400 honor survivors and rescuers at the start of an S.F. exhibition

The Holocaust exposition that opened Sunday in San Francisco's Presidio adds color, dimension and hope to a story usually etched in somber tones.

Part of the reason is Barbara Shilo's 14 mixed-media paintings. Another is Eric Saul's tribute to those who rescued thousands from certain death.

"It's the story of good and evil," Phyllis Friedman, chair at the exhibition committee, said to the large crowd at Sunday's reception for "Silent Voices Speak: The Holocaust and Social Injustice Today."

The exhibits parallel "one of the most evil times in history," she said, when some people "who embraced humanity with good spirit" saved the lives of thousands.

Shilo's paintings, along with curator-historian Saul's "Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats" and an in-depth lecture series on the Holocaust and current social injustice, make up the most comprehensive exposition of its kind ever to hit the Bay Area. The free exhibit runs through May 15 at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall.

More than 400 came out to honor the rescuers Sunday while paying respect to the millions who perished. In addition to viewing the exhibits, guests heard from Shilo, Saul, four survivors and the children of four rescuers.

Shilo, who was a young girl in Germany when Hitler came to power, explained to the crowd that the Holocaust is usually "a black-and-white issue."

"By adding color," she said of her paintings, "it shows us the victims as they truly were, full of life. Each piece tells a story."

Next, survivor Helen Farkas told hers. She recalled the horror of spending three days and three nights in a crowded cattle car destined for Auschwitz. There was no food, no water, she said, recalling the stench of the buckets they were forced to use in place of toilets.

Once the 80 boxcars arrived at Auschwitz came the tragedy of being separated from family.

"Those who couldn't walk were shot and left behind, unburied; the world stood still," Farkas said.

Another survivor, Gloria Lyon, told the crowd she was proud to be at the opening to honor the memory of the rescuer who saved her from death, Counte Folke Bernadotte. The Swedish Red Cross head negotiated with SS commander Heinrich Himmler for the release of thousands in concentration camps.

Lyon was 15 when first imprisoned. At some point, she said, she and others were taken out of the camp and jammed into cattle cars. Lyon overheard SS officers saying they would shoot the passengers. Instead, the officers stopped the train and fed the prisoners raw macaroni and sugar.

Lyon passed out. It was only "when I awoke much later that I learned that the Swedes had liberated us."

While 99 rescuers were honored in Saul's exhibit — seven of whom are still living — most of them died unrecognized.

Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, for instance, saved 62,000 Jews, but "his acknowledgement came 20 years too late," said his stepdaughter, Agnes Hirschi, who flew in from Switzerland for the opening.

"I hope maybe he looks down from heaven and has some satisfaction," she said.

Although Chinese consulate and rescuer Feng Shan Ho died in 1997 before anyone knew of the innumerable lives he saved, "He lives on through the survivors," said his daughter Manli Ho, who resides in San Francisco.

Referring to the survivors, she added, "They have now become my mishpoche."

Often a murmur of surprise rushed through the crowd as spectators learned of the numbers of Jews rescued by courageous people. Later, many examined Saul's exhibit with looks of amazement and awe.

"How do we not know about these men?" Saul implored of the crowd, saying that he hopes "by the time we're though today, everyone" will know of these men "and tell 10 more people" about them.

"The diplomats who rescued Jews really had to stick their necks out. Some lost their careers and many died in poverty."

That was the fate of Portugese Consul General Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, whose son John Paul Abranches of Pleasanton addressed the crowd.

"If so many Jews can suffer for one Catholic, then a Catholic can suffer for the Jews," said Abranches, fighting back tears as he quoted his father — a man who died in a poorhouse despite saving 30,000 people, 10,000 of whom were Jews.

"I welcome this opportunity with love," he continued, his voice quivering and eventually trailing off into silence.