Ilona Karmel was born to a middle-class Polish-Jewish family in Krakow. Her comfortable childhood ended when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II. She was forced into the Kracow ghetto in November 1942. Along with her mother and sister Henryka (Henia), Ilona was sent to German labor camps and then to Buchenwald concentration camp. The two girls wrote poetry on stolen paper that was later published. Ilona's mother died, but Ilona survived the war and followed her sister in emigrating to the USA in 1948. She first settled in New York City and entrolled in Hunter College. Within a few short years, Ilona transferred to Radcliffe College, where she earned a B.A. in English, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1952; won the 1950 Mademoiselle Magazine college fiction prize; and published her first novel, Stephania (1953). Her book An Estate of Memory (1969) is now considered one of the most significant novels in English about the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust. The New York Times review compared Ilona Karmel's writing to that of Hemingway and Solzhenitsyn. The novel was reissued by The Feminist Press in 1986. From 1979 to 1995, Ilona Karmel was a senior lecturer in creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT recognized her with two major awards: the Dean's Award for Distinguished Service, and the renaming of the annual Writing Prize, a competition she had organized for many years, in her honor to mark her retirement. Ilona Karmel traveled back to Germany several times, often accompanying her husband Francis Zucker, a physicist and also an emigrant, on his lectures abroad.