In the spring of 1944, at the age of 23, Helen Farkas, her parents and extended family, along with her other Jewish neighbors, were forcibly removed from their home in Satu-Mare, Romania, near the Hungarian border and imprisoned in a newly created ghetto in her own hometown. Weeks later, they were forced to board cattle cars for an agonizing three-day trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
From then until her escape from the Nazis in April 1945, Farkas endured starvation, tortuous exposure to the elements, the murder of family members and fellow prisoners and the constant question -- did the world know what was happening to them?
Farkas, now 93 and living in Burlingame, routinely relives that period of her life when she speaks to Bay Area students about her experiences, as she did Friday at Hart Middle School in Pleasanton. It's a commitment she's carried out for more than 40 years, and, she adds, a matter of moral necessity.
"It was very difficult in the beginning, but I felt this was my mission; the world has to know," she said. "When we were imprisoned, we'd look to the sky and ask 'God, does the world know what's happening?' We figured the world must know, and how can they allow this to happen? It was my insistence that the world must know and future generations must know."
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Farkas and the other prisoners came under the immediate eye of Dr. Joseph Mengele, the notorious "Angel of Death," who quickly separated the young and strong from the very old and the very young. She and her sister were sent one way and would live; other family members, including her father and her mother, who was carrying her sister's 3-year-old son, were sent the other way. They were killed almost immediately in shower rooms rigged to produce lethal gas.
"Never again did we see our family," Farkas said. "It was brutal, just brutal." In the months that followed, Farkas, two of her sisters and a niece, along with thousands of other women with them, were stripped of all they owned, lived in filthy wooden barracks, subsisted on bits of bread made partially with sawdust and were forced to witness frequent murders of prisoners -- while in the background smokestacks billowed from the crematoria. About five months later, she and her sister, along with others, were moved to a work camp in the village of Purskau, where they were forced to dig large holes designed to trap approaching American and Russian tanks.
In late January 1945, she and 2,000 other women and their captors left Purskau to embark on one of the infamous "death marches." After months of walking 15 to 18 kilometers a day with little food, water or shelter, Farkas and her sister eventually became desperate enough to attempt an escape. Emaciated and with shaved heads, wearing prison rags, they one day crawled on their stomachs out of the sleeping crowd of prisoners and slid down a hillside into a stream, escaping into the German countryside near the Czech border. With the help of strangers over the course of months, they eventually made their way home.
Farkas married her prewar fiancé, Joe Farkas, and the couple eventually moved to America. In 1974, Farkas spoke to her daughter, Amber's, high school class about her Holocaust experience, which led to increasing numbers of presentations all around the Bay Area. By 1995, she had published a book about her experiences, entitled "Remember the Holocaust." Proceeds from that book are donated to the Joe and Helen Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic schools at Mercy High School in San Francisco.
Farkas' school presentations often coincide with eighth-grade studies of the Holocaust and the reading of "The Diary of Anne Frank," said Hart language arts teacher Sharon Surrena. Farkas' presentations also delve into the issues of bullying and tolerance.
"We work hard looking at different cultures in our school, nation and the world at large," Surrena said. "For this particular age group to have this first-person point of view, a personal story, is so much more effective than telling them the story from the page. We read about it, connect to the character the best we can through the literature and then meet a real person who experienced some of what they read about. That's the culmination that really connects for some of these kids."
On this day, Farkas ended her talk with an admonishment to her young audience.
"I want you to remember what I've told you," she said. "To know that hatred, genocide and murder is not for human beings ... we are all the same. We cannot repeat the things that happened in our history. We have to make history by being good citizens, by turning hate into love .... Respect yourselves, then you'll respect your neighbors, no matter what their background, religion or the clothing they wear. ... Do the best you can for society, because it begins with you and your friends."
After Farkas' presentation, a handful of students remained after the bell to buy a copy of her book and ask questions.
"Every single person possible should hear this," said Sophia Palomino, 14. Her friend, 13-year-old Emily McElroy, agreed.
"We need to learn from the past so it doesn't happen again," she said.
Deen Hamid, also 13, agreed.
"She didn't seem to have a lot of hatred; she's tolerant," he said. "I was honored that she came here and told us about her story. It changed me, I can tell you that."