Catholic educator makes survivors’ stories his life mission

Jim McGarry remembers the first time he heard a Holocaust survivor speak.

It was in 1992 at a training session for local educators sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves. Among others he heard from that day was San Franciscan Mira Shelub, who spent the war as a partisan in the forest.

“At the end of her talk, she sang the Partisans’ song, which she does every time she speaks,” McGarry said, tearing up at the memory.

At the time, McGarry was a teacher at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Jesuit school in San Francisco. He later moved to Mercy High School, a Catholic school for girls, also in San Francisco, where he founded the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools.

Jim McGarry (right) presents plaque to Farkas Center board member David Nigel at Mercy High School.

“I had never heard more powerful stories than these, and they struck me right away as the most important stories to know and learn more about,” McGarry said of that first encounter with survivors. “As human beings, these are the stories we need to hear.”

It is this core belief that has guided McGarry’s career as the Catholic teacher has made it his mission to ensure his students become intimately familiar with the Holocaust.

But there’s more to it than that.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church and later studied its doctrine, he feels the origins of anti-Semitism can be clearly found there.

“In the Gospels you have the origins of Jew-hatred in very clear language,” said McGarry, now director of the Sr. Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.

The Nostra Aetate statement passed at Vatican II in 1965, in which the Catholic Church stated the death of Jesus should not be blamed on the Jews, was a watershed moment, McGarry said. But, he added, “There are a lot of forces in the church trying to undo that. It’s my responsibility as a Christian, and as a Christian educator, to help and be part of the corrective for 20 centuries of hot and cool Jew hatred, both official and unofficial. It has infected the Christian message, and we Christians have a particular responsibility to correct it.”

McGarry, 63, lives in Pacifica with his wife, Kathy Curran, director of the Healing WELL, which runs day programs for homeless people in the Tenderloin.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, McGarry is the second of seven children of a pious Catholic family. They lived on the edge of the Fairfax neighborhood, and he noted that his former high school is now a yeshiva. While he had one Jewish friend, most of the Jews he saw were Hassids who lived nearby.

As a religious studies major at Macalester College in Minnesota, he became enamored with the works of Martin Buber and Hassidic thought, and then got interested in Christianity’s Jewish origins.

“I had become very aware how far the Catholic Church had moved from the teachings of the historical Jesus,” he said.

He got a master’s degree at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union in the history of the American Catholic Church, especially its involvement in anti-war and social justice movements. He wrote his thesis on Jesuit anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan, but also read many of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was active in the civil rights movement.

He began teaching at St. Ignatius in 1980, and the Holocaust was part of his curriculum.

“I always spoke about the Holocaust from a universalist, humanitarian perspective, without bringing in much about the Jew hatred in Christian tradition,” he said. “I hadn’t really yet connected the dots between Catholic and Christian Jew-hatred as the preparation ground for the Final Solution.”

After attending that 1992 seminar, he met more survivors through trainings by the Holocaust Center of Northern California and realized that those who lived through the Holocaust could present it to his students much more effectively than he could.

“Having my students hear survivors’ testimony was the most important thing I could do as a teacher,” he said.

He began inviting survivors to St. Ignatius, and later to Mercy. It was important to him that when they visited they be treated to lunch. So he created the Farkas Center to have a permanent physical space at the school devoted to studying and honoring Holocaust survivors.

“Having them visit was like having nobility on campus, and I mean real nobility, not false nobility by accident of history,” he said. “I loved having all of these elderly survivors wandering the halls and eating lunch in the cafeteria. It was just beautiful to see them interact with the kids. The kids hug them. They see them. They honor them.”

Adrian Schrek, now of Jewish Learning Works, has known McGarry for decades, as she used to work for the Holocaust Center.

“He can negotiate very difficult subjects with grace, humility and ease,” she said. “He’s a religious and spiritual person who walks the walk 100 percent.”

Auschwitz survivor Helen Farkas, 95, of Burlingame, has become a close friend. The two traveled together with a group of high school students to Germany and Poland in 2012. Of McGarry, she says simply, “He’s a mensch among us.”

McGarry’s one-man crusade hasn’t been without bumps. At times he has gotten pushback from teachers who experienced Holocaust burnout. One asked, “How many survivors do we need to hear?”

When McGarry began working at the university, he handed over the running of the Farkas Center but still serves on its board. He says time is running out for Holocaust survivors, and he wants to do what he can to preserve their teachings.

“I really feel pulled toward remaining involved in the last years of their lives, just by taking them out to lunch and seeing how they’re doing,” he said. “It’s been such a privilege and honor to be invited into this history and into these friendships and into this learning, and bringing it back to my students.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."