Holocaust survivors tell their stories

That’s Erwin Farkas, above, in the front row on the far right. He’s surrounded by his family sometime in 1939 outside their home in a Romanian village. Erwin’s older brother Zoltan is in the front row on the far left. Photo courtesy Erwin Farkas.

Some younger newsroom colleagues, (and that’s  pretty much everyone these days) asked what my next Minnesota Sounds and Voices story is about.   When I told them it was the account of Holocaust survivor Erwin Farkas, I expected them to nod politely and turn back to their work.

The Holocaust is, after all, a rather well documented tragedy in human history.

The Farkas family, pictured above, was caught up in the events of World War II when Erwin was a teenager.

When I mentioned this story to my colleagues, I found it interesting that several of them wanted to know more –  which told me two things. There’s still plenty of interest in the Holocaust and I’ve probably overestimated how much people know, especially younger people, about the Holocaust.

You can hear Erwin’s account in my Minnesota Sounds and Voices story performed Wednesday evening, April 24th, as part of All Things Considered, and you can see many more photos and learn more at mprnews.org.

Erwin is an 83-year-old Roseville resident who says he’s alive today because while standing in line at a German concentration camp in 1944 he lied about his age. He said he was 16 instead of 15 which meant he was assigned to slave labor rather than sent to the gas chamber.

What happened before and after to Farkas and his family is every bit as riveting as that fateful moment.  Only Erwin and his brother Zoltan survived.  All the rest were killed.

His survival account is part of a new play “We Could Talk, We Could Recall, We Could Tell Stories” written by St. Paul resident Sharon DeMark and performed Wednesday evening, April 24th,  at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul with additional performances this weekend.

Erwin landed in Minnesota to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he received his PhD in psychology which you might assume could help him understand what happened – how could the people of an otherwise advanced, civilized culture such as Germany design, build and carry out mass murder on the scale of the Holocaust?

However Erwin says the Holocaust is not explainable by any normal psychological definition.

He can only offer what others have said was the mindset of the Nazis toward Jews and others they killed; “The basic thing is you don’t think of these people as people, you don’t think of them as human, they’re kind of dehumanized.”

Erwin points out not everyone behaved that way.  He points to Germans and others in every country occupied by the German military who risked their lives and that of their family by become resisters and rescuers.  After liberation Erwin, his brother and other teens who survived stayed at a German cloister where nuns nursed them back to health.  The cloister became a school and that’s how one of the teachers, Anna Landauer, learned the history and helped bring the photos and the survival accounts to a wider audience.