Left: Stained glass experts removed 35 panels of stained glass panels from Congregation B'nai Emunah's former building in San Francisco, Jan. 2024. (Photo/Congregation Am Tikvah); Right: Our 1977 story on the burning of a Nazi bookstore. (Photo/Peggy Isaak)
Left: Stained glass experts removed 35 panels of stained glass panels from Congregation B'nai Emunah's former building in San Francisco, Jan. 2024. (Photo/Congregation Am Tikvah); Right: Our 1977 story on the burning of a Nazi bookstore. (Photo/Peggy Isaak)

S.F. synagogue’s stained-glass windows shine light on ugly Nazi incident

Thirty-five stained-glass panes from Congregation B’nai Emunah’s former building were removed in mid-January in San Francisco.

In 2020, B’nai Emunah merged with Congregation Beth Israel Judea to form the new Congregation Am Tikvah. Last spring, B’nai Emunah officially bade farewell and then deconsecrated its home for decades at 3595 Taraval St. in the Outer Sunset.

The windows sit in crates now, where they’ll stay until they are installed at some future date. But the story of the windows is about more than the ebb and flow of a congregation’s life. They are also connected with an incident that rattled San Francisco in the late 1970s and made national headlines.

One spring day in 1977, Jews were shocked to see swastikas in the window of a modest storefront on Taraval Street — across from B’nai Emunah, a Conservative shul founded by “Shanghailanders,” European Jews who escaped to Shanghai, China, during World War II. After the war, many of them settled in San Francisco.

The Rudolf Hess Bookstore, a Nazi propaganda outlet, had opened in a space rented, in terrible irony, from a Holocaust survivor unaware of the occupant’s plans. A neo-Nazi group called the National Socialist White Workers Party opened what it called the “first San Francisco White America bookstore” — complete with a swastika sign in the shop and named for the high-level Nazi German politician.

It drew the attention of local Jews, among them the Weiss family: Tauba and Morris, both Holocaust survivors, and their son Allen.

Tauba, a survivor of Auschwitz, decided to challenge the store.

“I knocked at the door. He didn’t open,” Tauba said in a video from the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center. “I knocked again.”

When someone did finally open the door, Weiss confronted him about the mass murders in the Holocaust.

“He said, ‘It’s not enough I killed. I’m going to kill all the Jews,’” she recounted. (It wasn’t her first time confronting Nazis, by the way. In a profile of her from 1997 written by Leslie Katz, we carried this tidbit: “In the ’60s, when American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell came to San Francisco for a demonstration, she pulled him out of his truck and slammed him to the street.”)

The next night, which happened to be the first night of Passover, Tauba acknowledged that she threw a rock through the window of the Nazi bookstore. “Then my husband kicked the window,” she said.

The Weisses weren’t the only ones who were angry, and the situation escalated.

We broke into it. We tore it up.

“We broke into it. We tore it up,” recalled Allen Weiss, who was 24 at the time.

Chaos ensued.

“The large window in front of the bookstore’s swastika sign had been broken several nights running, but the disturbances peaked last Friday night when a group of about 50 demonstrators, according to police reports, attacked the storefront with crowbars and sledgehammers,” then assistant editor Phil Bronstein wrote in these pages. “After local Nazi leader Alan Vincent fled the shop, demonstrators entered and ripped apart bookshelves containing Nazi literature and tore up pictures of Hitler and other Nazi paraphernalia.”

The incident even made it into the New York Times:

“A Nazi bookstore was demolished last night by about 50 persons swinging tire irons and axes,” the paper wrote. “Two men were arrested, Morris Weiss, 55 years old, a survivor of Auschwitz who lost his entire family in the death camp, and his son Allen, 24. They were charged with assault and malicious mischief.”

In Tauba’s telling, when Allen was arrested she was immediately overwhelmed by memories of the camps. Her husband, in response, pulled the bookstore manager and local Nazi leader Vincent out of the police car, where he’d been placed for protection, and began hitting him — leading to Morris’ arrest.

“It was sad and traumatic enough for the residents of Taraval Street when the Nazi store opened and swastika-banded occupants made their appearance,” wrote Geoffrey Fisher, managing editor of this paper at the time. “It was shocking and traumatic for the members of the B’nai Emunah Synagogue, across the street from that store. It was an unfortunate display of uncontrolled emotion that led to the smashing and burning of the Nazi store.”

Fisher was responding, with anger, to how the story had been reported in local media and how that gave antisemites a chance to spout their hatred. Fisher pulled some select quotes from one of the Nazis interviewed by the San Francisco Examiner. “They (the Jews) accuse us of burning books and terrorizing people. I think everybody got a pretty good picture of who is doing the terrorizing and the book burning. … We forced them (the Jews) out into the open. … Terror and violence is their modus operandi.”

The destruction of the bookstore wasn’t the end of the story. There was retaliation.

“Shortly after midnight, five large stained glass windows at B’nai Emunah, dedicated in the memory of six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, were broken by rocks or bottles causing an estimated $2,000 worth of damages,” Bronstein wrote. “The attackers had climbed a 10-foot steel fence to get at the windows and were apparently acting in retaliation for the book store incident. Shortly after police responded to the calls of neighbors who had heard the glass breaking, another group of mostly young people entered the bookstore and lit the remaining Nazi literature on fire, charring the store’s walls.”

Those stained-glass windows depicting Jerusalem were created by artists Bruce Velick and Dave Bible and had been installed just one year earlier in the congregation’s then-new home. (A second set was commissioned and dedicated in 1980.)

The windows themselves were repaired, but the damage was not forgotten.

The breaking of the stained-glass windows, with its evocations of Kristallnacht, shocked B’nai Emunah and the rest of the Jewish community. It drew calls for legislation at the city level from Board of Supervisors members Quentin Kopp and Dianne Feinstein, but it also created a desire within the Jewish community to come together.

Community leaders like Naomi Lauter and Earl Raab called for a meeting with Holocaust survivors — and got an earful.

“‘Where have you been? We’ve been here for 30 years and no one has come near us!’” Lauter recalled them saying, as seen in the JFCS Holocaust Center video. “The conversation was very rough.”

The outcome was a determination to memorialize the Holocaust, work with survivors and educate non-Jews about what had happened to those who were murdered — and those who survived. It led eventually to the creation of San Francisco’s Holocaust memorial and the JFCS Holocaust Center, which to this day is illuminating the horror of the war years to teachers and students across the state.

Today the Taraval building is no longer a synagogue, and the site of the former Nazi bookstore is a craft cocktail bar. The stained glass windows will find a new home in some form at Brotherhood Way with Am Tikvah. But the memory of the 1977 confrontation is searing.

“That the opening of such a store at this location would inevitably lead to a confrontation of some type in the emotionally-charged atmosphere as waving the Nazi banner before the scarred memories of concentration camp survivors should have been expected and anticipated,” according to a letter writer at the time, Harry Gluckman of San Francisco.

Rabbi Ted Alexander, who led B’nai Emunah at the time and was himself a Shanghailander, offered words that resonate decades later.

“People should not be allowed to peddle hatred, no matter who they are,” he said in 1977. “We have come out of this incident more committed as Jews.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.