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Janina Hescheles' father, Henryk Hescheles, was a journalist in Lwów and publisher of the Polish-language Zionist periodical Chwila. Her mother was registrar at a hospital on Józef-Dwernicki Street, and after the outbreak of World War II also served as a nurse.
The family lived with her grandparents in the Jewish Quarter of Lwów, a city which at the time was about one-fourth Jewish. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Hescheles' uncle, Marian Hemar, a brother of her father, was able to flee from Warsaw to Great Britain. In 1939, under terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Lwów was annexed to the Soviet Union, becoming part of Soviet Ukraine.
After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and conquered Lwów, Hescheles' father was murdered by the Nazi occupiers as part of their campaign against Jews. However, another uncle, Stanisław Lem, managed to conceal his Jewish heritage and survived. During the occupation, Janina Hescheles and her mother survived a pogrom perpetrated by the Ukrainian population of Lwów. Then they and Hescheles' grandparents and other relatives were imprisoned by the Nazis and forced to work in the German armaments factories. However, with help from the writer Michał Borwicz and the Polish resistance organization Żegota, she was able to escape from the Janowska concentration camp in October 1943.
Janina was hidden by various families from Kraków (Cracow) in an orphanage in Poronin, in southern Poland. Three weeks after her escape, with encouragement from Borwicz, Janina Hescheles began writing a memoir of their persecution in Lwów. In 1946, soon after the war ended, it was published in Polish as Oczyma dwunastoletniej dziewczyny ("Through the Eyes of a 12-year-old girl") by the Organization of Polish Jews in Kraków. Later on, a German translation, Mit den Augen eines zwölfjährigen Mädchens, was published in East Germany (1958) and in West Germany (1963).
In 1950, Hescheles emigrated to Israel, where she eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry at Technion (the Israeli Institute of Technology). She married the physicist Kalman Altman, and they had two sons. Hescheles (now Janina Altman) continued to work at Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science, and also at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Her research has been published in several English and German scientific journals. Since the First Intifada (1987-1991), she has supported the pacifist group Women in Black.