Survivor Claire Nuer, conflict-resolution expert, dies at 66

Claire Nuer, a French Holocaust survivor who devoted her life to intercultural dialogue and conflict resolution, died March 26 at Marin General Hospital.

A resident of Paris and Tiburon, she was 66. She had been hospitalized for internal bleeding and died of complications.

In 1982, Nuer founded the At the Heart of Communication International Institute. The Paris-based nonprofit offers educational programs aimed at breaking down prejudice and fear. Before founding the institute, Nuer had repressed her wartime past. A bout with a rare form of optical cancer, however, prompted her to face anew the precariousness of life.

With her cancer diagnosis, "all of my past came back to me," she once wrote, "and with it the will to dedicate myself to acting so that neither my children nor anyone else in the future re-experience anything comparable to what I and millions of others had to go through during my childhood."

She led conferences sponsored by the United Nations, the State of the World Forum and San Francisco's Commonwealth Club.

At a 1994 panel at the Commonwealth, five local residents — the daughter of a Nazi, a Holocaust survivor, a Palestinian refugee, a survivor of Hiroshima and the son of an atomic bomb scientist — discussed how their painful pasts had remained with them as adults. That typified the kinds of discussions Nuer organized.

Victims can become tyrants, Nuer believed, if they adhere only to their versions of the past. Victims don't have to forgive the perpetrators, she said, but opposing sides can reconcile by recognizing each other's humanity.

Nuer also founded the organization Learning as Leadership, through which she taught tools for communication and success to national and international business leaders.

"The work she does really starts at the personal level," said Steve Zuckerman, managing director of McCown, De Leew & Co., a Menlo Park equity investing firm that underwent Nuer's training. "It forces people in a very deep way to understand why they are, who they are and what they want in life."

One of Nuer's exercises asked people to pretend they are 90 years old and looking back at their lives. She would ask what kind of things, in retrospect, would make them feel good about having been on the earth.

"It forces people to think about something bigger than themselves and their immediate world," Zuckerman said.

Nuer's daughter Lara said her mother learned her leadership skills from professionals in the field. But much of it was pure intuition.

"My mom is someone who, because of the war, was not able to go to school," said Lara Nuer, who lives in Tiburon. "She was absolutely a self-made woman. It was the school of life."

Nuer was a fellow and trustee of the World Business Academy, a member of the International Psycho-Oncology Society and a member-consultant of the Society for Organizational Learning, developed from Peter Senge's organizational learning work.

Born in Paris in 1933, Nuer survived the war in hiding. Her father and most of her family died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1995, Nuer facilitated a series of gatherings in Auschwitz with more than 300 people from 33 countries. The goal was to honor the memory of Nazi victims and study the Holocaust as an extreme example of abuse of power.

The war shaped Nuer's life in countless ways.

Following liberation, her mother convinced her to work with her hands so she would not lose her mind from grief. Nuer became a jewel polisher and a seamstress for designer Jacques Fath. She sewed the cuffs on Rita Hayworth's dress for her marriage to Orson Welles.

She led a colorful life filled with dance, gardening, art, photography and fashion.

But her greatest passion lay in helping other people find meaning in their lives.

"She was a remarkable woman who touched everyone she knew incredibly deeply," Zuckerman said. "It's hard to convey how that worked because it's uncommon for somebody to have such a deep impact."

A funeral for Nuer was held last Friday at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. She was buried in the Sha'rei Shalom section of Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael.

In addition to her daughter, Nuer is survived by her mother, Suzanne Nuer; her son Noah Nuer; and her husband, Sam Cohen; all live in Paris.

The family asks that donations be sent to the Nuer Foundation, P.O. Box 5313, Larkspur, CA 94977-5313. The newly established foundation will foster the work and principles Nuer worked to further.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.