Lani Silver

Teacher, Oral Historian, Activist
1948 – 2009
by Bruce Bruggman

Lani Silver in 2008.

Courtesy of Lynne Jacobs.

Most of us have a standard job or freelance career. Silver's "job" was working as a passionate activist with a breathtaking list of passionate and important causes. She even listed her occupation on Facebook as an activist. Her range was from the political battles of the day (women's issues, liberal politics and campaigns, gay rights and gay marriage, Media Alliance and Jeff Perlman, Obama, Jeff Adachi) to the unconventional (founding the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History project and later a racism project growing out of the case of James Byrd Jr., who in l998 was chained to a truck by three white supremacists and dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.) …

Two of Silver's latest and last passions were the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (where she was an ever passionate board member) and the Chauncey Bailey Investigative Project (where she was a founding member and ever passionate participant). The Chauncey project was a media coalition that has had much success and fame in investigating the 2007 murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey while investigating the finances of Your Black Muslim Bakery.

I first remember her when she came into the Guardian in the fall of 1977 with a batch of radio interviews she had done of 34 prominent women attending the National Women's Conference 1977 in Houston. It was a classic Silver project. This was an important moment in the women's movement. Silver was there with her tape recorder as a reporter for National Public Radio. She knew how to get the good political quotes from the right women in exclusive taped interviews (Billy Jean King, Flo Kennedy, Kate Millet, Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Midge Costanza, Betty Friedan). And she had the right lead for the story: "Bella Abzug simply said: 'Houston is going to change the lives of women in this country.'"

And Silver reported in delicious detail the horror stories of bad food, not enough rooms, terrible service, women having to wait five hours in line to register at the Hyatt Regency, delegates with confirmed reservations being bumped, no food in downtown Houston. "For five days," she wrote, "most people I know survived on cotton candy, popcorn or hot dogs." Silver did much of her interviewing in elevators.

Silver got right to the political point, reporting wryly that "One official explanation was that the oilman convention was in town and its delegates decided to extend their conference. Could it be, a lot of us asked ourselves, that the conservative oilmen intentionally screwed up the working conference? I like conspiracy theories." We were happy to play up her interviews on the front page under the head, "WOMEN IN HOUSTON SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES." The subhead said, "Betty Friedan on her initial doubts, Gail Sheehy on the 'pro family' rally, Jean Stapleton on Edith Bunker."

Silver was born March 28, 1948, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two months old.

She liked to tell me that she started out in life as conservative but that she did a full political turn when she traveled to South Africa at l9 and observed first hand the awful effect of apartheid. When she returned to San Francisco, she became active in the Jewish community and with liberal and social justice causes and campaigns.

In 198l, when Silver was a professor of political science and women's studies at San Francisco State University, she visited Jerusalem to attend a conference of Holocaust survivors. She interviewed 50 survivors and found that none of them ever had their histories recorded. She returned to San Francisco, quite excited, and founded what became the centerpiece of her activist career, the Holocaust Oral History Project. It was slow going at first, finding survivors and getting them to talk, but she found she was a natural entrepreneur and soon found she could raise money and started building a major project.

Over two decades, she coordinated l,700 oral histories with l,400 Holocaust survivors and witnesses. And she did it, as a Chronicle profile later pointed out, "without a big name backer, without media attention and without much money. It was quite a mission, one deemed so valuable it was mimicked by Steven Spielberg when he created the better-known, better-funded Shoah Foundation in 1994."

…As was her way, she knew her project needed primetime help and so she went quietly and served as a project consultant. She gave the [Shoah] project her methodology and interviewing techniques and trained 500 interviewers and staff members. Spielberg's foundation ultimately gathered 53,000 oral histories with Holocaust survivors. But it was Silver and her passion for social justice that made history and insured that the Holocaust will never ever be forgotten.

Silver's investigative instincts led her to a major discovery: Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara, who she helped dramatize as "the Japanese Schindler." Silver found that Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. She brought the story to San Francisco and hosted a party in her West Portal apartment with a Sugihara family member. She told a fascinating story of how Sugihara, in cooperation with the acting Dutch Consulate Jan Zwarfendijk, made a practice of quietly hand-writing visas to Jews against the orders of the Japanese government.

Silver pointed out that Sugihara was bravely supported by his wife. After the war, the Japanese foreign service dismissed Sugihara for "that incident in Lithuania" and he died virtually unknown in Japan. Her media campaign led to 500 or so articles about the Sugiharas in major national and international publications.

Silver "helped revive and promote his story; a memorial was built to him in Japan 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."

Silver also discovered the story of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-Japanese American unit that played a major role in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Again, she created a media campaign leading to 500 or so articles in major national and international publications. She also co-produced a photographic exhibition titled "The Unlikely Liberators" and "The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara."

Silver won many awards for her projects, including the Pathfinder award from the California First Amendment Coalition and Woman of the Year award from KQED public television and radio in 1996, and the Alumni of the Year award from the City College of San Francisco in 2003

In recent years, Silver devoted much energy to anti-racist issues. She was the director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project and since 2000 collected about 2,500 oral histories on racism in America and its impact on the lives of everyday Americans. Last June, she did what many of her friends considered almost impossible. She rented the Herbst theater on her own and produced a major program on her own commemorating the l0th anniversary of the Byrd incident. This was a tough act to do in San Francisco, which is a long way from Jasper, Texas, but she pulled it off with her usual aplomb.

I used to say to her, "Lani, you need to be independently wealthy to do what you are doing." She would laugh and keep on going.

Silver maintained an upbeat attitude during her illness and chemotherapy. She went on outings, saw friends, kept up a blog, and went to special effort to support two of her favorite last passions: SPJ and the Chauncey project. She attended the annual SPJ "Excellence in Awards" dinner last fall and a special Chauncey presentation in early December at the annual meeting of the California Press Association. She even attended rallies for Obama and No on Proposition 8.

Her last blog was Dec. 29. "I planned my funeral this week. That was sad. It will be fun, and I wish I could be there. What does it feel like thinking I'm going to die? Nothing could be worse. I didn't read all the books I meant to, didn't finish the things I was writing, didn't get out all my thank you notes, yet the Chauncey Bailey project is flourishing, chemo and radiation have gone perfectly. I've never met such beautiful people as those around me. I've known such two beautiful sisters. As mine who keep love piled on and keep the fear away. They were beautiful now, they are luminescent now."

"More later. Thank you for listening."

So long, Lani. Thanks for your passions and good causes.

1 Comment

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I knew Lani many years ago, so very sorry to hear of her passing,I would like to get in touch with her sister Lynn Silver Jacop I believe that's her name now, I would appreciate any help you could give me, here is my email, thank you


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Lani Silver, 1948 - 2009." (Viewed on February 26, 2024) <>.