In Memoriam: They Escaped Hitler, Then Helped Shape Hollywood
by Gary Baum
Billy Wilder (center) with Walter Mirisch and Kim Novak.
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Billy Wilder 

The rising director and screenwriter left Berlin for Paris due to Hitler’s ascendancy, moving to Hollywood in 1933. His mother, grandmother and stepfather died in the Reich’s camps and ghettoes. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Schindler’s List. He once wrote an article for a German paper asking Holocaust deniers: “If the concentration camps and the gas chambers were all imaginary, then please tell me — where is my mother?”

Director Mike Nichols
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Mike Nichols 

Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, the film and theatre director and producer — and one-half of the famed comedy duo with Elaine May — arrived in New York City from Berlin at 7 years old in 1939. “He would never ever, ever touch anything vaguely Holocaust-related,” his assistant Hannath Roth Sorkin confided earlier this year in a Vanity Fair oral history about Nichols. “He had tremendous survivor guilt.”

Victor Borge
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Victor Borge

The young humorist-cum-musician then known as Borge Rosenbaum gained renown across his native Denmark for speaking out against the rising fascist threat in his routines: “What is the difference between a Nazi and a dog?” went one gag. “A Nazi lifts his arm.” Once in America, he changed his name, with NBC launching The Victor Borge Show in 1946. His piano-abetted comedic performances later took him from The Muppet Show to What’s My Line? 

Leon Askin as Maj. Vasil in 'Desert Legion' (1953).
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Leon Askin

Best known for playing German General Burkhalter in WWII sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, actor Askin was born into a Jewish family in Vienna as Leon Aschkenasy. When he was an aspiring thespian in Dusseldorf, he was beaten by the SS in 1933, eventually fleeing to Paris and emigrating to the United States in 1940, at which point he fought with the Air Force. Only at the end of the war did he discover that his parents had perished at Auschwitz and Lublin.

Hana Maria Pravda in 'Tales Of The Unexpected' (1980).
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Hana Maria Pravda

The Prague-born British actress — a fixture on 1960s and 1970s television in the U.K., and particularly the series Survivors, on which she played Emma Cohen — endured imprisonment at both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, as well as the death march of 1945. “We didn’t understand what was going on,” she recalled in 1985 of the chaotic moment when Czech Jews first were being rounded up. “There was a complete lack of information.”

Bettine Le Beau during rehearsals for 'Chelsea At Nine.'
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Bettine Le Beau

The Flemish actress, separated from her parents and held in the Gurs concentration camp during the war, was best known for playing a variety of sketch roles on The Benny Hill Show. By 1942, she and her brother were smuggled by an undercover French children’s aid group into mountainous countryside, where she took on a new identity, and thus her first acting role. “I became Betty Frickier,” she said in 2013. “I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’”

August Kowalczyk
Wladysława Miernickiego/Courtesy of NAC

August Kowalczyk

The acclaimed Polish actor and director of theater, film and television (he played Gestapo officer Schroder in the 1977 series Polskie Drogi) was the final survivor of a small group of prisoners who escaped during a revolt at Auschwitz in June 1942. By his count, he told his story more than 6,000 times, serving for years as the vice president of the board at the Society for the Protection of Auschwitz. “It was my life to bear witness,” he said in 2005.

Shony Alex Braun
Courtesy of CSPAN

Shony Alex Braun

A Hungarian violinist and classical composer, he survived Dachau and Auschwitz — where Dr. Mengele assigned him to work as a Sonderkommando in the crematoria — to produce more than 200 compositions, including “Symphony for the Holocaust,” which received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for music in 1994. Braun performed as a violinist on several TV series including Perry Mason and arranged music for David Lynch on Wild at Heart.

Dina Babbitt
Eros Hoagland/Redux

Dina Babbitt

At Auschwitz, the illustrator struck a deal with the Dr. Josef Mengele: In return for her life and that of her mother, she drew portraits of Romani inmates. (An experience relayed in 1999’s Oscar-nominated short doc Eyewitness.) Babbitt, who immigrated to the United States to become an assistant animator on films and cartoons, would later battle the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for the return of her pictures, receiving assistance from the likes of Stan Lee.