Harvey Peskin
Harvey Peskin

Harvey Peskin, SFSU professor Shoah scholar, 86

On April 18, Harvey Peskin hit “send” on the final version of a long-gestating academic paper.

On April 21, the longtime San Francisco State psychology professor, psychotherapist and Holocaust scholar, died. He was 86.

In recent weeks, a succession of friends, former students and family members — among them his son, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin — had made the trip to Berkeley to be with Harvey Peskin, who knew he was facing his final days.

He was prepared. His paper — which will run posthumously in Psychoanalytic Dialogues — is titled “Who Has the Right to Mourn? Relational Deference and the Ranking of Grief.”

“This is something that he left for all of us,” says Peskin’s younger son, Victor. It was not lost on family or friends or colleagues that, in the waning moments of his life, he was frantically finishing a paper on how to cope with a loved one’s death. While being visited by a battalion of loved ones, he was completing a manifesto on how they could cope with their grief and mourning.

It was, in the end, a very Harvey Peskin thing to do, and a very Harvey Peskin way to go.

“With his colleagues and students, he’d talk about complicated theories, but somehow weave all the threads together,” said Larry Miller, Peskin’s friend, fellow psychoanalyst and former student. “It would be like following an incredible symphony that was discordant and all over the place and, in the end, it all resolves.”

A focus on grief, the marginalized, and the marginalization of grief informed much of Peskin’s scholarly work, especially his award-winning analysis of Holocaust and trauma survivors. In midcareer, Peskin began focusing on the intergenerational transmission of trauma experienced by the children of survivors of the Shoah and other genocides.

Peskin was among those who believed that survivors often handed down “unresolved trauma” to their offspring, expressly against their own intentions.

Survivors’ attempts to shield their children from their own traumatic experiences, explains Miller, impart traumatic experiences nevertheless — and children of survivors “start to adapt to a survivor role.”

In 2015, Peskin was awarded the Elise M. Hayman Award for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide by the International Psychoanalytic Association. He also served on the boards of Survivors International and the Holocaust Oral History Project.

His belief that our attempts to shield others from harm often leads to harm went beyond Holocaust survivors, however. Because he was a warm, soft-spoken and funny man — with a particular genius for puns — Peskin was able to deliver such difficult assessments to his patients.

When one told him that he was waiting until his parents died so as not to disappoint them by marrying outside the faith, Peskin immediately told him that was a mistake. Doing so would lead to him wishing for his parents to hurry up and die in order to spare them pain — leading to pain of another sort.

Harvey Peskin grew up the son of Polish Jewish immigrants in New York City, where his father was a cobbler and his mother ran a candy store. He was the first in his family to attend college. After graduating from City College of New York, he took a Greyhound bus to UC Berkeley to attend graduate school.

He was appointed a professor at S.F. State in 1958, which triggered two long-running positions in life. He taught at SFSU for 35 years, until 1994. And at a colleague’s party he remembers as “the most awful boring evening … they had just come back from Hawaii and were playing Hawaiian music — it was deadly,” he met Tsipora Rindsunsky, an Israeli in town visiting family. They were married in 1963 and became inseparable. Both were psychoanalysts; Tsipora still sees patients and Harvey did until March, when a lung infection took a turn for the worse.

Victor Peskin, like his father, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor — he teaches at Arizona State University, specializing in genocide and international tribunals. His focus on victims of marginalized atrocities draws a direct line from his father’s life’s work.

Aaron Peskin serves the city’s District 3, which includes North Beach, Chinatown and parts of downtown. “I still bump into people I don’t even know who ask ‘How’s your Dad?’ because he called them or knocked on their door,” he told J. “There was just no pretense about him.”

Harvey Peskin is survived by his wife, Tsipora, two sons, Aaron and Victor, and two grandsons, Mori and Jonah. The family requests donations in his memory be sent to Yad Vashem.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.