a small building with a star of david on top, black and white photo
The former headquarters of the Richmond Jewish Community Center (Photo/Courtesy Richmond Museum of History and Temple Beth Hillel Archives)

Richmond history museum tells the story of local Jews

In spotlighting a cast of characters who were as resourceful and tenacious as the city they helped shape, a new exhibit highlighting the history of Jews in Richmond aims to uncover little-known tales dating back to the Gold Rush era.

“Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa County” opens Sunday, Jan. 13 at the Richmond Museum of History. Featuring stories of miners, suffragettes, soldiers, Holocaust survivors, artists and business leaders, the exhibit runs through June 30.

A free opening reception, with local dignitaries and staff of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. on Jan. 13. Two weeks later, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, Jan. 27, the museum will conduct a day of learning to increase awareness about the Holocaust.

Many other events are on the schedule, including storytelling by grandmothers, a concert, a a workshop on finding your Jewish roots, and a food and wine tasting. One of the scheduled speakers is Sam Genirberg, a Richmond resident and Holocaust survivor. Another is historian Fred Rosenbaum, who will talk about his 2004 book “Taking Risks,” which details the life of a man who fought the Nazis and later founded Moo’s Ice Cream in Richmond.

The exhibit was inspired by History Unfolded, a project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in which local history buffs volunteered to document how the Holocaust was covered in local media. In Richmond, community members and museum staff searched the archives of two local newspapers for 1930s and 1940s coverage of the Nazis.

Because of its wartime shipbuilding efforts, and because the city at that time had two daily newspapers, Richmond was a good match for the History Unfolded project, said Melinda McCrary, director of city’s history museum, which is housed in a century-old Carnegie library.

“Richmond was very focused on getting ships out to fight the Nazis and winning the war,” said research team member Julie Freestone. But while “the papers were full of gigantic headlines about battles,” news reports of Nazi atrocities were harder to find. The team located 48 relevant articles (1933-1945) in the Richmond papers.

Another impetus for the exhibit, organizers said, was events such as the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Shortly thereafter, “Nazis wanted to march in Berkeley,” McCrary recalled. “I thought, ‘We’re not going to stand idle before this wave of overt anti-Semitism.’ The exhibit gave [the organizers] a vehicle to talk about Jews and Judaism in our community.”

“I did an oral history interview with a 100-year-old woman whose story, I felt, should not be lost,” said Freestone, a retired journalist, longtime Richmond resident and volunteer at the museum. Indeed, Clara-Rae Genser is featured in the exhibit; she left a promising civilian career to volunteer in the Women’s Army Corps.

The exhibit includes her and many “ordinary extraordinary people” McCrary said.

One is Frances Blumenfeld, an Austrian immigrant, inventor, entrepreneur and divorced shopkeeper whose dry goods shop was a presence on Macdonald Avenue in Richmond for more than 50 years. Another is Fred Hendeles, who escaped a Nazi labor camp, boarded a freighter for California as a stowaway and ended up working in the shipbuilding yards.

The Jewish community in Richmond and surrounding cities has always been on the small side, said Rabbi Dean Kertesz of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, who has been working with the museum on this exhibit for more than a year.

“Unlike San Francisco or Berkeley, everything Jewish-wise in West Contra Costa County is small, built by hand by a small group of people,” said Kertesz, who was born and raised in Richmond.

“We go about our day-to-day [lives], taking our stories for granted, not thinking that we’re making history. So it’s gratifying when an organization like the history museum reflects on them and imbues them with significance.”

“Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa County.” Jan. 13 to June 30 at Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave. Free. Programming includes reception (Jan. 13), Holocaust day of learning (Jan. 27), concert (Feb. 10), grandmas reading stories (Feb. 18), genealogy (March 10), historian Fred Rosenbaum (April 28), Jewish arts in Richmond (May 5) and wine-tasting, food and talk on Jewish chefs of Bay Area (June 23). For other events and details, call (510) 235-7387 or visit richmondmuseum.org.

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.