S.F. Shoah survivor, activist Rachela Gelbart dies at 77

John Rothmann remembers the first time he met Rachela Gelbart. She was serving food at her daughter Ruth's Sweet 16 party, and he noticed the blue number on her arm.

But the immediate past co-president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California also recalled a sweeter memory. Gelbart often made marble cake for the center's board meetings because she knew it was Rothmann's favorite.

Naomi Lauter remembers that when she set out to organize a community of Holocaust survivors for the Jewish Community Relations Council in the 1970s, among the first to come forward were Rachela and Emanuel Gelbart.

"She was one of the first people who became involved with our efforts to remember the Holocaust for the whole Jewish community," said Lauter, the retired longtime regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "She was one of the two or three life forces."

Gelbart, who was a founding member of the local Holocaust Library, died in San Francisco July 18 after a long illness. She was 77. The library is now part of the Holocaust Center in San Francisco.

Born Rachela Lisner in Lask, Poland, in 1922, she was the daughter of an animal feed dealer. Her family was prominent in Lask's Jewish community .

Gelbart went from the Lask Ghetto to the Lodz Ghetto, where she worked as a nurse in the community's hospital. She was then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In May 1945, she was liberated from Grossrosen and made her way back to Lask. Her family had promised one another that if they were to survive, they would meet there. Out of her parents, three sisters and one brother, she and her sister Toba were the only ones to find each other.

One other survivor who made his way back to Lask was Emanuel Gelbart. He and Rachela had been childhood friends, but she had heard that he perished. When she first saw him, she fainted. They married in December 1945.

The Gelbarts immigrated first to the Sonoma County town of Cotati and were chicken farmers. They then moved to San Francisco, ran a laundromat, then a grocery store and next a deli near Macy's. They had two daughters, Ruth and Rae.

Both Gelbarts were extremely involved in Holocaust remembrance in the Bay Area.

William J. Lowenberg, immediate past vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a local Jewish activist and survivor, said Rachela Gelbart's tireless work on behalf of the Holocaust Center made her its "backbone." He also considered her "a great, great friend of mine."

"She was our most committed and involved member of that board," Lowenberg said. "She was a doer. To sit on the board is one thing; she was physically involved in it all."

Emanuel Gelbart died in 1992. "When her husband died, it was incredibly difficult for her," said Lauter. "He was a real center of the whole survivor community." Rachela continued to be active, planning San Francisco's Yom HaShoah observance, and remaining on the board of the Holocaust Center.

"She was an incredible presence." said Lauter.

Ruth Gelbart described her mother as "giving and caring," and said that she instilled her daughters with the importance of tzedakah.

She often cooked chicken soup for the sick, and brought cookies and cakes to the San Francisco Jewish Home, Ruth Gelbart said, adding that her mother never wanted credit for anything she did.

She lived with "passion and purpose," she said, noting that her mother believed she survived for a reason. That reason, her daughter said, "was to remind the world what Hitler did."

In her later years, Gelbart spoke often to schoolchildren about her experiences, enduring the pain of reliving it because she so strongly believed in the necessity to pass on the legacy.

"We have thousands of letters from students who never knew what World War II was about; they were absolutely touched by her," said Ruth.

"Rachela had an enormous heart and an indomitable spirit," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC. "She was motivated by a passionate concern that the next generation take over the responsibility of keeping alive the memory and lessons of the Holocaust and a deep love of the Jewish community that became her new home. We will all miss her greatly."

She is survived by her daughters, Ruth and Rae, the vice president and immediate past secretary of the Holocaust Center respectively; her sister, Toba Gimpel; sister-in-law Rachel Klinger; and two granddaughters, Andrea and Shelly Mainzer.

Contributions may be sent to the Holocaust Center, 639 14th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94118.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."