Survivors thank liberators with dramatic billboards

When an orange Muni car pulls away from Montgomery station, a black-and-white billboard faces San Franciscans waiting for the next train. The poster jolts commuters out of their lethargy with a snapshot of the Holocaust.

A survivor, his jagged cheekbone creating a thick shadow on his face, is held up by a soldier in uniform. The poster reads "We Remember" in Hebrew and English and lists a number of military units responsible for liberating the concentration camps 50 years ago.

"It seems important now to really indicate that this is kind of an unfinished item for the survivors, never having been able to meet their liberators and say thank you. It was time to do a thing like that," says Louis de Groot, 66, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, which sponsored 15 of the billboards in Bay Area Muni and BART stations.

In mid-May, the posters first went up in a number of stations, including Concord, Rockridge in Oakland and Embarcadero in San Francisco.

This Friday, however, the billboards are scheduled to come down. According to Barbara Goodman, executive director of the Holocaust Center, if the space isn't sold to another vendor, the posters will remain where they are. She hopes fate keeps the public signs of remembrance and gratitude displayed.

"We've never done anything like this before," says Goodman.

Although 125 liberators were honored at a ceremony on Yom HaShoah this year, de Groot worries that there are many more soldiers who haven't been acknowledged. In fact, although he has visited Canada, he has never met any soldiers from the Canadian outfit that liberated him as a teenager in northern Holland, where he was hiding with a family in a private home.

So far, the Holocaust Center has received several calls from former members of the U.S. Armed Forces to say they appreciated the posters, according to Goodman.

"Some [liberators] even called to say `the survivors shouldn't be thanking us, we should be thanking them for liberating us from our silence.' They've never been able to talk about what they saw," says Goodman.

When de Groot heard the first billboard had gone up, he jumped on a BART train right away from his home in Berkeley to see the image plastered on the side of the wall in the Embarcadero station. "I thought it was terrific," he recalls, especially the photograph, which the Holocaust Center got from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the Washington museum and the Holocaust Center, many other groups and individuals helped to bring this vision from the minds of local survivors to travel tunnels around the Bay Area.

Financing came from a grant from the Holocaust Memorial Education Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. The billboard layout was designed by Doniphan Blair of A-Media Advertising and Design Studio in Oakland. Blair and his partner at the design firm are both children of Holocaust survivors.