Allan Farkas, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor from Perth Amboy, shared his story with a class of students at Rahway High School the morning of Nov. 13.
In addition to detailing his time spent in the camps and on the run from the Nazis, Farkas spoke about his life after the war, how his attitudes have changed, and what he thinks is most important for young people today.
“I want everybody to remember what I said,” Farkas said. “This is not something that I made up. This is something that happened…. You have to understand. Everything has a reason. The reason for why I was in the camp is because I was a Jew.”
The class — taught by Debra Maller and made up of juniors and seniors and a couple of sophomores — has been part of the school’s curriculum for the past three years. Farkas spoke over the course of two class periods, with 50 students packed in the room for the first period and about 20 for the second. The majority of the students were either black or Hispanic; there were no Jewish students in the groups.
Farkas said he was forced into a ghetto in Hungary in March 1944, and was sent to forced labor in Auschwitz later that year. On arrival, he was separated from his mother and two younger sisters and never saw them again. He showed the tattoo he was given as he recalled the first few days he was in the death camp.
“I got a number,” he said. “We had no more names. Nothing but numbers. We had striped uniforms. There was a number written on there and the same number on the side of the pants as on my arm.”
He spent the next eight months in Auschwitz before being sent by train to another camp in Germany. He survived on the train for 12 days and 12 nights with no food or drink, subsisting on snow he collected with a can tied to strings that he dangled outside the car. While working as a potato peeler in the camp, he was able to get a little extra food from the scraps he could find. In March of the following year, American troops bombed the city where he had been sent. Despite being hit in the leg with some shrapnel, he escaped alive.
“One night, there was a big commotion outside,” he said. “I heard noise and tanks and cars and trucks running around. The next morning they came and said, ‘You are free to go.’”
It has been 51 years since Farkas came to America, but it was clear he still finds it difficult to recount the experiences of his youth. He spoke calmly for most of the session, but had trouble getting past the sheer emotional impact, especially when talking about being separated from his mother and two sisters and his liberation by American soldiers.
After his liberation, Farkas said, he had trouble transitioning to his new life. He spent three years seeking out a first cousin in Romania and attempting to leave the region. In 1948, he was put in jail for two years for trying to cross the Romanian border and escape. It took 11 years from his release from prison until he was finally granted a visa to go to Paris. After five months in France, in May 1962, he arrived in America.
“I came Friday, and already I went to work on Monday,” he said. “I couldn’t speak English, not a word. The only thing I knew in English was ‘OK.’ I had one dollar in my pocket. But I went to work and I remember I got 55 bucks in my first week.”
Farkas met his wife, Lilli, also a survivor of Auschwitz, in the United States.
Although Lilli as a rule does not speak in public about her experiences, she had planned to come to the school but was not feeling well that day. The couple’s daughter Elizabeth accompanied her father and told the students even she does not know the whole story of what her mother endured. She did tell them that Lilli and her twin brother were subjected to experiments conducted by Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, and that her brother died as a result.
The couple have now been married over 50 years. He has persevered through hardships throughout his life — including cancer and two hip replacements — and keeps his memories of his family close.
“My grandfather was 75 years old when they took us to the camps, and I said to myself that one day I want to reach 75,” he said.
Now, at 83, he said the next goal is to reach 103, the age of his great-grandfather when he died.
Students in the class said they appreciated Farkas’s coming to talk to them and were moved by his presentation.
Ajete Zenelaj, a student in Maller’s class, stressed the importance of education about the Holocaust. “The Holocaust is such a remarkable part of our world’s history, and more people recognize it as such,” she said. “We should educate ourselves on three things: our past, our present, and our future. Although the past cannot be changed, the present can, and once our present holds positivity, so will our future.”
Shemeka Tennant, another student, conveyed her gratitude toward Farkas and the impact stories like his can have. “Discrimination has always been a part of society and affects all races, religions, and ages,” she said. “As a non-Jew, stories about the Holocaust have made me feel even more appreciative of what I have.”