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The Holocaust Memorial at Lands End

by Gail Goldman, City Guides Class of 2015

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”—Banksy

Lands End is arguably one of the most scenic places in San Francisco and visitors to the Legion of Honor Museum enjoy a great view out over the Golden Gate. But venture just past the museum and you’ll find one of the most disturbing and impactful pieces of sculpture in the city. It’s hidden one step down from the parking lot just beyond the trees. Visitors often stumble on it by surprise –or make a pilgrimage to visit it.

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The Holocaust Memorial or “The Survivor” is a haunting, realistic life-size sculpture depicting 11 victims of Nazi death camps, with one standing looking out past a barbed wire fence. Created and installed in 1984, the placement of this memorial was controversial from the start. Some felt that the commemoration of an atrocity in such a graphic way was not appropriate in such a beautiful landscape. But sculptor George Segal insisted, saying that the viewer might consider death while facing toward the monument and life while facing toward the Golden Gate.

Jews were among the city’s earliest settlers. Beginning during the Gold Rush of 1849, Jews came here looking fora fresh start and a level playing field. By the 1870s, San Francisco had the largest Jewish population in the country outside of New York. Since everyone was a newcomer in the West there was little anti-Semitism. Jews were accepted and they assimilated, starting many prosperous businesses.

In 1883, the city’s first Jewish mayor, Washington Bartlett, took office. He was re-elected three times and became California’s first and so far only Jewish governor. For the first time in Jewish history, the ultimate outsiders became insiders. Alfred Sutro was the city’s second Jewish mayor. He served two terms. Then there was, of course, Dianne Feinstein who made history not for being Jewish, but for becoming the city’s first female mayor and California’s first female U.S. Senator.

But in 1977, something happened that set the city’s Jewish community on edge. A bookstore selling racist literature, called the Rudolph Hess, opened in the Richmond district to the sound of martial music and the sight of men in storm trooper uniforms. Ironically, the store was owned by Nathan Green – a survivor of Auschwitz whose family was killed in the Holocaust. Green didn’t realize that his building was leased to the National Socialist White Party. Protests unfortunately turned violent, and the store was trashed and burned while onlookers cheered. Several days later, rocks were thrown through the stained glass windows of Temple B’nai Emunah. A committee of Holocaust survivors and prominent members of San Francisco’s Jewish community approached Mayor Feinstein’s office asking for help to build a Holocaust memorial. After a competition, the artist/sculptor George Segal was hired to create a memorial at Lands End.

This sculpture may be Segal’s most emotional work. The standing figure is probably derived from Margaret Burke-White’s famous 1945 Life magazine photo of the liberation of Buchenwald. The man who modeled this figure was a friend of Segal’s – an Israeli who survived the death camps. Unlike the corpses, he is dressed – wearing the “famous striped prison pajamas,” said Segal. He also seems bewildered, estranged. Outsiderness seems to be his condition.

“Sometimes it’s more painful to be standing and surviving,” said Segal.

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The ensemble of bodies behind the standing figure is not random. There are a number of religious and allegorical references. The heap on the ground forms a cross, or a star. One can find a Christ-like figure in the assemblage reflecting on the Jewishness of Jesus. You can also see a figure of a woman holding an apple – some critics see it as a reflection on the idea of original sin and the biblical connection of Jews and Christians. Segal saw her as an earthy figure. He noted that he was interested in Eve’s sensuality. He said the figure had to do with survival.

Segal grew up in the Bronx, the child of Eastern European immigrants. His father was a butcher and then a chicken rancher. He started his career as a painter in New York City and became known as part of the “pop art” movement, along with Lichtenstein and Warhol. But his was a distinctive style – more closely related to personal experience – often called Social Realism.

This work is plaster cast in bronze and painted white. Segal pioneered the use of plaster bandages, designed for making orthopedic casts, as a sculptural medium. When he was teaching adult education, a student brought a box of plaster bandages to class. He took them home and experimented on his own body. With help from his wife, he wrapped parts of his body in the bandages, let them harden and used more plaster to form a hollow shell. The shell itself was the final sculpture, including the rough texture of the bandages. He came to use this technique on family and friends and often included chairs or tables as props. Initially he kept the sculptures stark white – later painting them in bright colors.

The Holocaust sculpture is owned and maintained by the San Francisco Art Commission. It has been the subject of graffiti since its installation, but Segal did not find this a problem. He often said that the graffiti was a reminder that the problems of prejudice have not been solved.

Photos by Lisa Harrington

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