilman playing Chopin's C sharp minor nocturne at the headquarters of the Polish Radio in Zielna Street in Warsaw. It was September 23, 1939, three weeks after the German troops entered Poland. The bombing of the station interrupted what turned out to be the last concert broadcast live on the radio in occupied Warsaw. The radio, whose main goal in the previous weeks had been to give hope to Poles, fell silent. Five days later, on September 28, 1939, Warsaw capitulated. When World War 2 broke out, Spielman was 28. Together with his parents, brother, and two sisters, he was mandatorily relocated to Warsaw ghetto in 1940. He provided for his family by playing the piano in the "Sztuka" cafe. He became a well-known and popular figure, which helped him to save himself from deportation from the Umschlagplatz. His entire family was killed in the Treblinka death camp. He also managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto. For several months he hid in private apartments on the Aryan side. During the Warsaw Uprising, he struggled to survive in the devastated Warsaw. He owed his life to the German captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who in the winter of 1944/1945 regularly visited Spielman's hideout and supplied him with food. Wladyslaw Szpilman described the hardships of occupation in the book Death of the City 1939-45, published in 1946. The book was re-published in 1998 in many countries around the world under the title The Pianist. After the war, Spielman's career was blossoming. He joined the Polish Radio again, with which he was associated until 1963 as the head of the Light Music Department. Aside from that, he composed around 500 many songs, among others movie songs, Polish evergreens performed by famous singers, and songs for children. He also co-organized music competitions and song festivals. He went on several tourneés around Europe and he performed in Poland with symphony orchestras. He married in 1950 and had two sons. He died in Warsaw in 2000, aged 88.
Primo Levi - writer
Levi was born and raised in Italy. When the war started he was studying chemistry at the university in his hometown Turin. During the war, he joined a partisan group in Valle d'Aosta in the Alps. In December 1943 he was arrested and two months later, in February 1944, together with a group of 650 prisoners, he was transported to the Monowitz camp in Poland (part of Auschwitz complex). His knowledge of chemistry saved his life. He survived 11 months at the camp by working in a chemical laboratory, until the camp was liberated by the Soviet army in January 1945. In 1947 he published his Auschwitz survival book If This Is a Man (United States title: Survival in Auschwitz), describing the time he spent at the camp under unimaginably cruel conditions. He also wrote a book The Drowned and the Saved - a philosophical study of the causes of human behavior in the face of death and inhuman treatment of the prisoners at concentration camps. He visited Auschwitz Memorial twice after the war, in 1965 and 1982. He died in 1987 under mysterious circumstances. He fell down the stairs in his house. His death was considered a suicide, but some of his friends refused to believe it and claimed it was a fatal accident.
Elie Wiesel - Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Elie Wiesel is one of the most well-known Auschwitz survivors. He was born in 1928 in Romania. When he was 15, his family was forced to move to the ghetto in Sighet. In 1944, together with other Jews from the area, he was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where his mother and younger sister died. Wiesel, together with his father were later deported to the concentration camp at Buchenwald Wiesel. His father died there. Wiesel himself was liberated from Buchenwald in April of 1945 by the Allied forces. Only he and his two older sisters survived the Holocaust. After the war, he moved to France, where he studied at the Sorbonne and started his carrier in journalism. In 1958, he published his first book, La Nuit (Night), a memoir of his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He was deeply concerned about the situation of the Jews and human rights in general and campaigned for victims of oppression and persecution due to religion, race, or national origin in places like South Africa, Nicaragua, Kosovo, and Sudan. He was described as "the most important Jew in America" by the Los Angeles Times. His passionate involvement with Jewish causes can be reflected in his political, social, and cultural activism. He was, among others, Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the initiator of the construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was the originator of the term "Holocaust". In 1986 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee stated that Wiesel's involvement was born of the suffering of the Jewish people, but extended it to all oppressed nations and races. He died in 2016, aged 87. Boston University, at which he was a professor, created the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies to honor his life and contribution to Jewish causes and human rights.
Viktor Frankl - psychiatrist and psychotherapist
Frankl was born and raised in Austria, where he also pursued his career as a psychiatrist. He is known as the creator of logotherapy - a psychotherapeutic method focused on reflecting on meaning. He developed the principles of existential analysis before World War 2. His approach is known as the third Viennese school. When the war started he was 34 years old. Between 1942 and 1945 he was a prisoner at three concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau. His mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and his first wife at Bergen Belsen concentration camp. After the war, Frankl worked at the University of Vienna (until 1990) and several American universities. He is known mainly thanks to the best-selling book Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager ("A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp"), published in English as Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he described his survival story from a psychological point of view. Frankl died of heart failure in Vienna in 1997, aged 92.
Imre Kertész - writer
Kertész was a Hungarian Jew. In 1944, at the age of 14, he was deported to Auschwitz. Upon arriving at the camp, he claimed to be a sixteen-year-old, which saved him from the immediate extermination that awaited the 14-year-olds. From there he was transferred to Buchenwald camp, where he was liberated in 1945. His entire family, except himself and his mother, died during the war. Kertész went on to work in Budapest as an independent writer and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein, and Canetti. In 1975, he published a novel Sorstalanság (Fatelessness), based on his experiences s a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He once said, "When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz”. In 2005, a movie under the same title was made on the basis of the book. It is one of the most expensive movies ever produced in Hungary. It features a British actor Daniel Craig and its soundtrack was composed by Ennio Morricone. In 2002 Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first Hungarian to win the Nobel in this field. He died in his hometown Budapest in 2016, aged 86.
Marek Edelman - cardiologist and social activist
Edelman was born in 1922 in Warsaw. In the spring of 1939, he obtained his high school matura diploma. When the occupation of Warsaw began in the fall of 1939, he got a job as a courier at the Bersohn and Bauman Children's Hospital in Warsaw. In November 1940, the area of the city where he lived (near the Pawiak prison) became part of the Warsaw ghetto. For some time, due to his work at the hospital, he had a pass authorizing him to walk outside the ghetto. In 1942 he was among the founders of the Jewish Combat Organization - a conspiratorial armed resistance movement of Polish Jews. He was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and an insurgent in the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, he settled permanently in Lodz, where he pursued his career as a renowned cardiologist. Alongside his medical profession, he worked as an activist with the Workers' Defence Committee and later with the Solidarity movement. He wrote several books about the Warsaw ghetto, e.g. Getto walczy. Udział Bundu w obronie getta warszawskiego (English title: The Ghetto Fights). In 1998 he received the highest decoration in Poland - the Order of the White Eagle. He died in 2009, aged 87. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa street in Warsaw.
Author: AB Poland Travel
Posted on: 12th February 2021
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