The Survivors – 2nd in an occassional series: S.F. architects greatest feat – rebuilding his life

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As an architect, Max Garcia has designed top-security computer rooms for major corporations, and brought numerous high-rises to code.

Those projects, as intricate as they may be, all pale in comparison to Garcia's greatest feat to date — rebuilding his own life after the Holocaust.

His journey from being an orphaned young Auschwitz survivor to being a father of three and founder of Garcia/Wagner & Associates, a prestigious San Francisco architectural firm, was long and arduous, one that required a will sturdier than concrete.

"I am a very ardent optimist," says the survivor, who started Garcia/Wagner & Associates in 1960 and who turns 72 in June. "It's very difficult for me to take no as an answer."

It is not surprising, then, that despite the suffering he endured in Auschwitz and in the Ebensee concentration camp, Garcia did not let war stifle his dream of becoming an architect. It was a dream he had cherished since his working-class Sephardic childhood in Amsterdam, a city known for its distinctive architecture.

"When I came to the U.S. after the end of the war, the idea of being an architect still lingered with me," Garcia says.

Arriving in this country as a 22-year-old in 1946, he passed the high school equivalency exam and worked in architectural firms until he gleaned enough experience to pass the exams required for a California state license. In those days, few architects were licensed who did not have a college degree in architecture.

"Basically I reconstituted my life," says the solidly built, white-haired Garcia, now retired.

But while Garcia's rebirth is a story of his resolve, it is also the story of a fiercely devoted wife: Born a Protestant in America, she nurtured her husband through years of war-related nightmares and, ultimately, convinced Garcia to write his memoir as a form of therapy.

"I said, `Max, we're going to write a book,'" Pat Garcia recalls. "I said it didn't matter whether anybody read it or not. I felt it would help a lot."

The book, titled "As Long As I Remain Alive," was published in 1979.

The book's cover is emblazoned with "139829," the prisoner identification number tattooed on Garcia's left forearm. The text takes readers from Garcia's childhood in Amsterdam through his wartime imprisonment and subsequent journey to San Francisco, where he met Pat as she sunned herself on the roof of the Nob Hill apartment complex in which both of them lived.

Pat, who eventually converted to Judaism, knew much of her husband's history when she married him in 1956. Even so, as she sat on the couch of their Sunset District living room painstakingly recording her husband's stories before typing them into the manuscript, Pat saw her husband open up as never before.

He spoke, for example, of being so dehumanized in the camps that he felt like an animal. And he told her he saw so many people perish during one of the Nazis' infamous death marches that he became nearly immune to pitying the dead.

Pat also heard tender stories — of her husband's father, Elias, a highly skilled diamond polisher who was active in his labor union; of Garcia's mother, Rosette, an amply built woman and a talented cook; and of his brown-eyed younger sister Sippora, whose hobbies included eating the delicious meals her mother prepared.

While preparing the book, "it came out how much Max loved his family," Pat says. The memoir "was a memorial to them."

Writing the book was, at times, a psychological tug-of-war. "Pat pulled things out of me that I had forgotten already or didn't want to remember," Max recalls. "It was traumatic, but it was good. Writing the book helped a great deal."

Detailing the young man's separation from his family and his torturous life in the camps, Garcia's book is in many ways a story familiar to most survivors. But it also offers tales not often told — of the lingering psychological damage the Holocaust wrought on survivors, for example, and the impact it had on their relationship to Judaism.

In Garcia's case, the war left him firmly denying his Jewish heritage: The depths of his denial surfaced when Garcia suffered a nervous breakdown at age 30, while he was stationed at the Fort Ord military language school in 1954.

"The whole thing just burst in on me and collapsed," he says, speaking of his psychological distress in the same straightforward manner he addresses other aspects of his history.

During the intensive psychiatric treatment that followed the breakdown, Garcia's doctor pressed him for details on why he had landed in a concentration camp. Garcia did not admit he was Jewish, and instead claimed that his parents had died in a bombing raid and he had been caught and imprisoned while working with the Dutch underground.

Deeply afraid that something like the Holocaust "might happen again," he says, he feared for the safety of his descendants, and went so far as to tell friends he was a Unitarian.

Garcia's tenacious psychiatrist eventually coaxed him to begin revealing the painful truths of his past. Still, it wasn't until some time later, when he was hospitalized for mononucleosis at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital, that the wall separating Garcia from his heritage began to crumble.

In a then-primarily Jewish institution — surrounded by doctors, nurses and fellow patients who addressed him as one Jew to another — Garcia found himself overcome by how isolated and homesick he truly felt.

"My desire to hide dropped away," he writes in his book. "A great weight that had exhausted me was lifted. I wanted to proclaim to the world my Jewish heritage."

And in his own way he did proclaim it, first admitting to his friends that he was Jewish and then beginning to attend synagogue regularly.

In 1978, he became the first chairman of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, and later became active in the Committee of Remembrance of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which organizes Holocaust commemorations. Today, like a number of local survivors, he is a frequent speaker in local schools, where he tells students about his wartime experiences.

Sometimes Garcia's youngest daughter, speech therapist Michelle Winner, helps organize her father's engagements in the San Jose area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She speaks with pride of her father's efforts to educate others on the Holocaust.

"I think I grew up in a remarkable family," she says, her voice choking with emotion. "I hope that when he passes and when my mom passes, I can continue to tell the story. I feel like this is part of our history people need to know."

While Winner talks of her father in the most loving terms, she also acknowledges that growing up under his tutelage was often far from easy. Max Garcia is opinionated, explains the 35-year-old, and he pushed her hard, as he did her brother David and sister Tania.

"You couldn't just be like every kid," Winner recalls. "You had to stand out. To this day, he's like that."

Even now, in his retirement years, Garcia is clearly a man who means business. Were he not brimming with persistence, after all, he couldn't have built a firm whose clients include Bank of America, Pacific Bell, Intel and Lufthansa.

"A lot of people don't like him because he's a difficult man. He will always tell it like it is," his wife Pat Garcia says.

But "he's a determined, moral man…a fine man, and I'm very proud to be married to him."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.