Edith Coliver, international and S.F. activist, dies at 79

If anyone could be considered a "woman of the world," it was Edith Simon Coliver. Fluent in German, French and Spanish, and conversant in Tagalog, Portuguese and Mandarin, the San Francisco resident had also lived in Manila and Taipei.

Coliver died on Dec. 27 of pancreatic cancer. She was 79.

"Edith was one of the most gifted minds in both Jewish life and in the very demanding world of international affairs," said Ernest Weiner, director of the Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee. A friend of Coliver's for nearly 40 years, Weiner added, "From an early age, her intellect ranged across a remarkable spectrum that tried to put in place consequential issues and make them productive in both her professional and communal lives."

Born Edith Simon in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1922, Coliver left for London with her family in 1936 after being denied an academic award because she was Jewish. Two years later, she and her immediate family moved to the United States, settling in San Francisco.

She graduated from George Washington High School and received her bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, summa cum laude, studying international relations and languages. She joined the U.S. Office of War Information and, in 1945, worked as a translator at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. In September 1945, she returned to her native Germany to work as an interpreter and research analyst at the Nuremberg trials.

As a 23-year-old, Coliver translated the pretrial testimony of high-ranking Nazi officer Hermann Goering for American interrogators.

"He was not particularly thrilled to see a woman, a Jewish woman, as his interpreter," she told the Bulletin in 1995.

Coliver surprised herself by later asking Goering to sign a program. "Then, I was ashamed of myself," she told the Bulletin. "Why would I be getting an autograph from Nuremberg?" So she asked her boss to sign as well. He did, next to Goering's signature, and wrote "To Edith Simon, who helped hang the same."

Daughter Sandra Coliver of San Francisco said that her mother "developed a sense of outrage over injustice, and a passion for human rights" as a result of her experience at Nuremberg.

A lawyer, Sandra Coliver lived in Bosnia for several years after the 1990s war ended, pursuing those who had committed war crimes.

"It was a chance to get involved in history in the making," she said, just as her mother did.

After Edith Coliver's stint as an interpreter was over, she worked with Jewish refugees in a camp taken over by the U.S. Army. She took personal responsibility for an 80-year-old former Theresienstadt inmate who was the mother of a fellow refugee she knew in San Francisco.

The daughter, Lottie Moser, had written to Coliver that she was coming to get her mother, but Coliver feared the former inmate might die before her daughter could get to her. Knowing that the camp was in the European war zone, Coliver said she'd take care of it, and got the elderly woman on a boat to America.

"It was no big deal," she said in a 1991 Bulletin interview. "I just got myself a pass and went there."

Moser saw it differently. "She came like an angel from heaven," she said then, "taking my mother under her wing, bringing with her bags of food and smiles and hope."

She married Norman Coliver in 1947. The couple, who had two daughters, divorced in 1978.

In 1954, after three years with the Stanford Research Institute and a position as propaganda analyst with Radio Free Asia, Coliver worked for the Asia Foundation, a private, grant-making organization that administers social, political and economic development programs.

In 1979, she moved to Manila, where she headed the foundation's Philippines office. In 1988, she moved to Taipei, where she directed the foundation's Taiwan office until her retirement in 1992.

"She was one of the most instantly adaptable people I know," said Weiner. "She was able to pick up languages so rapidly that she could engage people with exactly the right natural accents and more importantly, the idioms."

She was the first woman to serve as a field office director for the Asia Foundation, and the first woman to serve as vice president of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Her role as "first woman" also extended to the Jewish world. She was the first to chair the Bay Area chapter of the AJCommittee, and later, to serve as its national vice president. AJCommittee awarded her with its Distinguished Service Award in 1993.

Deborah Kaufman, founder of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, knew Coliver her entire life.

"She was always this kind of wonderful, active, vital person involved in so many causes," said Kaufman. "She was a role model for a younger generation of activist women."

Describing her as "a force," who was "very forthright with a wry sense of humor," Kaufman said Coliver had a wide variety of friends.

"She was friends with a lot of people of different ages and backgrounds and very open in that way."

According to Weiner, "What leavened her intensity — which was, at times, formidable — was a delicious sense of humor, which, on occasion, could throw lances at the pompous and the woefully ignorant."

Daughter Susan Coliver, a San Francisco architect who specializes in low-income housing, was also greatly influenced by her mother. "Since she had such broad interests, we had to be willing to share her," she said. Yet, her mother was always home Friday night to light the Shabbat candles, although she might have gone out afterward.

"She was able to give of herself fully and still have reserve for us at home," she said.

Though Edith Coliver's professional career was focused mainly on Asia, her communal work concentrated more on the Middle East. She was a founding member of the Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East, and served on both the national and international boards of the New Israel Fund.

She served on the boards of the American Friends of Hebrew University, American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, International House of U.C. Berkeley and the Institute for International Education.

She held leadership positions with the Commonwealth Club of California, National Council of Community Services to Foreign Visitors, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, San Francisco Committee on Foreign Relations, League of Women Voters and Golden Gate Democratic Club.

In 1995, she observed elections in Benin, Africa, on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, and just last year she visited Antarctica.

Coliver is survived by her two daughters; her former husband, Norman Coliver of San Francisco; and her brothers, Harold Simon of San Diego and Ernest Simon of Phoenix.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Jan. 20, at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F.

Contributions can be made to the New Israel Fund, 693 Sutter St., No. 500, S.F., CA 94102; International House, 2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley, CA 94720; or the Jewish Music Festival, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, CA 94709.

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."