Survivor, 93, tells her story at Catholic school

Lenci Farkas didn’t sleep well the night before she was to be honored at San Francisco’s Mercy High School. When the 93-year-old faced the assembly of about 400 students and 10 other Holocaust survivors, though, she had little trouble recounting the dark days seven decades ago.

Farkas spoke of being taken from her home in occupied Czechoslovakia when she was 22, locked in a synagogue with other Jews and then transported by oxcart to a ghetto in Hungary. She spoke about the grueling train ride to Auschwitz, and about being separated from her family during the selection process.

Lenci Farkas (top left) and family in prewar Czechoslovakia

“I never saw my father or brother again,” Farkas said. “We didn’t get to say goodbye.”

Farkas told the students at the Catholic high school about being sent to a work camp, where she was always cold and hungry. She recalled a death march into Germany and her bold escape. She spoke of the Ukrainian man who helped her and six other young women.

“He fed us in his warm kitchen, fed us warm food,” Farkas recalled. “Food has never tasted so delicious.” And she spoke of yet another close call with an SS officer and then, at last, of being liberated by the Russian army.

The ninth annual Courage and Spirit event on March 17 was sponsored by the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools at Mercy High and the Holocaust Memorial Education Fund of the Jewish Community Federation. Lenci Farkas, who lives in San Mateo, is the sister-in-law of Helen Farkas and the late Joe Farkas.

The Farkas Center was founded in 2007 after Jim McGarry, then a teacher at Mercy High, first heard Helen Farkas speak about being a Holocaust survivor. The center’s mission is to preserve the history of the Holocaust for future generations through programs that educate students and their instructors about social justice and moral courage.

“When I was asked to speak about my experience in the camp, our escape and our liberation,” Lenci Farkas said a few days before the assembly, “I thought, ‘Why not? It’s important.’ ”

Jeimy Navidad, 16, a junior at Mercy High, agreed. “It’s always shocking to hear these stories, unimaginable to think about people being treated as animals,” she said. “It’s also shocking to hear our current politicians, the racism — it’s as though history is repeating itself.”

Lenci Farkas and former Mercy teacher Jim McGarry on March 17

Lexi Carlin-Henry and Celia Ortiz, both freshmen, found Farkas’ talk inspirational. “My grandmother, who has a similar story, lost both her parents in El Salvador,” Celia said. “Listening to Lenci Farkas’ story, I took everything to heart, though it is hard to take in.”

Alicia Lopez, a senior, said each year she has looked forward to the Courage and Spirit assembly because it is so important to learn about the Holocaust and “to be reminded about focusing on family.”

Members of Lenci Farkas’ family — including her daughter and four grandchildren — came from New York and other parts of California for the program. Her son Gabe, a retired doctor who lives in San Rafael, was onstage with family members and later performed with his band, Klezmer Soul, as the audience went to a luncheon.

“This is the first time we’ve had a klezmer band,” said Miriam Zimmerman, former director of the Farkas Center. “It’s also the first time we’ve had three generations of a survivor’s family on the program to talk about how the Holocaust impacted the second and third generation in a family.”

Gabe Farkas told students that many Holocaust survivors refuse to share their life stories with their families, but said he’s glad his parents were open about their experiences. His son Michael said the stories “taught us our culture” and had their greatest impact when he was in his early 20s.

“My grandmother’s story first hit my heart — and my life — when she told me what happened to her happened when she was about my age,’’ Michael Farkas said. “She said her life was normal, like mine — and then everything changed.” 

Mercy’s curriculum includes study of the Holocaust in a number of ways. “If the survivor being honored has written a book, the whole school reads it and teachers design curriculum around the experiences recounted in the book,” Zimmerman said. Dramatic readings, Yiddish songs and dance performances also have been part of the event.

“The Holocaust raises a lot of universal themes, such as bullying, the importance of democratic processes and religious tolerance and understanding,” Zimmerman said. “And of course, we repeat the slogan ‘Never Again,’ but genocide has not ended.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.