Frances Gage, tough and generous survivor, dies at 84

“Do I know you? I recognize you. What shul do you go to?”

With those words, Frances Gage started hundreds, if not thousands of conversations. She loved talking to people — it didn’t matter whom — and always seemed to find someone she knew in the most unlikely of places.

“Take me to a jungle and I’ll know somebody,” was a favorite quote of hers.

Gage was an exceptionally generous woman with a wicked sense of humor. And yet, to her dying day — which was Sept. 5, shortly after her 84th birthday — she was still affected by her horrific experiences during the Holocaust. Simply put, it was always in the back of her mind that someone would walk into her home and take away all of her loved ones and possessions — again.

Frances Szefler was born in Lubraniec, Poland, in 1923 to a well-off, religious Jewish family. When she was 14 years old, one of her four brothers brought home a friend, Henry Gage. She was transfixed the moment she saw him and the couple was married three years later.

The young couple’s marital bliss was short-lived. The Nazis soon seized the Szeflers’ land and split up the family. Before long, Frances Gage was alone with her infant daughter, washing Nazi soldiers’ uniforms in the Lodz ghetto. Her baby was later taken from her. While Gage’s mother deluded herself into thinking they’d come back after the war and retrieve the grown child, Gage knew that Jewish babies were being tossed from windows and had no illusions. Gage and her mother were separated at Auschwitz; Gage spent six weeks in a living hell while her mother was gassed upon arrival.

After working in an aircraft factory — Gage’s job was to paint swastikas onto the planes’ wings — she ended up in Mauthausen and was liberated by American soldiers in May 1945. Her parents and all four of her brothers died in the war, but she was reunited with Henry in Germany.

The couple arrived in California in 1949. After scrapping out a living in a variety of jobs, Henry bought a truck and went into the scrap business. Gage’s three adult children smiled at the memory of Henry backing his truck into the family’s Sunset District home and the entire family running outside to sort scrap (“It was fun,” recalled George Gage).

While Henry was out hunting for junk, Gage and her children, Ruth, Benjamin and George, were busy cleaning and painting furniture to resell in the family store.

“They bought junk. But mom sold antiques,” said Benjamin Gage with a laugh.

The Gages were founding members of Orthodox Adath Israel and also co-founded Bikur Cholim, an organization that raised money for needy Jews and, later, purchased ambulances for Israel. Gage’s children said their parents skimped on themselves, but never said no to a charity, Jewish or otherwise. When itinerant Orthodox Jews came around the family store pleading for funds, Gage would always give them money — and then tell them to get a real job.

The Gages spoke about their Holocaust experiences to Bay Area youth groups and Gage served alongside then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein on the committee that placed George Segal’s Holocaust memorial in Lincoln Park (“Mom loved going over to Dianne Feinstein’s house for coffee or tea,” said Gage’s daughter, Ruth Brill).

The Holocaust played a large part in Gage’s everyday life in other ways — “There was an insecurity. She never overcame the war,” said Brill.

The Gage family was extraordinarily tightly knit and Frances Gage kept a sharp eye on her three children; Brill noted that it’s not entirely a coincidence that all of Frances’ children still live in the Bay Area.

“Being tough was her defense. But inside, she was a very soft lady. If not, why would she do all this volunteering and give money to people?” asked Brill.

“When she joined an organization she gave 100 percent. Any organization that sent an envelope to my parents’ house got money back.”

Henry Gage died in 2004. Until his children were forced to take him to the hospital, Henry and Frances used to sit on the couch holding hands.

Frances Gage is survived by her children: Ruth Brill of Santa Clara; Benjamin Gage of Hillsborough and George Gage of Walnut Creek; eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Donations in her memory can be sent to Coming Home Hospice, 115 Diamond St., S.F., CA 94114 or to the charity of your choice.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.