It was standing room-only in Christopher Chiang's world history class at Mountain View High School as Lenci Farkas recalled her horrific ordeal. The teens listened in silence as the nonegenarian woman told of how she was taken from her home in 1944, shipped first to a Jewish ghetto and then by train "in cars for cattle" off to the infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.
Some snacked on potato chips or sandwiches as she described trading with fellow concentration camp prisoners -- a few scraps of linen from the camp's blanket factory for a small lump of stale bread. It seemed uncomfortably hot at times, even as she recalled huddling together for warmth with other children in an abandoned rural house after escaping from one of the many "death marches" the Nazis forced her people to participate in.
Farkas, a San Mateo resident, has been telling her story of death, fear and survival to children and teens for more than 30 years. Her intent is to raise awareness among students and show them what small prejudices can turn into if they are not checked.
Just as it is hard to imagine that anything so depraved as genocide could happen in America today, so too was it unfathomable when she was growing up in former Czech Republic. "I feel it is very important to know what can happen if you let it happen," she said after her hour-long talk and half-hour-long question-and-answer session in Room 101 at MVHS. She was joined by Burlingame resident Livia Grunfeld, who did not have to bear the horror of a concentration camp, but who did live in a Jewish ghetto controlled by the Nazis.
Her message was not lost on Leah Higgins, a ninth-grader who listened to Farkas' talk. "There are inhumane things going on here," Higgins said, referring to the United States and the issues of racism and other forms of prejudice with which our country continues to struggle today. The freshman said hearing stories of Nazi Germany helped her see the slippery slope of racial intolerance and jingoism.
Anastasia Garachtchenko agreed with Higgins, and added that seeing the face of someone so deeply impacted by racial intolerance really helped drive the lessons of the Holocaust home. "We learn about this in school, but when you actually have someone there, it makes it feel a lot more personal," she said.
Higgins said of Farkas, "She looks just like my grandma."
One of the most moving anecdotes told by Farkas was a story in which she became acutely aware of the humanity of her mortal enemy. She described being struck by the beauty of a female SS officer -- an observation she chose to vocalize at a moment when she faced severe punishment from the woman. Telling the Nazi guard this may have saved Farkas' life, she said.
Later in her talk Farkas wondered if only more people could see the beauty in their so-called "enemies" the world might be a better place.
"Why are we still not understanding, that we are all God's children?" she asked rhetorically.