San Mateo resident Lenci Farkas sat before the video cameras and told her tale of survival: deportation by cattle car from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz, a daring escape from the Death March of 1945, a new start in America.
That interview took place more than 20 years ago.
In those days, the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project used VHS tapes to record survivor testimonies. After all this time, those tapes — all 1,500 of them — have begun to deteriorate.
That’s why the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center (which absorbed the Oral History Project) has teamed up with the USC Shoah Foundation to begin digitizing and preserving the testimonies.
Launched by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994, the Shoah Foundation is the world’s premiere repository for filmed Holocaust survivor testimonies. With its technical resources, the foundation makes an ideal partner for the JFCS Holocaust Center.
To salute both that partnership and the many Northern California survivors who educate younger generations about the Holocaust, JFCS is hosting a gala in their honor on Sunday, June 9 at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. More than 100 survivors are expected to attend.
“We thought this would be a great opportunity to honor the people who came forward and gave their personal witness,” said Barbara Farber, the JFCS director of development. “We will also show our collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation and what’s been done to preserve [the testimonies]. In preserving them, they can be seen for generations to come.”
All told, the USC Shoah Foundation is preserving tens of thousands of videotaped testimonies from around the world. Eventually, all will be available online, cross-referenced by more than 50,000 keywords.
“Part of preservation is making sure the file does not degenerate over time,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. “We have a system whereby we look after a file, checking it on a regular basis, and if a single pixel is off, we fix that.”
The USC Shoah Foundation partners with many organizations like the JFCS Holocaust Center. Smith, who will attend the event at the Palace Hotel, sees the relationships as mutually beneficial.
“Many of the smaller centers don’t have the benefit of [our] infrastructure, so we want to make that available to smaller collections,” Smith said. “It’s a great way to do a partnership. The original archive retains their ownership, so it’s still a San Francisco–based collection, but it also means the material is kept safe and managed from a central point.”
Farkas will be on hand for the June 9 honor. At 91, she’s remarkably energetic. She retells with clarity the story of her Orthodox girlhood in Kralovo Nad Tisou, a village in Czechoslovakia with some 120 Jewish families.
The idyll ended in May 1944, when she and her family were herded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For more than a year, she endured the horror of the death camp, surviving by her wits.
As the war neared its end, the Nazis forced surviving inmates on what’s known as the Death March. Lenci and her two sisters took part, but saw an opportunity several days in. The three bolted out of line, hid in the forest and soon connected with peasants who protected them.
Eventually she made her way to a displaced persons camp, met and married her husband, Morris, and emigrated to the United States in 1948. In 1950 she moved to the Bay Area where her husband and his brother launched a successful shoe store chain.
Over the years, she has shared that story not only on videotape, but also with young people across the region.
“It’s important because this generation is dying out,” she said. “We’re too old. If we don’t tell our stories now, then who’s going to tell them? They’re denying [the Holocaust] now.”
Paul Schwarzbart, 80, also filmed his testimony for the JFCS Holocaust Center years ago, and has been a stalwart member of the organization’s speaker’s bureau.
A native of Austria, Schwarzbart and his family fled Vienna for Brussels after Kristallnacht. Once Germany invaded Belgium, the underground hid Schwartzbart in a Catholic boys school in the Ardennes. There he had to pass as Catholic, serving as an altar boy.
The school staffers knew they took great risks harboring Jews.
“Those Nazis were so unforgiving,” said Schwarzbart, a resident of San Rafael. “You help a Jew, you suffer his or her fate. The principal accepted me in the guise of being one of the [non-Jewish] children.”
As he found out at a 1988 reunion, the school harbored dozens of Jewish boys, more than half of the 125-person student body.
“[That] she was willing to accept so many Jewish children to save, one at a time, is extraordinary,” Schwarzbart added. “We were liberated in October 1944 by the American infantry. Within a few hours we were free.”
He reunited with his mother in Brussels, and together they immigrated to San Francisco, where he attended Washingtonl High School, had a family and enjoyed a 45-year career as a college French professor.
Almost 10 years ago he wrote a memoir, “Breaking the Silence,” and turned his attention to Holocaust education. The JFCS Holocaust Center’s speaker’s bureau happily put him to work.
“I find young people are very eager to learn,” Schwarzbart says. “When they ask me ‘Why did you survive and 6 million did not?’ I say certainly not because I was different, but to bear witness. That’s why I will [tell my story] as long as God grants me breath.”