Holocaust Center preparing for the post-survivor era

Sadly, within a few years, not many Holocaust survivors will be here.

That's why the Holocaust Center of Northern California is looking to take Holocaust education into the post-survivor era.

"This is not just about the past," says the center's president-elect, Steven Sloan. "The inevitable loss of survivors is something we know is coming, and we're planning for it."

Adds board member and outgoing President Mark Schickman: "We're figuring out how the lessons of the Holocaust can be maintained as we get more distant from the event."

In some ways, that challenge is not as daunting for the San Francisco center as might first appear.

Art, music, literature and the center's own collection of Holocaust-related documents and artifacts will continue to be used as teaching tools long after the last survivor is gone.

"Survivor testimony is not the only thing you use to teach tolerance and build bridges," says Executive Director Leslie Kane, who spearheads the center's multiple outreach efforts. "It's about using other available tools."

Though the center currently partners with survivors through its speakers bureau, Kane says the lessons of the Holocaust can be conveyed to students, even without having a survivor recounting his or her tale.

"We have in our archives pictures of kids at summer camp, at school, doing athletic activities," she says. "Showing what life was like for European Jews before the Holocaust has great impact."

Other effective tools include artwork and diaries kept by Jewish youth. "Anne Frank wasn't the only one keeping a diary," she says.

The Holocaust Center emerged out of a memorable incident that echoed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

In April 1977, a neo-Nazi organization opened a racist and anti-Semitic bookstore in San Francisco.As word spread, a group of 50 survivors decided to fight back, attacking the store with hatchets and crowbars, destroying its inventory and driving out the neo-Nazis.

The story became national news and imparted a sense of empowerment to the survivors. They, along with other local agencies, went on to found an institution for Holocaust-related activities, education and documentation.

Initially dubbed the Holocaust Library and Research Center, in 1986 it was renamed the Holocaust Center of Northern California, the nation's first such institution.

The center's many educational programs, 15,000-volume reference library and archive of Holocaust-era photos, documents and artifacts solidified a sterling worldwide reputation during the last 24 years.

The center does not provide social services to survivors. That task has fallen to agencies like Jewish Family and Children's Services, with its slate of senior-aid programs and Café by the Bay, a weekly gathering of local survivors.

Housed in the basement of the Bureau of Jewish Education, the center has a $225,000 annual budget, described by Schickman as "lean and mean." It is funded in part by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, as well as grants and donations from the public.

Both Schickman and Sloan are children of survivors. "I feel a responsibility to the 6 million," says Sloan, "to make sure we honor them appropriately and that we never forget."

For Kane, there are other motivations. "Being Jewish informs my whole identity, " she says, "and I always wanted to make a contribution to the Jewish community. This is the way that I do it."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.