Survivor Michael Herskovitz Dies at 92

Michael and Tonya Herskovitz on Michael’s 88th birthday. Courtesy of Tonya Herskovitz

Michael Herskovitz, a Holocaust survivor who spent the latter portion of his life speaking to audiences around the world about his experiences, died on May 30 at the age of 92.

The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Elkins Park released a statement mourning Herskovitz, who was a part of the institution for years and served on
its board.

“We at HAMEC are so grateful that he devoted his time to educate so many students over the years about what happened to him and his family because of unbridled hatred he faced as a young man,” the statement read.

Herskovitz spoke about his experiences at the White House, before Congress, the Navy and countless students.

Herskovitz was born in Botfalva, Czechoslovakia, to Pearl and Joseph Herskovitz, owners of the only grocery store in a small village with no radio. (Today, Botfalva is located in Ukraine). He was one of five children.

During the years of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, laws publicly marking Jews and restricting their freedoms piled on. Herskovitz’s father, who wore a yarmulke and a beard, was beaten so severely outside of his grocery store by German soldiers that he was forced to close it soon after. As many as 277,000 Jews are estimated to have been murdered during the occupation and, in 1943, the entire Herskovitz family was sent to Auschwitz.

Over the next few years, Herskovitz was shuttled between camps, sometimes forced into labor, as at Mauthausen, and sometimes simply fenced in, as at Gunskirchen. When he was liberated in 1945, Herskovitz, sick with typhus, weighed under 100 pounds. Reunited with an uncle, Herskovitz learned that his brother, Ernest and his two sisters, Helen and Malvina, had survived, but that his mother, father and little brother, Belala, were killed.

Herskovitz spent a few years in Canada with friends of his parents before he left for Israel. In 1948, he joined the army of the newly formed Jewish state, using his skills as an auto mechanic that he’d learned in Canada to fight for the establishment of Israel, and for its occupation of the Sinai in 1956.

In 1959, he moved to Philadelphia, where his sister Helen was living. He and his first wife, Frida, settled in their own home in West Philadelphia with their children, Pearl and Eddie. Herskovitz worked as an auto mechanic’s assistant while his wife, a survivor who died in 2006, worked in a sewing factory.

Eventually, Herskovitz entered into a partnership that brought him part ownership of a gas station at City Avenue and Conshohocken Avenue. After 16 years, Herskovitz’s partner retired, and Herskovitz took over the entire business. He eventually expanded his business to include Main Line Auto Center, shoe stores in Philadelphia, Ardmore and Miami, and the Main Line Taxi Co.

It was at one of his filling stations that Herskovitz met the woman who would eventually become his second wife, Tonya (Nowlin) Herskovitz. When she pulled into the station, in from out of town for work, she heard the same heavily accented voice that she’d hear until the day Herskovitz died, and saw the same twinkly smile.

“Michael was a man of many, many wonders,” she said.

He “held no hatred for people,” Tonya said. “When people asked him how he could drive a [German-built] Mercedes, he would say, ‘These people that made this car didn’t hurt me. They had nothing to do with it.’”

Herskovitz was predeceased by his first wife, Frida. He is survived by his wife Tonya Herskovitz; his children, Pearl (Jacky) Kouzi, Edward (Jean) Herskovitz and Mercedes Griffin; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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