St. Peter’s Elementary School, San Francisco, CA – January 8, 2015

by George J Elbaum

St. Peter’s Elementary School, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1878, is an elementary and middle school with approximately 300 students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade.  The school is one of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Catholic Schools and a vital part of the parish, a predominantly Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Since its foundation, St. Peter’s has served all economic levels of the community by providing a well-rounded academic and Catholic education in a partnership with parents, who are recognized as the primary educators of their children.  “The school recognizes its important role in the growth and development of students and their families, and it thus promotes Gospel values and fosters peace, justice, integrity, honesty and love for learning.”

As part of that effort, St. Peter’s now has for its 8th graders a month-long study of the Holocaust taught by teacher Nina Martinez, who organized the event with help from the school’s Vice-Principal, Karen Hammen.  In preparation for my visit the students read Elie Wiesel’s Night, were very responsive and enthusiastic during my talk, and the next day one of them posted the following message on my website: “Having you share your experience with St. Peter’s 8th grade had a huge impact on us and on the way we thought of the Holocaust…. Thank you so very much for taking your time to talk to us.  The 8th graders and I at St. Peter’s appreciate it. :)

My presentation was arranged by Katie Cook of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

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Summit Preparatory Charter High School, Redwood City, CA – December 17, 2014

by George J Elbaum Summit Preparatory Charter High School is one of seven Summit Public Schools serving 2000 students from the Bay Area’s diverse communities.  Summit’s mission is to prepare its diverse student population for success in a four-year college or university, and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society.  In fact, Summit students arrive at Summit schools with slightly lower scores than their peers at local high schools, yet consistently outperform their peers by ranking in the top 20% of public high schools in the state of California.  Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City opened its doors in 2003 and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best public high schools in the nation, according to national rankings by Newsweek and US News & World Report.  Summit’s academic approach has led to an impressive track record of success which speaks for itself: since its founding, 96 percent of Summit’s graduates have been accepted to at least one four-year college. My talk at the school was organized by teacher Lissa Schuman Thiele for her class in Holocaust and Genocide II: Children and Childhood, a 7-week course which she prepared as follow-on to her 2013-2014 course on the Holocaust.  The current course attempts to answer the question “What did ‘childhood’ look like for the youth growing up under genocide?” through understanding the roots of violence, cruelty, race-hatred, and prejudice as manifested in the Holocaust.

Following my talk I received several short notes with the following heartfelt statements:

  • Hearing your story truly gives me hope, because if you could get through such a rough childhood with a smile on your face, than I can too.
  • Your story makes me think and be more thankful for everything.
  • Your story was very inspirational and made me want to be a better person.
  • I was so touched and so thankful that you were rescued in all those situations.

My presentation was attended by several other classes and followed by a Q&A with Ms. Thiele’s class.  Katie Cook of Jewish Family and Children’s Services arranged for my talk.

The audience

The audience

Holocaust & Genocide class

Holocaust & Genocide class

Please send via this website the first names of students marked by ?s or numbers or letters (below) to add to their photos.

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Dougherty Valley High School, San Ramon, CA – December 10, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Dougherty Valley High School was established in 2007, which explains their very apropos slogan “The Tradition Starts Now!”  In these 7 years its enrollment has grown rapidly from 570 students to approximately 2700 now, and it attained a rank of #67 in California as ranked by U.S. News & World Report – truly an impressive rise in both respects.  My talk was to the full-term elective course Facing History: Holocaust and Human Behavior, and just walking into the classroom (a few minutes late!) I was immediately struck by the evident enthusiasm of the students, mostly seniors, and the teacher, Dana Pattison.  The classroom was decorated with student-made posters and drawings reflecting the course subject, and one student even wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “Dougherty Valley High School – Facing History and Ourselves” (see photo in 3rd row below).  The students were very well prepared as became evident in the Q &A after my talk, and their questions (including a deep one I’ve not been asked before) continued even after the class ended.  It was a very gratifying experience for me, arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who gave an excellent introduction.

A few weeks later we received a packet of letters from the students who attended my talk, many on beautifully hand-made cards.  As has become our habit on receiving students’ letters after one of my talks, my wife Mimi and I read these together after our dinner, Mimi reading each letter aloud and me listening and absorbing its message, and then we selected those phrases that truly resonated with us to excerpt and add on my website post for the school.  However, this is the first time that I received a pack of student letters where almost every one contained a phrase or sentence, and often several phrases, that moved us so much that I excerpted and added them all to my post for the Dougherty Valley High School.  Since this was an elective, whole-term class in Facing History, the students were especially motivated and knowledgeable, and their understanding of and sensitivity to the Holocaust is shown in these letters, and it also reflects the quality of Dana Pattison’s teaching.  I was deeply touched and gratified after we finished reading the letters and selecting the excerpts (listed below), and I knew why I keep doing these talks.

  • You’re educating a new generation on a piece of our history, and that is one of the most honorable things you can do. You have left a profound mark on our class, myself and many others.
  • Hearing you speak has left me with a lot to ponder about forgiveness and strength in my own life, and I thank you for that.
  • I have always been one to fret about my future and dwell on my past, but I have come to realize that the only time I should be focusing on is today, and I am eternally grateful for that knowledge.
  • I aspire to become a person who, like you, is not afraid to share who they are with others. Thank you for sharing a piece of yourself with us; it is something I will never forget.
  • I believe we all came out from the class that day with a changed perspective and entirely new ideas….. You made our day!
  • I can read about the hardships people had to face, like struggling to get enough food, but books won’t tell me about the more personal hardships like the family that had to strangle their dog to keep it from barking at nearby soldiers. That impacted me much more than any sort of statistic.
  • A textbook can give you the facts, but these issues seem distant. Listening to someone recount the event and tell it as part of their story makes you realize that the facts are real events involving real people.
  • You taught me to always move forward, even when things are bad, and not to forget who you are and what you’ve experienced, because all of those things can only make you a better person.
  • You have inspired me to keep going on in life even when life greets me with great challenges…. Keep doing what you’re doing!!!
  • As a class we have already learned a lot about the Holocaust, but I was never able to connect myself to the situation. After you spoke to us, I feel more connected and I am more able to put myself in the place of those in concentration camps as well as those in hiding.
  • That is the most important lesson that I learned from you: to keep living no matter what.
  • You have inspired me to dream big.
  • Your story of survival and luck helped inspire me to act as an “upstander” during times of injustice and against hatred.
  • Your amazing story has taught me that even in the midst of horror there was still hope. It showed me how the culmination of “upstanding” acts performed by different people can lead to something beautiful and precious – life.
  • Your story has galvanized the “upstander” in all of us, to stand up against injustice whenever we are faced with it.
  • I have learned about historical events through textbooks and articles. Hearing from an actual person who lived through an event transforms and enhances the learning experience in an incredible way.
  • It was very meaningful to me because when learning about events that have transpired, I don’t think people truly understand until there is some kind of personal connection. I want to thank you for telling us your story to give us that personal connection.
  • Hearing how you’ve chosen to lead your life has inspired me to use past hardships in my life as fuel for future avenues of good deeds.
  • I will spread your story to others to remind them how valuable each person’s perspective is.
  • Next time I see someone getting picked on for being different or lesser in someone else’s eyes I will stand up for what is right. I’ve always said this to people but never followed through in fear of what could happen.  But why not risk it for the benefit of another?!
  • I always knew that life was precious, but you gave me a million reasons why it is even more beautiful than I thought.
  • I learned to not fear obstacles in life because with determination and a little luck, everything is possible.
  • Every time you share your story you continue to inspire more and more people as you have inspired me!
group with teacher Dana Pattison

group with teacher Dana Pattison

 

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UC Davis History Project @ JFCS, San Francisco, CA – December 3, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) is a San Francisco Bay Area social services organization whose mission statement is “Serving individuals and families of all faiths and backgrounds, guided by the Jewish value of caring for those in our community most in need.” As such, JFCS carries a special responsibility within the Jewish community for reaching out to children, the aged, those with special needs, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.

The JFCS Holocaust Center conducts training seminars for middle and high school teachers on the Holocaust and genocide. The goal of these seminars is to share curriculum and discuss effective ways to teach tolerance and social responsibility.  My talk was attended by 15 teachers participating in the UC Davis History Project who were spending the day at the JFCS Holocaust Center accessing the archives and researching in the library.  The seminar was arranged by Katie Cook, the Administrative Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

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with UC Davis teachers and Katie Cook, JFCS

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Seven Hills School, Walnut Creek, CA – December 2, 2014

by George J Elbaum

This was my second visit to the Seven Hills School (the first was in December 2012).  The school was founded in 1962 on nine park-like acres of former ranchland as an independent day school educating almost 400 students in preschool through 8th grade.  Its stated mission is “to develop the intellect, engage the spirit and foster respect for and responsibility to our world.”  On its beautiful grounds or its modern classrooms one might see on any day “Shakespeare performed or Beethoven rehearsed; a rocket launched or a volleyball serve perfected.”  With a student-to-faculty/staff ratio of about 6, the school augments its excellent academics and athletics with a robust after-school enrichment program, and its students rank above the 90th percentile in ERB testing.

My presentation was again to the 8th grade classes of history/humanities teacher Michael Sandberg and Assistant Headmaster Scott Espinosa-Brown, who teaches a “restorative justice” course.  Attending also were Bill Miller, the school’s Headmaster, and Rhys Miller, its Curriculum Director.  The students were currently one month into an in-depth project on the Holocaust and genocides, which culminates with each student producing a web-based report on some aspect of the genocide and an oral presentation to the class.  The students’ awareness, sensitivity and empathy as shown in their questions during the Q&A session were quite impressive and above their grade level.   (The web-based reports of the 2014 Holocaust Projects in Mr. Sandberg’s humanities classes are shown on https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/11556412/sites/shshistory/8th%20Grade/holocaust/page22/index.html.)  Michael Sandberg is also a member of the Advisory Board of Facing History and Ourselves, and he and Jack Weinstein of Facing History arranged my presentation.

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with teacher Michael Sandberg and students

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Synapse School, Menlo Park, CA – October 24, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Synapse School is an independent primary and middle school founded in 2008, which blends academic learning with social emotional learning into meaningful projects in order to build higher-order thinking skills, including creative, critical, and transfer skills. Children thus become more efficient problem solvers and more effective decision makers.  School projects are designed around an annual theme, which is sub-divided into four modules: language arts, science, math, and social studies, with emphasis on linking the academic program to real-world problems and issues.  The overall goal is to educate the change makers of tomorrow.

I was invited to speak to the 7th and 8th grade Humanities class of teacher Debbie Yoon, who had been studying the events of WWII, the Holocaust, and the Japanese Internment Camps for the past 9 weeks.  Using a Facing History and Ourselves unit plan to help shape the lens in which they studied the Holocaust, students were asked to consider human behavior from the perspective of the Germans as a group, the Nazis, the rest of the world powers, and the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.  They studied the Milgram Experiment (a study of obedience to authority figures) to try seeing into the minds of those who blindly followed orders to kill and torture millions of Jews.  The purpose was to understand how human nature can affect the individual under such conditions and, ultimately, that we all have the choice to act or not act.

As described by teacher Debbie Yoon, the students also participated in role playing, taking on a different persona from history before the 1939 elections in Germany when the Nazi party rose to power.  Students were asked to judge how their person would have voted based on their persona’s family history, political leanings, occupation, and economic situation. They struggled with what to do if their person had Jewish ancestry but had children who were half Jewish and half Catholic in upbringing.  What path would they have taken?  Who would they have voted for?  Finally, the students held a debate to determine what answers they could support for the question “Who is responsible for the Holocaust?”  There were no easy answers, and ultimately students felt that we all had a choice, that individuals can make a difference, and if only more had stood up and said or done something, we could have avoided the Holocaust. The students were also charged with this mission for the future, to be an upstander, and to be that individual with a choice and a voice.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who also gave an introductory talk to the students.

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University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA – October 22, 2014

George J Elbaum

The University of San Francisco (USF) is a Jesuit Catholic university located in the middle of San Francisco.  Founded in 1855, USF was the city’s first university, and it is the third oldest institution for higher learning in California.  Its student body numbers approximately 10,000, with 63% undergraduates and 37% postgraduates, and its faculty numbers approximately 1,000, of which 41% are full-time and 59% are part-time, or adjunct.  Religious and spiritual organizations on campus include the Muslim Student Union, the USF chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the USF Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

My talk to an undergraduate class entitled Jews, Judaisms, and Jewish Identities, was part of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and was organized by its teacher, Oren Kroll-Zeldin, Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Theology and Director of the Beyond Bridges: Israel-Palestine.  It was arranged by Katie Cook of the Jewish Family and Childrens’ Services.

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