Mercy High School students at the Farkas Center's Kristallnacht event in November 2018. (Photo/Adrian Schrek)
Mercy High School students at the Farkas Center's Kristallnacht event in November 2018. (Photo/Adrian Schrek)

Holocaust center loses home at SF Catholic school but vows to continue

When all-girls Mercy High School in San Francisco announced in January that it would close at the end of this school year due to financial woes, it left a nonprofit Holocaust education center without a home.

The Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools, founded in 2007, has been located at Mercy for 10 years.

But leaders at the center say the nonprofit will continue to thrive — and even expand its mission — as its teachers and students who utilized it spread out to nearby schools.

“The Farkas Center is agile and mobile,” said Adrian Schrek, the center’s executive director. “We’re not confined to one school setting. We can be anywhere.”

Named after two Bay Area survivors, including Helen Farkas, a frequent speaker at Mercy before she died in 2018, the center usually hosts three public events per year and integrates Holocaust studies into classes at Mercy.

For now, the nonprofit’s headquarters will be moving to Schrek’s home office. She said the organization is looking at other high schools where it can embed, and that leaders have talked with a few local institutions. But those schools are busy figuring out how to navigate the Covid-19 crisis right now, Schrek said, so any move will have to be a longer-term goal.

One potential landing spot is Convent & Stuart Hall, a K-12 school that’s part of the Sacred Heart network of Catholic schools around the world.

Elaina LeGault, a theology teacher at Mercy and a Farkas board member who will be moving to Convent & Stuart in the fall, said she’s looking forward to bringing the organization’s curriculum and ethos to her new job.

“The lessons are applicable everywhere,” LeGault said. “Holocaust education belongs everywhere, in every curriculum, in every course.”

LeGault, whose classes at Mercy included Hebrew and Christian scripture, said the role of the Farkas Center will be shifting: more lesson programs for students but not as many public events.

Holocaust education belongs everywhere, in every curriculum, in every course.

The center already has practice modifying its curriculum due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, it hosted its annual Spirit and Courage Assembly and Luncheon online. In past years, Mercy devoted half a day to the event, with an opening and closing assembly and workshops in between.

This year’s virtual event included Holocaust survivor Paul Schwarzbart, who told his story to most of Mercy’s juniors and seniors over Zoom.

“The plan is to share that recording with the other half of the students and have reflection on that,” LeGault said. “Even showing that we so easily were able to adapt to the current situation … it shows that we’re ready to adapt to a kind of new environment.”

Farkas’ student board — which board president Andrew Scott said was one of the organization’s integral features — is made up of graduating seniors who will not be continuing in their roles. Younger students from local high schools will be recruited to fill these positions, and Scott thinks this can add value to the organization.

“We’re going to learn from the students what’s going to work when we [teach at] different schools,” he said.

In recent years, the center has hosted a variety of Bay Area Holocaust survivors, including Leon Rajninger, Hans Angress and Gloria Lyon, who died this month.

The center’s last public event at Mercy was in January, right as the 68-year-old school announced its closure. In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 21, the center teamed up with Violins of Hope, a Bay Area-wide program that honored Holocaust-era violins restored by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshi Weinstein.

Nearly 300 people showed up to look at a selection of violins and hear violinists Hannah Tarley and Sevil Ulucan Weinstein play four pieces on the restored instruments. The event was led by Mercy students and included a dramatic reading by 11 girls from the school’s acting class, reading excerpts from a book about a young Jewish girl’s experiences in Nazi-occupied France.

Mercy High is located on 19th Avenue across from the Stonestown Galleria. It announced Jan. 10 that it would be shuttering in June, becoming part of a larger trend of decline among Catholic schools across the country.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.