the student leans in toward the survivor's ear
Survivor Helen Farkas speaks with a student at the JFCS Holocaust Center’s Day of Learning, March 19, 2017 (Photo/Trish Tunney)

Helen Farkas dies at 97 — survivor who brought Holocaust education to local schools

Helen Farkas, an Auschwitz survivor who spent more than four decades serving as a living witness to the traumas of the Holocaust by speaking to Bay Area high school students, has died two weeks after family and friends held a celebration of her life.

Farkas, 97, of Burlingame, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor late last year. She was feted Jan. 14 at San Francisco’s Mercy High School, which houses the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools.

“Everything that begins must end at one time or another,” Farkas said at her party. “I was blessed to have a long life. I was blessed to have a wonderful life after the Holocaust. I was blessed to have a wonderful family to belong to, because so many of my family were murdered that I can’t tell you the feeling of belonging, how important that is.

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

“I accept what is impossible to change. I can’t say that I welcome death, but when it happens it’s OK, my time has come, we all will face this.”

Farkas was 23 when the Jews in her Romanian village were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. 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.

A memorial service for Helen Farkas takes place 10 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 31, at Home of Peace Cemetery Chapel, 1299 El Camino Real, Colma. Shivah 6 p.m. at the Magnolia, 201 Chadbourne Ave., Room 240, Millbrae.

Rob Gloster

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