Catholic students hear story that needs to be told

An auditorium full of high school girls sat rapt as Dr. Dora Sorell recounted her experiences as a young woman.

“It came our time,” Sorell said. “Me, my parents and little brother gathered our stuff and went to the ghetto.”

It was 1944, and Sorell was 22, living in her hometown of Sighet in Transylvania. The region, part of Romania for most of Sorell’s life, was annexed to Hungary in 1940. When Germany occupied Hungary near the end of World War II, it first relocated Jewish residents to ghettos, then deported them to concentration camps. Most went to Auschwitz, where Sorell was eventually transported with her family.

“We marched to the railroad station, and we were beaten and pushed,” Sorell said. Growling dogs, held on leash by soldiers, only added to the fright. “We traveled in this car with no food, with no water for three days and two nights.”

Dr. Dora Sorell of Berkeley speaks at Mercy High School on March 26 photo/drew himmelstein

Sorell recounted her story on March 26 at Mercy High School, an all-girls Catholic school in San Francisco with an enrollment of about 400.

The talk was presented by the school’s onsite Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools. Founded in 2007 in honor of Holocaust survivors Helen and Joe Farkas, the center produces regular Holocaust education programs for students at local Catholic schools.

The school’s commitment to Holocaust remembrance is a vision that came from Mercy teacher Jim McGarry, an advocate for Holocaust education who wanted to start a program that would touch local Catholic schools.

Sorell was honored this year as part of the center’s annual Courage and Spirit series, a weeklong event that brings survivors of genocide to speak to students. Her talk was supported by the Holocaust Memorial Education Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Sorell, 93, who lives in Berkeley, was a magnetic presence on the school’s stage. Wearing a red scarf with her long gray hair held back in a braid, she leaned against the podium as images of the concentration camps and a map of Europe were projected onto the wall behind her. Though decades of age and history separated her from the students who sat in front of her, she knew intuitively how to connect with the teenage girls, projecting a sweet and playful demeanor.

“I have learned the children’s language,” Sorell told J. after the talk.

Sorell shared a harrowing tale of losing her parents and two of her seven brothers in Auschwitz. She herself survived as a result of her youth, strength and resourcefulness. In December 1944, as the war was winding down and the Russians were approaching Auschwitz, she managed to get herself assigned to a work camp as a draftsman and thus avoided the death march in the final days of the war. After the war, she became a doctor and spent 16 years in Romania, trapped in the country by the Communist government.

Dr. Dora Sorell (front, center) and other survivors outside Mercy High School photo/drew himmelstein

Despite the darkness of her past, Sorell managed to frame her experiences as a love story. When she returned to her home in Sighet, she told the girls, her family was not there. But her boyfriend, who had been jailed for five years as a communist, was waiting for her. A student asked her whether she married him.

“Did I have any choice?” she asked with a smile. The students applauded and squealed.

“We thought she did have a lot of personality,” said Chassidy Marquardt, 15, a sophomore at Mercy who described Sorell as “sweet, cute and sassy.”

Before Sorell spoke, students presented interpretations of her 1998 memoir dedicated to her granddaughter, “Tell the Children: Letters to Miriam.” Dance students created a movement piece inspired by her work that they filmed and screened at the assembly, and four students dressed in black took the stage to read excerpts from Sorell’s book. Later, Sorell kissed each of the four readers and told the other students that she had more kisses for them if they needed them.

A small group of other Holocaust survivors attended Sorell’s talk and a luncheon reception that followed. Sorell herself was speaking less than two weeks after experiencing a personal loss: her son, Iancu, died on March 14 at the age of 62 of lung cancer. Sorell said it was important for her to continue to come to Holocaust remembrance events, even so soon after losing her son.

“I am very much in demand now because there are very few [Holocaust survivors] left,” Sorell said. “I can’t not go.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.