Tragedy and hardship have never slowed Irene Miller. She survived the Holocaust, was deserted by her husband in Europe and came to the United States virtually penniless and with a young daughter. At 80, she may be one of the Bay Area's hardest-working volunteers.
Diagnosed with incurable stage 3 lymphoma in 1977, she has been in remission since 1979. And despite a sore knee and nerve damage in her right arm, Miller still does a myriad of things for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, the SPCA, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, her neighborhood Emergency Rescue Team and the office of state Assemblyman Mark Leno.
Last month, JFCS awarded her a FAMMY for "distinguished volunteer or philanthropic service to the community."
"She's a unique and wonderful person," said Cherie Golant, the coordinator of the Holocaust survivor program at JFCS. "She's always putting herself out there to be as helpful as she can. She's just a gem."
Before her fall on the sidewalk outside her San Francisco home in 2001, when she tore her rotator cuff and fractured her shoulder, Miller also volunteered at the San Francisco Food Bank, PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) and the Red Cross Disaster Action Team. In addition, she gardened at the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. Now she wears a glove on her right hand for protection. Even simple tasks, such as dressing and writing, are difficult yet she perseveres.
Miller was born in 1922, but misfortune and adversity preceded the Prague native. Her paternal grandfather, a poor Jewish intellectual, fell in love with Miller's grandmother at a cotillion dance where there weren't enough rich Jewish boys for all the girls. He committed suicide in 1913, largely due to his failures in business.
Miller's parents divorced when she was young and her mother left. "My father was very kind and very nice," said Miller. "My father loved to read and didn't want to be disturbed. He sold women's apparel but preferred to read while at work. He went bankrupt."
The family struggled, and Miller, an only child, hated her stepmother. Unable to attend the university because she was Jewish, she joined the Jewish Resistance in Czechoslovakia. She was a low-level messenger, but because of her job she was not home when the Nazis took her family in 1942. She never saw them and countless other relatives again.
A year later, the Nazis arrested her and sent her to Terezin. She was transferred in 1944 to Ravensbruck, a women's concentration camp inside Germany. "On the train we didn't think we'd get to the camp," Miller recalled. "We saw the airplanes and heard the bombing and assumed the war would be over in a short time. If we'd known we'd be at the camp for almost a year, we would've committed suicide."
On April 28, 1945, the Nazis began the death march with the Ravensbruck survivors. "The Russians came with airplanes," said Miller. "So the Germans commanded us to lie with our heads down. But I thought this was stupid because we weren't wearing helmets. I looked up and saw the Germans hiding in ditches. So I ran into the forest and found four friends."
Sick with typhus, Miller returned to Prague and married another survivor. They moved to Paris, but he abruptly departed for Israel and then Canada. They divorced, and she and her 5-year-old daughter were sponsored to come to San Francisco in 1953.
"After I got here I made paper bags, polished combs, was a part-time janitor, worked at an insurance company and went to night school to learn English," said Miller, who was forced to put her daughter in foster care. "Our first apartment at 145 Gough St. had no heat and no fridge. But it had a bathtub and a toilet. In Europe I had to pay for the shower. I am still thankful every morning that I can shower in my home." She eventually saved enough money to buy a home in Noe Valley.
After she retired as a quality-assurance lab technician from Hills Brothers' Coffee in 1988, Miller became an avid volunteer. In addition to being active in the JFCS' Holocaust survivors' gatherings, Café by the Bay, she has done a variety of administrative tasks for the Seniors-at-Home programs and helped JFCS' LGBT coordinator at the Castro Street Fair.
"I can't donate any money," said Miller, who lives on her Hill Brothers' pension and restitution from Germany. "But I remember many times when people did a lot for me. So it's about the time one gives something back, and not only takes, takes, takes."