Bendahan speaks with a small group of students, with exhibits arrayed behind her
Iris Bendahan speaks with students at the Holocaust museum she created at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

South Bay woman with a museum and a mission: to teach the Holocaust

As a child, Iris Bendahan was confused when her grandmother would speak of relatives who were “not here because of Hitler.” It wasn’t until her sixth-grade class in Israel saw an exhibition on the Holocaust that she finally understood.

As an adult, the former religious school principal at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga has made it her mission to ensure Bay Area kids have no such confusion.

Bendahan, 57, personally created a Holocaust museum that has been on display each spring at Beth David since 2009. This year, it will be available for viewing until May 3. The museum is open during synagogue hours and there’s no admission charge.

The museum project helped make Bendahan one of the three winners this year of the Morris Weiss Award for Outstanding Holocaust Education, presented by the Holocaust Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services. The award was established by the family of the late Morris Weiss, a survivor and the founder of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

Bendahan at a podium on stage, smiling
Iris Bendahan receives her award April 23 during Yom Hashoah ceremonies at the JCC of San Francisco. (Photo/Trish Tunney)

Bendahan received her award April 23 during Yom Hashoah ceremonies at the JCC of San Francisco. Also honored were Frank Perez of San Benito High School in Hollister and Tara Asciutto of Oakland High School.

Bendahan was principal at Beth David for 11 years, until June 2016. Now she’s a program specialist for the synagogue.

“As principal, it allowed me a venue with which to propagate this idea that I had. Ever since I found out about the Holocaust in a kind of roundabout way, I’ve always felt this is something everyone should know about,” she said.

“There were some kids new to religious school who had never heard of the Holocaust and they’d ask, ‘Who was Hitler?’ ” she added. “Many kids know nothing.”

After touring the museum, the kids know a lot about the Holocaust, and the conditions in Germany that led up to it, as well as the post-Holocaust Jewish world, including the birth of the State of Israel and the importance of survivors’ stories.

The museum is filled with newspaper clippings, posters, books — ranging from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” — and artifacts, from a swastika-emblazoned Nazi armband to the 1934 Polish birth certificate of synagogue member Charlie Marr.

It has 14 stations, from the rise of Nazism and Kristallnacht to resistance, liberation and current efforts by Jews and others to fight hate and genocide in Syria and other global hot spots. Bendahan designed it to appeal to everyone from kindergartners to adults.

“Walking through our Holocaust museum is a powerful experience, carefully curated to address visitors of various ages in a way that evokes a connection to the history of the Jewish people and a sense of obligation to ensure history does not repeat itself,” said Rabbi Philip Ohriner of Beth David. “My impression is that youth, teens and adults alike are profoundly moved by a visit to the museum and leave with a much better understanding of why and how the Holocaust occurred.”

Bendahan gathered most of the material on her own, sometimes using Beth David funds and sometimes buying books, posters and artifacts with her own money. Synagogue members and others contributed additional items, and Beth David students’ artwork and poetry is featured in the museum, which has doubled in size since its debut eight years ago.

When the exhibits are not on display, most of the material is stored in boxes jammed into Bendahan’s synagogue office. The rest goes to her house.

Featured among the exhibits is a family tree showing the many branches of Bendahan’s family in Eastern Europe that were wiped out by the Holocaust. Though the museum focuses on the 6 million murdered Jews, it also points out that Gypsies and gays were among other groups targeted by the Nazis for extermination and that 60 million people overall were killed in World War II.

“The committee that chose the winners liked that Iris was thinking about how to make the Holocaust personal in the years ahead,” said Yedida Kanfer, coordinator of education services for the Holocaust Center. “Her exhibit also puts the Holocaust within the context of the study of patterns of genocide. She wants the students her exhibit reaches to be thinking about the relevance of the Holocaust during contemporary times.”

In addition to religious school students at Beth David, the museum over the years has hosted classes of students from nearby Lynbrook High School and a group from the Church of the Ascension, a Catholic church that shares a parking lot with Beth David.

Bendahan’s goal now is to turn the project into a mobile museum — perhaps in a van or a converted bus — that can visit synagogues, Jewish institutions and public facilities throughout the Bay Area. The city of Saratoga also is examining whether to dedicate a public space to the museum.

The Weiss award, which includes $1,000 toward Bendahan’s continuing education and $1,500 to support the project itself, could help pay for the costs of making it mobile. It also could get the word out about the project beyond the South Bay.

“That’s what my goal is now, to find a way for it to travel,” she said. “If I find the perfect place, I might do it there instead. But I don’t envision it being permanent in one place unless it becomes a much bigger project.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.