For Julia Adler Field, recalling her internment in Auschwitz was excruciatingly painful — no matter how many years had passed.
"Every time she told it, it killed her," said Lani Silver, a friend and former director of the S.F.-based Holocaust Oral History Project. "Some survivors can talk about it easily. Not Julia…It ripped her up. It was harder for her than most."
Yet as she grew older, Field decided to speak publicly about her experience. She recorded her story on video. She frequently sat at her typewriter, tapping out short stories and a memoir about the war years.
"She persisted, despite the pain," Silver said.
On Thursday of last week, the longtime San Franciscan died at UCSF/Mount Zion Medical Center after battling cancer for seven months. She was 74.
Field was born and raised in Hungary. In 1939, her father left for New York and unsuccessfully tried to secure passage for the rest of the family. Field was in her early 20s when she was sent to Auschwitz with her mother, brother and sister.
She was the only one who survived.
When the Germans emptied Auschwitz and began the notorious death marches on Jan. 18, 1945, Field was one of several thousand prisoners who were left behind.
Though most of those who remained were too sick to join the death marches, Field and a number of others were simply shut inside the camp when the Germans closed the gate. But the terror did not end there.
"These were very anxious times. We didn't know where we were. We were not free," Field said in an interview two years ago for a Jewish Bulletin article marking the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
Just days before liberation, a group of SS officers re-entered and searched for surviving Jews. A sympathetic Polish Catholic prisoner in Field's barracks denied that there were any Jews there. The Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945.
Field returned to Hungary, where she met her future husband, George Field. They immigrated to the United States in 1949, where Field was reunited with her father. The couple stayed in New York until 1952, when they moved to Sonoma County and then San Francisco.
The couple owned and operated Label's delicatessen in the city's Richmond District until they sold it in 1961 to Miriam and Ben Ofer. Her husband then became a real estate broker.
Field became close friends with Miriam Ofer, who had survived the Budapest ghetto.
Field, who had lost her sister in the Holocaust, "used to say, `You're like my little sister,'" Ofer recalled.
The Holocaust was always a topic of conversation.
"She spoke about it each and every time I met her. She lived it through every day of her life," Ofer said. "It didn't leave her at all."
Ofer described her friend as a "humanitarian, who would help out everybody and anybody."
She participated in demonstrations for human rights, for Soviet Jews, for Israel. She would bring blankets to homeless people. She would bring cookies to volunteers at the Holocaust Oral History Project.
She worked weekly as a volunteer at the National Council of Jewish Women's Bargain Mart thrift shop on Divisadero Street for more than a decade. She was a Hadassah member.
"She had a purity about her essence. She was uncompromising on her values and ethics and morals," said her son, Thomas Field. "She wasn't into anything material, really. She had no social aspirations. Her pleasures in life were reading and current affairs."
In recent years, this tiny woman who measured less than 5 feet took classes in writing and current events at the Jewish Community Center and Congregation Emanu-El. She traveled to France to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. She made two trips to Israel with her synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom.
Though Field's autobiography titled "The Roads I Have Traveled" is as yet unpublished, Silver has read it.
"I was startled at what a good writer she was," Silver said. "She had a flair for dialogue. She remembered everything that happened to her."
She is survived by her husband; two sons, Thomas Field and Robert (and Michele) Field; her granddaughter, Aaren Field; and her former daughter-in-law, Nancy Stirm-Field.
Funeral services were held Monday at Sinai Memorial Chapel. She was buried in the Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma. Contributions in her memory can be made to the charity of one's choice.