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Lani Silver dies: Holocaust Oral History founder

Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle
Published 4:00 am, Saturday, January 31, 2009
  • THIS IS A HANDOUT IMAGE. PLEASE VERIFY RIGHTS. TWOCENTSLSILV-C-14AUG02-IN-HO Lani Silver of San Francisco. Two Cents columnist. Photo: Handout, The Chronicle
    THIS IS A HANDOUT IMAGE. PLEASE VERIFY RIGHTS. TWOCENTSLSILV-C-14AUG02-IN-HO Lani Silver of San Francisco. Two Cents columnist. Photo: Handout, The Chronicle


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Lani Silver, the founder the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project that gathered 1,700 interviews of Holocaust survivors and inspired Steven Spielberg to create his similar Shoah Foundation, died of brain cancer at her sister's San Francisco home Wednesday. She was 60.

Ms. Silver, then a professor of political science and women's studies at San Francisco State University, began recording survivors' memories in 1981 after attending the first world gathering of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem.

In 1985, she told The Chronicle the recordings were "not just for the world, they are also for the survivors. Sometimes they haven't even told their children. Many times the children sit in when they do finally tell their stories to us. Soon, everybody is crying, including me."

Ms. Silver grew her one-woman mission into a large team of interviewers, transcribers, photographers and others, and she served as the project's executive director until 1997.

She worked as a consultant to Spielberg when he founded his better-known Holocaust oral history project, the Shoah Foundation, in 1994. She trained 500 interviewers for Spielberg, whose foundation has since collected tens of thousands of interviews.

In the course of her work, Ms. Silver researched and promoted the story of Chiune Sugihara, the consul general from Japan who was stationed in Lithuania during World War II and saved thousands of Jews by hand-writing visas allowing them to travel to Japan. He was later dismissed and died virtually unknown in Japan.

Ms. Silver helped revive and promote his story; a memorial was built to him in Tokyo in 2002, and he has become known as "the Japanese Schindler." Ms. Silver helped organize hundreds of workshops, exhibits and programs around the world about his work and co-wrote an opera about the story.

In 2000, Ms. Silver became project director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project, founded by the family of Byrd, a father of three in Jasper, Texas. In 1998 he was chained to a pickup truck by three white supremacists and dragged to his death. Ms. Silver coordinated 2,500 interviews about racism and its impact on the lives of everyday Americans.

Born in Lynn, Mass., to an attorney father and homemaker mother, Ms. Silver was just 2 months old when her family moved to San Francisco.

"She always had questions," said her sister, Lynne Jacobs of San Francisco. "She was the kid at the dinner table who always had something to say."

After graduating from Lowell High School, Ms. Silver traveled with friends to South Africa when she was 19. Jacobs said visiting Soweto changed her sister's life.

"From that moment, she was an activist," Jacobs said."

Jacobs said Ms. Silver frequently took her nieces and nephews to political protests and even attended an Obama rally and No on Prop. 8 protests while she was dying.

Ms. Silver earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of San Francisco in 1970 and a master's degree in government from San Francisco State University in 1972. She obtained a second master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 2005.

She worked as a freelance writer and producer for more than 30 years. Her final stories were published on her blog to keep friends and family posted about her illness. "Hope to be in the hospital a couple more days and will try to stay in a place of gratitude and no complaining and finding the beauty in each day, even in these terrifying hallways," she wrote after brain surgery in September.

Besides Jacobs, she is also survived by another sister, Lori Silver of Carmel.

A funeral will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way in San Francisco. Attendees are asked to wear bright colors.

Donations may be sent to Jewish Family and Children's Services, 2150 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115.