World War II exposed some of the darkest aspects of mankind when Nazi Germany systematically exterminated six million European Jews. From pograms and gas chambers to mass shootings and concentration camps, the Holocaust left a devastating stain on Germany and displaced countless Jews, POWs and other discriminated groups who were forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Here are some of the extraordinary Holocaust survivors who brought forth their stories of horror, heartbreak, strength and resilience and changed the course of history:
Otto Frank (1889 - 1980)
Among his wife, Edith, and his daughters Margot and Anne, Otto Frank was the lone survivor of the Holocaust. In the early 1930s, the businessman moved his family from Germany to Amsterdam in hopes of avoiding the anti-Semitic wave spreading across their homeland. Although he made attempts to emigrate the family to the U.S., Frank was never able to obtain all the appropriate documents, giving the family no choice but to hide with the help of friends.
After Nazi soldiers discovered the Franks in 1944, the family members were dispersed to various concentration camps, with Otto being transferred to Auschwitz. By the next year, he discovered his entire family had died — Edith from starvation, Margot and Anne from typhus.
A family friend rescued Anne's diary and gave it to Otto, who in turn, was encouraged to publish it in order to put a human face on Jewish persecution. Without Otto, The Diary of Anne Frank nor the Anne Frank House would've ever come to be.
Elie Wiesel (1928 - 2016)
A Romanian-born Jew, Elie Wiesel and his family were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. After the murder of his mother and sister, Wiesel and his father were transferred to Buchenwald, where he would ultimately emerge as the sole survivor. While there, Wiesel, then a teenager, would experience the deterioration of humanity as he, his father and fellow prisoners toiled and suffered from starvation.
After World War II, Wiesel moved to France where he finished his higher education and built his career as a journalist. Although he refused to discuss his experience as a Holocaust survivor for many years, a fellow writer inspired him to record his traumatic account. The result was Night (1960), which would later sell over six million copies by 2011 in the U.S. alone.
Wiesel would live out an illustrious career as an author, educator and human rights activist in New York City. In 1986 he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and that same year, founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer (b. 1928)
Ruth Westheimer was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents, both of whom would perish in Auschwitz. In 1939 Westheimer escaped death, thanks to her mother who sent her to a Switzerland orphanage to keep her out of harm's way.
As a teen, Westheimer emigrated to Palestine and later moved to Jerusalem, where she served in the military as a sniper for a few years before moving to France where she received her bachelor's degree in psychology. After emigrating to New York City and obtaining her M.A. and Ed.D., Westheimer worked for Planned Parenthood and later under sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan, where she conducted post-doctoral research and became an educator on human sexuality.
From 1980 to 1990 she entered a new phase of her career by becoming a celebrated media personality as the host of the radio show Sexually Speaking. Known as Dr. Ruth, the show would cement her career as one of the most respected sex therapists, and she'd later continue her work in television and author 40 books on the subject.
Roman Polanski (b. 1933)
A highly controversial yet unquestionably talented director, Roman Polanski barley escaped the Holocaust. After Polanski was born in Paris, his parents returned to Poland, only to find themselves stuck in the Kraków Ghetto at the start of World War II. Polanski's mother was murdered in Auschwitz, while his father was transported to another concentration camp and would ultimately survive the war.
To avoid being killed, a seven-year-old Polanski pretended to be Roman Catholic and wandered the Polish countryside, bouncing from orphanage to orphanage. He lived as a tramp and often snuck into cinemas. After trying his hand at acting, he'd go on to film school and direct his first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962), which became the first Polish film to receive an Academy Award nomination. In the U.K. he'd direct more critically acclaimed films before moving to the U.S., where he would make Rosemary's Baby (1968).
In 1969 tragedy struck when his pregnant wife, American actress Sharon Tate, was murdered along with four other victims by the Manson Family. Polanski left the U.S. but would eventually return in 1974 to direct the Oscar-magnet Chinatown. In 1977 Polanski found his life back in the headlines when he was arrested on drug and rape charges of a 13-year-old girl. He fled to Europe to evade prison time and would be expelled from the Academy in 2018 for his rape case.
Simon Wiesenthal (1908 - 2005)
When American soldiers liberated Simon Wiesenthal from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria on May 5, 1945, he weighed 90 pounds. He was truly a survivor, having lived through the death traps of five concentration camps. He and his wife, whom he'd be reunited with after the war, would lose 89 family members in total from the Holocaust.
After regaining his health, Wiesenthal became an unrelenting Nazi hunter, tracking down runaway Nazi war criminals — 1,100 of whom would be brought to justice by his efforts. Starting in 1961, he'd establish the Documentation Centre of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime in Vienna to help procure and disseminate information on war crimes.
Although he was shocked by the tepid reaction he received from world powers in pursuing fugitive Nazis (leaders were more focused on the threat of the Cold War), Wiesenthal continued his work, often in isolation. Among some of the more notable SS criminals he brought before the law were Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stengl, Erich Rajakowitsch, Hermine Braunsteiner and Franz Murer, the "Butcher of Wilno." Although he pursued the notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, the latter had died as a recluse in Brazil in 1979 before Wiesenthal could capture him.
In 1977 The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was established to honor his lifelong work.
Primo Levi (1919 - 1987)
Born and raised in Italy, Primo Levi graduated from the University of Turin in 1941, and pursued a career in chemistry. With World War II underway, however, Levi turned his focus on aiding anti-fascist resistance groups in Italy, but was quickly captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz, working as a slave laborer at a synthetic rubber factory.
After the war, Levi returned to his hometown of Turin and became a factory manager of paints and enamels. He also began writing books. One of his most famous, If This Is a Man (1947), illustrated the horrors of his imprisonment at Auschwitz. However, his most celebrated and critically acclaimed work was The Periodic Table (1975), which was a collection of 21 short stories — each named after a chemical element — that used his pre- and post-wartime experiences to reflect on the plight of the human condition.
In 1987 Levi died after falling from his third-story apartment. The incident was ruled a suicide.
Simone Veil (1927 – 2017)
When French native Simone Veil used her real name to obtain her baccalauréat on March 28, 1944, it would haunt her for the rest of her life. Two days later, she, along with her parents and three siblings, would be arrested by the Germans in France and deported to concentration camps in Germany. From then on, she wondered if by taking the entrance exam that day, she had given away her family's Jewish identity away and sealed their fate.
By the end of the war, half of her family had perished: Veil's mother, whom she had a close relationship with, died from typhus in Auschwitz, while her father and brother died en route to Lithuania. Veil and her two sisters would end up surviving the Holocaust.
Having seen the selfless acts and enduring resilience of sisterhood among the women prisoners at Auschwitz, along with the bond she had with her mother, Veil became a political force for women's rights after the war. Returning to France, she received her college degree in political science and law and later became a magistrate. Under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's administration, she became the first female minister in the country as the Minister of Health (1975-1979), the first female president of the European Parliament, and a member of the highest legal authority in the land, the Constitutional Council of France. Among her many accomplishments, Veil is most remembered for helping make abortion legal in France in 1975.
Ruth Posner (b. 1933)
Another Polish Holocaust survivor who posed as a Catholic youth, Ruth Posner and her parents lived in the Warsaw Ghetto. When she was nine years old, Posner and her aunt were allowed to work at a leather factory outside the ghetto walls, where they fled and escaped. Although Posner never knew the exact circumstances of her parents, they were most likely killed in Treblinka, an extermination camp.
Barely a teen, Posner was moved to Germany as a prisoner of war and was subsequently tortured, albeit as a "Catholic girl." After the war, she moved to England, married Michael S. Posner, and launched a career in dance and choreography in London.
Moving to New York City with her husband in the 1970s, Posner taught physical theatre at prestigious schools like Juilliard and studied acting with Uta Hagan. She returned to London and taught at institutions like the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Starting in the 1990s, she pursued acting and would become best known for the films To Anyone Who Can Hear Me (1999), Do I Love You? (2002), and Timeless (2005).