Lani Silver, founded Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project

Lani Silver faced death with the same attitude she practiced in her everyday life.

When Silver learned last September that she had a brain tumor and there was no way she could beat it, she didn’t want to wallow in sadness.

“Instead, she decided to think about ‘joy therapy,’” said her sister Lynne Jacobs. “Lani coined the phrase. To her, it meant trying to do something wonderful every day.”


Lani Silver

Silver — a lifelong San Franciscan, passionate activist and founder of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project — died Jan. 28 in her San Francisco home. She was 60.


Her interest in the Holocaust began during a 1981 visit to Israel, when she attended an international conference for survivors.

“She took her mini–tape recorder and sat in the hotel lobby and recorded and recorded, and that’s when she knew that was her calling,” Jacobs said.

Soon after, Silver founded the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, serving as its executive director until 1997. In her 16 years with the project, Silver coordinated the gathering of 1,700 interviews with 1,400 Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

“She was always cheerful, even though she was deeply immersed in stories of pain,” said Leslie Kane, director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

In 1994, Silver became Steven Spielberg’s first consultant for his Holocaust oral history project, the Shoah Foundation for Visual History. Silver trained 500 interviewers for the Shoah Foundation, which has since collected 52,000 testimonies.

While working on the Holocaust Oral History Project, Silver uncovered the story of Chiune Sugihara, the consul from Japan who saved thousands of Jews during World War II. Sugihara was stationed in Lithuania during the war and issued visas that allowed Jews to travel to Japan. He died virtually unknown in his native country.

Silver revived and promoted Sugihara’s story, and in 2002 a memorial was built to him in Tokyo. Silver even co-wrote an opera about his heroic actions.

Her passion for equality and justice surfaced again in 2000, when she joined the staff of the Texas-based Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, as director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project (named for the black man killed by three white supremacists in Texas in 1998).

The project asks people to describe the impact of racism on their lives; Silver coordinated 2,500 interviews, while also lecturing at schools and religious and community organizations.

“If she heard or saw something racist in, say, a restaurant, my sister was the one to stand up and say, ‘That’s not acceptable,’” Jacobs recalled.

More recently, Silver turned her interviewing skills toward journalistic pursuits with the Chauncey Bailey Project, a collective of news media outlets investigating the 2007 murder of Oakland Tribune reporter Chauncey Bailey.

The editor of the project, Robert Rosenthal, said Silver was “relentless but gentle” in her quest for the truth.

“She had a great gift as an interviewer, in that people really trusted her,” Rosenthal said. “She could really connect to their grief, their sorrow, their loss or their anger. She had tremendous empathy and love for other people.”

Silver received many awards, including KQED’s local hero recognition during Women’s History Month  in 2003, and the prestigious Ally Award in 2004 from the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston.

In the summer of 2006, Silver and her songwriting teacher, Bill Spooner, the founder of the Tubes, released three CDs of music about social injustice.

“Her music is hysterical, and she had an incredible sense of humor,” Jacobs said. “She believed laughter was the way people lived longer.”

Silver also created political art in her spare time: Her posters were liberal and feminist, and they focused on issues of racism, sexism, violence and the Holocaust. She also was a co-founder of the women’s studies program at San Francisco State University and held master’s degrees in government and political science.

Silver was born in San Francisco and attended Lowell High School. She was a typical teenager, keen on “miniskirts and cute earrings,” her sister said, until a pivotal visit to South Africa at the age of 19.

She went to Soweto, a black township in Johannesburg, and was mortified by the poverty there, Jacobs recalled. From that moment on, she began to dedicate her life to activism.

“Since then, she has not stopped working for civil rights and fighting anti-Semitism and racism,” Jacobs added. “She did not take one day of a break.”

Silver is survived by sisters Lynne Jacobs and Lori Silver of San Francisco. A memorial service was held Feb. 1 at Congregation Beth Israel–Judea. Donations can be sent to Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Seniors at Home and Palliative Care programs, 2150 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.