We lost our hearts to San Francisco [But not LA!]
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We lost our hearts to San Francisco [But not LA!]

Neil Silver took his family to the American west coast city, sampling its attractions and meeting a Holocaust survivor.

San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge

Excuse me for borrowing a line from one of my favourite films, The Jazz Singer, to emphasise my point, but it always resonates with me when Sir Laurence Olivier, in the role of Cantor Rabinovitch, asks his screen son, Neil Diamond: “If you don’t know where you come from, how do you know where you’re going?”

I like to ask my children the same question, especially when I take them abroad to experience new places, so I was thrilled that during my latest visit to the USA they were able to meet Holocaust survivor Phil Raucher.

It added some perspective to our trip, which took in some spectacular West Coast attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

Phil was recounting his amazing life story at the excellent Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and I highly recommend anyone who is planning a visit to LA to find time to visit what is the oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the United States.

LAMOTH has a two-fold mission. Firstly, it commemorates those who perished and honours those who survived by housing the precious artefacts that miraculously weathered the Holocaust. Secondly, it provides free Holocaust education to the public.

Phil is a regular speaker at LAMOTH and the audience – which came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and religions – hung on his every word as he told us how on more than one occasion he cheated death at the hands of the Nazis after being deported from Poland to Germany and the labour camps of the Gross-Rosen complex.

Tragically for Phil, his parents and brother were not so fortunate, but he survived and after liberation he made his way back to his native Poland before travelling overseas and settling in America.

Neil with Holocaust survivor Phil Raucher
Neil with Holocaust survivor Phil Raucher

After the talk, a museum guide gave us a tour of the fascinating interactive exhibits, but if you prefer to move at your own pace then free audio guides are available. I have visited a number of Holocaust museums on my travels, but this was one of the best, and I was pleased that my son Jamie (20) and daughter Rachel (16) appreciated the experience as much as my wife Simone and I did.

Our trip had started in San Francisco, which had been on my “must-see” list for a while, so I was delighted to finally tick it off.

San Francisco is smaller and easier to get around than I had anticipated and in my opinion there are three main attractions: The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and the whole Pier 39 area, and Alcatraz.

In reverse order, let me first of all give you an important piece of advice. If you are planning to visit Alcatraz – and you must do so if you go to San Francisco – make sure you book your tickets in advance. I was relieved we did, as when we turned up at the pier we saw that all trips out to the island were full, and they were booking seven or eight weeks in advance.

Records suggest that 15 Jewish men served time in Alcatraz, the most notorious being Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen, a key figure in “Bugsy” Siegel’s Jewish mob before being imprisoned for tax evasion.

On arrival inside Alcatraz you are given your personal audio guide, allowing you to explore at your own pace. Seeing the cramped cells and learning about the daily routine should put anyone off thoughts of crime for life.

There are a number of convenient ways to get around the city, and we used trams, the hop-on, hop-off buses, and even enjoyed a tour on a fire engine which takes you across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge – but our favourite proved to be the GoCar.

These little yellow vehicles have a Sat-Nav which talks to you and steers you around the main attractions. It means you can get to some of the places that the big vehicles can’t, such as the most crooked street in San Francisco, which was on my must-see list miss.

Riding the Go Cars on San Francisco’s most crooked street
Riding the Go Cars on San Francisco’s most crooked street

We stayed near Union Square which was a great base, and mostly took the tram to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 just 15-20 minutes away. There is so much to see and do, from watching the seals who lie in the sun all day, escaping the heat by visiting the Aquarium of the Bay, or Madame Tussauds, or walking along the pier which is filled with shops, restaurants and amusements such as the carousel or 7-D experience.

The one place we couldn’t pull the kids away from was the Exploratorium – a hands-on public learning laboratory exploring the world through science, art, and human perception.

Here’s another important piece of information. San Francisco has its own microclimates, which means it can be red hot on Pier 39, yet bitingly cold a few miles away at the Golden Gate. We visited in summer and when we crossed the bridge not only was it very foggy but we also needed to don the winter hoodies my wife had wisely brought along from England.

The Silver family on a fire engine tour
The Silver family on a fire engine tour

After an enjoyable few days in San Francisco we hopped over for a short stay in LA, having planned in advance to attend the talk with Phil Raucher.

The LAMOTH experience aside, LA didn’t inspire us very much. Even with six lanes on their freeways the traffic always moved at a crawl. However, we wanted the kids to see the main attractions so we took a very informative coach tour which enabled us to see the highlights such as Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Sign, Paramount Studios, Sunset Strip and Farmers Market. We also enjoyed our own separate tour of Warner Bros. Studios – something else you need to pre-book.

I am glad we gave our children the chance to see the things they usually see only on television. We definitely lost our hearts to San Francisco.

Neil Silver’s contacts which helped this be such a memorable trip:

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