Lonny Darwin, co-founder of NorCal Holocaust Center, dies at 100

To honor her family and the millions murdered in the Holocaust, Leonie Darwin came up a great idea: collect and preserve the Yizkor books — which included precious historical details — from Europe’s vanished Jewish communities.

That tireless work, along with her pioneering role in the creation of the Holocaust Center of Northern California in 1977, gave Darwin prominence in the Bay Area Jewish community. Known to all as Lonny, Darwin died Jan. 11 in her San Francisco home. She was 100.

“She was a grand presence,” said Leslie Kane, who for many years served as director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California. “You were very aware of her when she walked into a room. What she said was important and had meaning.”

Lonny Darwin

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Darwin fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, coming to the Bay Area with her first husband, George Leonard. Not all of her family escaped; her mother died in Auschwitz.

Widowed young, she later married attorney Jay Darwin, with whom she lived until his death in 1982. She worked in the import business and had no children.

Always elegantly dressed, Darwin loved the ballet and opera, devoting much of her energy to promoting the Merola Opera Program, which trains promising young singers. In the Jewish community, she made a profound impact as a founding co-president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California; its programs and collections were incorporated into the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center in 2010.

“She had been there from the very beginning when the center was founded in the ’70s,” Kane said, “and as far as I know she was continuously on the board until well into her 90s. She was incredibly ‘with it.’ ”

After losing her second husband, Darwin pressed on with her activism and avocations. In her 70s, she moved to Israel for several years. There she became devoted to Hebrew University, serving on its board. Upon her return to the Bay Area, Friends of the Hebrew University became another passion of hers.

“Before the Israel Center was created here, she would hand-produce a quarterly list of [Israeli] cultural programming, both in Israel and what was coming to the United States,” remembered Paul Cohen, a friend and colleague. “She had a commitment to helping folks in the Bay Area appreciate the rich cultural life of Israel.”

Because of her wide travels and her devotion to Holocaust memorial, Darwin scoured Europe and Israel for Yizkor books, publications compiled to remember a local Jewish community’s dead and often containing histories of those communities. Her extensive collection was donated to the Holocaust Center.

For more than 20 years, Darwin lived in one unit of a San Francisco duplex she shared with her old friend, Holocaust survivor Gerald Rosenstein. He greatly admired Darwin’s charm, sophistication and drive.

While visiting her in Jerusalem, he tagged along after Darwin got a lead on a Yizkor book that was available for sale through a rabbi in the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

“She made me drive her there,” he said. “Elegantly attired in tight pants, she stepped out of a brand new Mercedes, and barely escaping being stoned by the young men on the street. We did reach the rabbi, who was gracious enough to stall Shabbat by a few minutes to provide a valuable book at great cost.”

Though slowed by age, Darwin never retired. Just three months ago, she threw herself a party marking her 100th birthday.

“Her impact was felt by many,” Rosenstein said. “Her legacy will not only be her charitable bequests, but also her wonderful memory. She left all of us smiling.”

Leonie Darwin is survived by her sister, Vera Carpeneti. Donations may be made to the Merola Opera Program or Jewish Family and Children’s Services/Holocaust Center of Northern California.

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.