Lani Silver, 1948-2009

News, Posted: Jan 30, 2009

Lani started contributing to Pacific News Service sometime in the late 1970s. She wove herself into the fabric of our office, and my life — a raw nerve of justice signalling an abuse she'd discovered, a voice she wanted to magnify, an event she wanted to promote. She listed her occupation on FaceBook as an activist. It fit. She had skills as an artist, interviewer, oral historian, journalist, filmmaker, speaker—but what she felt most comfortable doing was engaging with people in some collective effort. I knew almost nothing of her private life — her passions were all about the public realm. Her activism was driven by an almost cosmic empathy. Irritating at times like any gadfly — she talked too much, sometimes seemed too earnest and caring — nevertheless when she came to the founding dinner of the Chauncey Bailey Project, I was thrilled. Once she sunk her teeth into an initiative, I knew she'd never give up. That was the Project's great good fortune. Her passing is both an intimate and a collective loss.

Sandy Close

Services for Lani Silver, a passionate activist for more than four decades in San Francisco who died Wednesday, will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way. A burial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, 130l El Camino Real, Colma. She was 60.

Silver died at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night in the home of her sister Lori in San Francisco.

"Lani is gone," her sister Lori wrote an hour later on the website. Lani was diagnosed with a brain cancer in September and has been fighting a brave battle ever since. "Lani has always been terrified of being sick, but with this illness, was serene," Lori wrote in the latest of a regular series of posts on Lani's condition. "And she died with that same calm and serenity. She was surrounded by her family."

As the word went out that she was sinking on Wednesday, her legion of friends and colleagues put in messages on the CaringBridge website and to each other by email and telephone. I got the word in an email from Robert Rosenthal, who headed one of Silver's latest passions, the Chauncey Bailey Investigative Project. He forwarded an email from Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune and a key project editor.

Reynolds wrote, "Lani is close to leaving us. She is unconscious, surrounded by family, but comfortable, as she wanted it. Her sister Lynn said she can still hear so we asked her to let her know we called and that we all still loved her." Rosey added, "Thanks, Martin, for putting things in context. Very unique and caring lady." I added that Silver, a longtime friend and colleague, was a "remarkable lady with endless good causes and good results."

Sandy Close, a founder and catalyst for the project, wrote "I remember Lani coming to the founding dinner for the Chauncey project at the Mandarin Garden and never wavering in her support afterwards. But then, for the 30-plus years I knew her, she was a sometimes irritating, always humble, never judgmental goad for social justice causes. (Do you remember those amazingly detailed biographic drawings she would produce about the movement?)"

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

The reaction to Silver's condition was a remarkable display of affection and respect for the political activist who "fought the good fight for Bay Area community," as the headline of the excellent obituary by Kamika Dunlap put it in the Friday Oakland Tribune. Dunlap, who never knew Silver personally, nonetheless got Silver's essence by interviewing her family and friends. Her lead: "LaniHanako Silver always stayed true to the causes she believed in." Second paragraph: "Family and friends say she was a committed, beautiful and wonderful political activist who gave her life to the Bay Area community."

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. Her range was from the political battles of the day (women's issues, liberal politics and campaigns, gay rights and gay marriage, 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.)

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, and "for five days 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 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."

Chronicle Reporter Heather Knight used the diplomatic word "mimic" but my reading of the situation was that Spielberg grabbed the project from Silver and never gave her proper credit. As is her way, she knew her project needed primetime help and so she went quietly and served as a project consultant. Spielberg's foundation ultimately gathered 53,000 oral histories with Holocaust survivors.

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 issuing 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." Her media campaign led to 500 or so articles about the Sugiharas in major national and international publications.

She 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, Silver 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."

In recent years, Silver has devoted much energy to anti-racist issues. She is the director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project and since 2000 has collected about 2,500 oral histories on racism in America. 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 commemorating the l0th anniversary of the Byrd incident, a tough act to do in San Francisco, which is a long way from Jasper, Texas, but she did it.

Silver maintained a positive attitude during illness and chemotherapy. She went on outings, saw friends, 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 is survived by sisters Lori Silver and Lynn Jacobs; nieces Sara Silver Jacobs, Brette Silver Jacobs, and Lauren Shaber; nephews Jose Jacobs and Justin Shaber and brother-in-law Syd Shaber.

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.

Postscript: WEAR BRIGHT COLORS, reads the phrase used on the blog notice for the Sunday funeral. "We will have a service, go to the cemetery, then back to the temple for food. For those who have generously offered donations for Lani's funeral, you can send a check to Lynn Jacobs, 207 King St., #706, SF94107. You can call 650-400-1000 or 831-595-5514.

Bruce Bruggman, Publisher of The San Francisco Bay Guardian

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User Comments

Peter Coyote on Feb 08, 2009 at 11:54:27 said:

In the sense that there is a part of us in each of our parents, I can say that I knew Lani before her parents met. Her dad, Bert and his brother, Merty, stayed with my family when they were on vacation from their colleges in the East. They were a fun-loving and adventurous duo, older heroes of mine. Consequently, when I first came to California, I closed the loop by staying with Bert and Barbara Silver and the girls.
I don't know whether or not it's genetics, but my family was extremely progressive and left-wing, and Lani's as you probably know, were, well, let's say liberal Republican. The fact that Lani and I wound up on the same side of nearly every social issue, and cooperated on several was a blessing I'm more than willing to attribute to genetics, to be able to brag that I share her genes.
I was so impressed by her Holocaust Oral History project, and can't remember whether I endorsed or introduced her to music impresario Bill Graham, the ex-manager of my theater, The San Francisco Mime Troupe. Whichever the case, Bill, himself a holocaust survivor who walked from Auschwitz to Paris at eight, recognized Lani immediately and became her guardian angel, supporting her Holocaust Oral History Project until his untimely death.
Sometime after that, I wrote to Stephen Spielberg on Lani's behalf. I will never forget the day she called me, SCREAMING with joy because he had responded to my letter and offered to hire her to train ALL his interviewers for the Shoah project, which resulted in tens of thousands of interviews.
I don't mean to take a morsel of credit for any of Lani's successes. NOT-helping her was simply never an option as any of you who knew her will attest. She had an uncanny ability to channel her concerns directly to the right people who could facilitate her life-long mission to spread love, justice, and opportunity to those that society had overlooked. I was one among many frozen in the headlights of her attention and drafted as a willing conscript.
At her funeral, her friend Morton introduced me to the Byrd family, concerned because without Lani there was fear that perhaps their foundation and its work fighting racism might falter. Once again, I felt that I had stepped into the headlights of Lani's wishes and so volunteered to help however I could. For those of you who might be seeking a way to express your love, I would suggest that there is no more appropriate gift you could make to Lani's memory than picking up the banner where it fell from her hand, and marching with it in the same direction. I know I will, talking to her, all the while, in my mind.
Native American people have a belief that our loved ones and ancestors come back as the rain. No grief here in this vision. Even in this terrible drought, it rained yesterday, and walking between my house and office, I could feel Lani pattering against my hair and shoulders and sat down to write, confident that she was literally, over my shoulders.

Eric Mar on Feb 01, 2009 at 09:34:12 said:

Thank you for remembering Lani. She was such a caring, creative and incredible social justice activist.

Deirdre English on Jan 31, 2009 at 14:07:52 said:

Last I saw her, Lani was in full bloom, looking gorgeous, laughing and
relaxing in the sun. Our walk over, neither of us was ready to end the conversation.

Since then, a winter ago, I had been out of touch with Lani and so I am still
shocked to learn of her death. I never saw or knew of her decline.

I will always remember Lani from the short time I knew her, when during just
a few walks and conversations, phone calls and emails, she charmed and
impressed me.

I met her at a party and was drawn to her beautiful face and intelligent
talk, and a week or so later met her for the first of just two long walks along
Crissy Field. She played me some of the songs she'd just recorded, and
talked with great excitement-- and humility ---about what music-making was
meaning to her.

I learned she was in a time of recuperating from her years of absorbing the
pain of so many holocaust memories, and carrying the responsibility of
preserving such heavy but vital stories.

This had been an enormous labor of love, faith in the future of a caring
humanity, and respect for the sacredness of the individual. But it took a
tremendous toll on Lani, she told me, and when I met her she was deep into
exploring her next phase of life, when she walked hours every day and
dropped dozens of pounds of accumulated stress. She usually was kept company
on her walks by her ipod and cell phone, so she was never lonely, but was
alternately dipping into the creative well of music and networking with her
many friends and fellow activists.

When we talked, she engaged immediately with the "honor," as she put it, of
connecting my mother---a holocaust refugee whose tale of rescue and flight had still never been recorded---with the people now running the project. The oral history was
recorded over two days, was deeply meaningful for my mother and for me, and
I have Lani to thank for it. Even if these recordings by aging European
Jews, of times long gone by, were to someday be tragically destroyed, the
value of the verbal transmission itself would still have to be among the
most profound adult experiences, I am certain, for many thousands of parents and
their progeny.

Lani had many parts and passions, I learned, but the part I'll remain
closest to is the way she became this great bridge for the Jews of old
Europe to cross, not with their suitcases but with their stories, to find
listeners and peace at this side of the bridge. Through Lani's work, they
arrived, fully, at last.

That she experienced this bridge building, as much as possible, as an honor
and a joy was a gift from her noble soul.

And now our bridge, our Lani, is broken.

Lani was someone who I easily could imagine having made a great old lady someday.
Great old ladies treasure the past, appreciate even the simplest pleasures of
the present and look with undimmed curiosity to the future. The best of them are both the wisest and the most youthful among us, since they are drawn to what has most value ----and some measure of that is pure pleasure. The pleasure of holding a bright light up to darkness, and the great strength and obstinacy to be able to do it, was what Lani excelled at.

She will never get to be that grand old lady. But I for one will remember
Lani as a fully flowered human being.

It was a great blessing that she lived, and that she chose to live as she

Deirdre English

Marianne Smith on Jan 31, 2009 at 13:59:14 said:

Dear Sandy and NAM:
Thank you for posting such beautriful tributes to Lani. I've known her since she
and Ruth Linden started the Holocaust Oral History project in the early 1980's. I was one of the first group of interviewers.
I wrote for the project newsletter. Almost ten years later, I was writing proposals for the project to help raise needed funds.
It was very inspiring to be involved in anything that Lani did;such high energy,
such optimism, such courage.

Lani Silver was one of a kind. A great
loss for all of us.

Marianne Smith
Oakland CA




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