Helen Farkas, 97, with friends at family at her 97th birthday party.
Helen Farkas, 97, with friends at family at her 97th birthday party.

Holocaust survivor adds to legacy at early 100th birthday in S.F.

As a young woman struggling to survive the horrors of Auschwitz, Helen Farkas made a vow: If she lived, she would tell her story to the world.

Now, even as she faces death once again, she continues to make good on that promise.

Farkas is 97 and has been given a few months to live by doctors. Yet she still eagerly accepts speaking engagements at Bay Area high schools, continuing her more than four decades of being a living witness to the Holocaust.

Farkas was feted Jan. 14 by family, friends, teachers, former students and fellow survivors at an early 100th birthday party at San Francisco’s Mercy High School, which houses the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools.

Even as she spoke of coming to terms with death, she told teachers in the audience she was booking talks with students for the next few months.

“I made this promise when I was in Auschwitz,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know if there is a God. But please, God, help me to survive. If I survive, I’ll shout from the highest mountain what is happening here every day.”

Farkas was 23 when the Jews in her Romanian village were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The infamous Nazi “Doctor of Death,” Josef Mengele, personally waved her parents to the gas chamber while sparing young Helen. She survived hunger and deprivation, finally escaping with her sister when they were on a Nazi-guided death march away from Auschwitz.

She made her way back to Romania by walking and hopping freight trains, reuniting there with her prewar fiancé, Joe. The couple eventually settled in Burlingame to build a new life in America.

In 1974, Farkas talked to her daughter’s high school class about her Holocaust ordeal, and then became a frequent speaker with what is now the S.F.-based Holocaust Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“Every soul, every young person, should know about the Holocaust, because if we don’t tell them, very soon it will be only in books,” Farkas told the audience of about 75, ranging from toddlers to contemporaries, at her celebration. “But the students do want to see the person and they do enjoy and really learn, because I see it from their letters.”

After having a bash for her 90th birthday, Farkas had eschewed annual parties and told Farkas Center board members she was waiting to have a big party for her 100th birthday. But after being diagnosed with an inoperable tumor late last year, the Burlingame resident agreed to a celebration of her life.

I made this promise … ‘If I survive, I’ll shout from the highest mountain what is happening here every day.’

One table was covered with Farkas’ book, “Remembering the Holocaust,” and with citations and certificates from members of Congress, state Assembly members and San Francisco State University. A statue created by Farkas’ daughter, Amber Aguirre, depicted a body wrapped in barbed wire and appearing to scream.

The first Helen Farkas Scholarship was awarded to Litsy Cruz, a senior at all-girls Mercy High. A sign outside the school proclaimed: “Thank you, Helen Farkas!”

Attendees paid tribute to Farkas’ courage and positive approach to life despite her Holocaust ordeal. They spoke of the tens of thousands of Bay Area students who have heard her testimony, and of how many of those students lined up to hug or kiss her after such speeches.

Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust Center, led a trip to Germany, Poland and Israel in 2012 that included Farkas and two dozen students. At Sunday’s/the Jan. 14 celebration, Schneider recounted one of those students’ memories: Farkas walking away from Auschwitz, where she had suffered so much, with a couple of students.

“You took their hands and started swinging your hands with such joy and strength,” Schneider said. “And you said, ‘Life is short, and you must enjoy every moment.’”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, chief program officer at Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica and the emcee for Farkas’ birthday party, also was on that trip and remembers Farkas sitting in the front seat of the bus and bringing each of the high school and college students to sit next to her to discuss life.

“I would witness each student give her a hug, stand up and go back to their seats on the bus, profoundly different than before,” he said.

Also on that trip was Jim McGarry, founder of the Farkas Center, who has had Farkas talk to his students every year since 1993 — when he was a teacher at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Jesuit school in San Francisco. He moved to Mercy in 2001 and established the Farkas Center in 2007.

In Israel, he and Farkas were walking through the lobby of their hotel when they saw a crowd celebrating Shabbat. “Helen grabbed my arm and said, ‘Hitler should see this,’” he said.

Farkas said at her party that she won’t shed any tears about knowing death is near.

“I was blessed to have a long life. I was blessed to have a wonderful life after the Holocaust,” she said, then quickly let the teachers in the room know she wasn’t done yet. “I will still continue going to schools. You want me to go to schools, let me know, give me the dates, I’ll be there.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.