Holocaust Centers vast library finds breathing room in new home

When the custodian at 121 Steuart St. saw the new tenant’s library, he had one thing to say: “You have too many books.”

“I take that as a compliment,” said Leslie Kane, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, as she proudly gave a tour of the center’s new home in the basement of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation building — space that was used by the former Jewish Museum San Francisco when it staged large exhibits. “And next year, we have plans to turn the collection into a circulating library.”

While it’s not open to the public just yet, the Holocaust Center has left its longtime home adjacent to the Bureau of Jewish Education in the Richmond District for the more central location near the Embarcadero. Its leaders hope that the move will not only bring greater visibility to the center, but also increased foot traffic.

Board President Dr. Steve Sloan said the center’s three-pronged mission is to “honor the memory of our lost loved ones; serve as a place to learn about and celebrate our rich European Jewish heritage, and provide future generations —Jewish and non-Jewish alike — tools to combat hatred and persecution.”

The new center is not much larger than the old one; it’s bigger by only a couple of hundred square feet. But since the old location was never meant to be a library, the design of the new center is a needed improvement.

“This is laid out in the way a library should be,” said Kane. “Now it’s in a logical fashion, with room for growth. In the old center, the system was counterintuitive and you couldn’t figure out where to go next.

“This is the first time you can appreciate what an incredibly large collection it is,” she said of the 15,000 books. “The Holocaust Center’s collection is one of the largest in the world.”

In addition to the vast library, there are tens of thousands of artifacts from the Nazi era, including a Nazi officer’s uniform. And as it turns out, the move brought some treasures out into the light.

“We discovered many things we were unaware of that we had,” said Kane. “There is a whole collection of currency that was used in the ghettos, as well as Nazi currency. No one knew we had it.” They also came across a Nazi-produced filmstrip from 1941 about a week in the life of the Third Reich.

The new and improved seating area has comfortable chairs so visitors can sit and read for as long as they like. A large flat-screen television is available on a rolling wall, for viewing documentaries and survivors’ testimonies.

The new center has specially designed bookshelves with display cases, something the old center lacked.

Discussing the choice of colors — pale yellow and gray — used in the design, Kane said it is important that the center is a reverential place, but at the same time, not a depressing one. “We want people to walk away with a positive experience of what this was.”

Kane and Sloan are both very excited about the new site.

“It’s located at one of the major hubs of Jewish community activity,” said Sloan. “It’s accessible to the entire Bay Area via mass transit, and the relocation gives us the space and the tools that our staff need to really educate the young and old alike.”

Sloan believes that the move will be beneficial for everyone around. “Since we were founded in 1978, we’ve been out on the avenues and we’ve been a well-kept secret for most of the community.” The center’s new phone number is (415) 777-9060.

Noting that the Holocaust Center’s message is a universal one, he added: “We’re helping people understand the causes of intolerance. This is a greater opportunity for us to really tell the community about the importance of our work and really let the larger community know that we’re relevant for the future.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."