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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Holocaust survivor hopes to stop cycle of violence


Bob Herschkowitz, the youngest member of Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanities speakers bureau, will speak at the annual Yom Hashoah service at 7 p.m., Sunday April 19, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave. in Spokane.

Bob Herschkowitz

Bob Herschkowitz shares memories to educate others.

From 1938 through the end of World War II in 1945, Bob said, “the whole European continent was chasing Jewish people. Nearly 90 percent of all Jewish and Roma children 15 years old and younger were killed.”

“No country would protect us,” he said as he told in a recent interview of his family moving to avoid being arrested.

Bob was born in 1938 in Antwerp, Belgium.  On May 10, 1940, the German invasion of Belgium began.  His family left that day, crossing the border into France along with thousands of refugees. German bombers dropped bombs along the road as they fled. 

They traveled from northern France, which was occupied by Nazis, south to Marseilles, a city in the unoccupied zone. There, his parents purchased false identity papers, and he attended a Catholic kindergarten at the age of four.

In November 1942, the family was sent to a French internment camp, Rivesaltes, which held Jews and other refugees.

When his mother, Irene, was discovered to be pregnant, the family was separated. Bob and his mother were taken to another camp, which was just a stone hut 120 kilometers away. They were guarded by gendarmes.  On April 7, 1943, his brother, Danny, was born in a German military hospital, Bob said.

At Rivesaltes, his father, Max, was forced to work on a dam project. By then, the French government was sending Jews from Rivsaltes to Drancy, a transit camp in a Paris suburb. From there, more than 70,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps.

To avoid Drancy, Bob’s father escaped. His younger brother, who wouldn’t go when Max escaped from the dentist’s office, was later gassed in Auschwitz.

Saved by a Basque family along the border between France and Spain, Max was reunited with his wife and children in Aix Les Bains. With the help of the French resistance, Bob said that gendarmes left his mother and him unguarded for 48 hours so they could escape.  In September 1943, his family walked three nights through the Alps into Switzerland.

Bob said the Swiss army caught them at the border and put them in jail briefly as “illegal aliens.”

“As an illegal alien, I have a police file from the Swiss federal police one-and-a-half inches thick,” Bob said.

They were allowed to stay because his mother had family in Switzerland.

Of 250,000 who entered Switzerland, only 25,000 were allowed to stay.  The rest were sent back to the border where they were often shot.

Bob said he, his parents and brother stayed in a camp, a big circus tent in a soccer field, sleeping on straw with other prisoners including U.S. airmen, German deserters and mostly Jewish refugees.  It was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the Swiss army.

His mother’s cousin adopted Bob so he could stay with her and go to school.

Seven days after the war ended in 1945, the Swiss sent Belgian Jews home by train.

“When we returned to Belgium, everything was destroyed,” said Bob, who nonetheless was able to go to school. 

He eventually earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and in naval engineering.

He joined the Belgium Navy and was a Lieutenant when Boeing recruited him in 1966 to move to Seattle and work for them.

Boeing paid for him to study at the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.  Bob also served 24 years in the Naval Reserve, where he earned a second master’s degree in naval history and international relations.  He retired as a commander.  He worked for Boeing 41 years until July 2013, when he retired.

“For many years, we did not speak about the Holocaust,” said Bob, who started speaking about the Holocaust 20 years ago and now speaks all over the state.

“I talk with high school students on genocide, racism and bullying.  They are all under the same chapter heading,” he said.

Bob shares his memories so others will never forget.

Last year, the Holocaust Center for Humanity speakers bureau spoke to 35,000 students and to teachers in the Seattle area.

“The young people become emotional and involved,” he said.

At one school with 1,200 students representing most minorities, the speakers were well received and students worked on projects on the Holocaust.

“Some asked for my autograph,” Bob said.

“The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.  What happened in Germany has happened in Rwanda, Sudan, Mali, Ivory Coast and more places,” he said.

While on the one hand, he sees that history repeats, he believes that dynamic can be changed by people speaking about their experiences.

He feels his sharing helped motivate a group of high school students to go one summer to Rwanda to build a school and provide school supplies. 

Other school groups have made connections in Sudan, Ethiopia and East Africa.

Bob used to travel for Boeing to inspect airplane fleet maintenance, so he has visited countries all over the world.

At Temple Beth Shalom, Bob will talk about how he survived and escaped being one of the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust.

Since 1989, the Holocaust Center has taught about the Holocaust in Northwest schools and communities.  It has programs, artifacts, books, exhibits, online resources and speakers—survivors, witnesses, liberators, second generation and World War II veterans. 

Now 15 speakers share their stories to bring the Holocaust to life and encourage people to connect lessons of the past with contemporary issues of hate crimes, bullying and genocide.  They seek to help students find their voices and be responsible citizens in their communities, the nation and the world. The center also has video called “Survivor Voices: Online Video Testimonies.”

Bob has one son, Stephen, a senior deputy prosecutor in King County, who some day will be the one to tell his story.

This year in Spokane, there is an art contest, as well as a writing contest for middle and high school students. The theme is “Words That Kill: Nazi Use of Propaganda to Justify Genocide,” said Hershel Zellman, coordinator of Yom Hashoah at Temple Beth Shalom.

For information, call 747-3304 or email

Copyright © April 2015 - The Fig Tree