Prywatne Gimnazjum i Liceum im. Krolewej Jadwigi, Lublin, Poland – May 9, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Prywatne Gimnazjum i Liceum im. Królowej Jadwigi (Private Middle School & High School named for Queen Jadwiga) was founded in 1997 by a group of teachers who wanted to offer students a comprehensive education in a supportive, friendly and creative environment, a concept still rare at that time in post-Communist Poland.  In organizing my visit to her school, teacher Barbara Michalec explained to me its approach in her very first email:

“Teachers in our school do their best to teach our students not only the academic subjects but also to expose them to life’s issues they witness, the problems they face daily, to possible ways of dealing with them and to help them become aware of the complexity and wonder of life unfolding itself before them.  One of the best ways to do so is for the students to have first-hand experience, to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears as much as possible, but also to meet people who will share their own experiences in living a meaningful life – this is probably one of the most valuable lessons one can get in life.”

Toward this purpose the school enables its students’ first-hand experiences through organized trips to Polish cities and to foreign countries (Belgium, England, France, Germany, Malta), outdoor excursions (nature hikes, biking, skiing), hands-on art education & competitions, social initiatives & charitable events, as well as a visiting speaker series which included my visit.  (Exactly 3 years ago, 9 May 2011, the speaker here was Carl Wilkens, the only American who chose to remain in Rwanda throughout its genocide to protect his local employees.  He and I were also speakers on the same day at Charles Wright Academy’s Global Teen Summit in Tacoma, WA, on September 23, 2013.)  The school’s focus on academic excellence is shown by its ranking among the top 4% of the best schools in Poland, but it does not neglect athletics as shown by the new, uniquely-designed gym and its associated activities.

Our visit to the school also involved two culinary events: to “sustain” me during the book signing, teacher Barbara Michalec presented me with a box of sugar cubes, echoing the sugar cube given to me by a Russian tank commander in January 1945, and our visit ended with a treat of my very favorite Polish pastries: szarlotka & cheesecake, during a conversation with the school’s owner Grzegorz Szymczak in his office.

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Student audience with principal Malgorzata Grzechnik in front row

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Zespol Szkol No. 2, Gimnazjum No. 3, Swidnik, Poland – May 8, 2014 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Zespol Szkol No. 2, Gimnazjum No. 3 (ZSG) is a public high school located in Swidnik, near Lublin, Poland.  In 1997 the school launched its international student exchange program with several European high schools and in 2007 it broadened it to include the Charles Wright Academy (CWA) in Tacoma, WA. The week-long program at ZSG focuses on the students’ social and cultural interaction in joint (hosts + visitors) activities and projects in art, music, dance and drama.  ZSG has also invited speakers on important issues of human rights, tolerance and justice, and both last year (May 16, 2013) and this year I was invited to speak on my childhood experiences in the Holocaust.  The Swidnik event this year included 14 students from Belgium, 9 from France, 17 from Germany, 8 from USA (CWA), and 50 from ZSG.  It was organized again by teacher Ula Burda with support from others, and with active involvement by principal Ewa Darwicz.

I had not expected to participate in the ZSG event last year as I had no desire to visit Poland after leaving it in 1949. However, in late 2012 ZSG teacher Anna Szewczyk (whom I had met at CWA’s Global Teen Summit a few months earlier) emailed me a page from the 1939 Warsaw phone book with my father’s name, profession, address and phone number.  When I saw my father’s name in a mundane phone book page, it suddenly made him a real person for me for the first time (I have no memory of him as I was only one year old when he was killed at the start of WWII) and I choked up!  After staring at his name a few minutes, I answered Anna’s email that I would come and speak at ZSG’s May 2013 event. Afterwards I was invited by Ula Burda to speak again at the May 2014 event, and I agreed to do it providing she would arrange for me to also speak at 2 schools in Warsaw and 2 in Lublin. The reason for my request was the survey conducted that spring of 1250 high school students in Warsaw which revealed an amazingly high degree of anti-Semitism.  Since the surveyed students probably never met a Jew as there are now only a few thousand in Poland, I wanted to speak to such students and show them that we are absolutely normal and nothing to fear or hate. Arranging these talks, especially in Warsaw, was not an easy task, but Ms. Burda did it splendidly and therefore I came to Poland and Swidnik once again.

One surprising difference between last year’s visit to Swidnik and this year’s was that now both Ms. Burda and Ms. Szewczyk seemed like old friends, and since my wife Mimi’s birthday occurred while we were in Swidnik, it was a genuine pleasure to share the event with them.

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Prywatne Gimnazjum i Liceum im. Ignacego Jana Paderewskiego, Lublin, Poland – May 8, 2014 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Prywatne Gimnazjum i Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. Ignacego Jana Paderewskiego w Lublinie (Paderewski International School in Lublin) is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School which offers the IB Middle Years Programme and IB Diploma Programme as well as the Polish national curriculum to its 320 students.  Both IB programmes aim to “promote intercultural understanding and respect, not as an alternative to a sense of cultural and national identity, but as an essential part of life in the 21st century.”  To this goal, the IB Mission Statement (www.ibo.org/mission) includes the following words: “These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” This requires very high academic standard of the participating schools, which at Paderewski includes both a Gimnazjum (ages 13-16) and Liceum (ages 16-19).

The school also prides itself in its excellent facilities which include special fitness rooms available to the local population: one is equipped with an impressive array of modern exercise machines and another is a special maternity gym with appropriate equipment.

My presentation was organized by Diana Chmielewska, IBDP English and Spanish teacher, whose irrepressible and infectious enthusiasm surely enhances the learning process for her students.  After the presentation and book signing we met with the head of the school Adam Kalbarczyk and enjoyed a delicious light lunch before leaving for the next event at Swidnik with its teacher, Ula Burda, who arranged our visit here and attended it with us.

Letters from Students

A few days ago we received several letters (and a drawing “Don’t Blame Children”, thank you) from students at the Paderewski International School.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner tonight my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were impressed not only by the students’ excellent English (both grammar and vocabulary), but especially by the thoughtful content and sensitivity of the letters.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • You made me realize how lucky I am to live in a country under no occupation.
  • What the Nazis did is not pardonable, but we can’t blame today’s generations for what their predecessors did.
  • I am sitting in my kitchen, here in Poland, looking through the window and staring at nothing – an empty space which always grows in front of our eyes when we are strongly thinking or suddenly understanding something.
  • I was a little skeptical about your talk at the beginning because I am not very happy about history, specifically WWII. The reason is simple – it terrifies me.
  • Thanks to your story I realized that I should trust people more and shouldn’t judge them by first impression.
  • You told us about many things that we haven’t learned in history lessons.
  • There are many people who are “zealous” about their religion but act completely differently than their religion tells them to do.
  • Your words were unforgettable – that all of us have a choice who we want to be in our life, how we want to treat others, and how we want to be treated by them.

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Zespol Szkol No. 112, Gimnazjum No. 32, Warsaw, Poland – May 6, 2014 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Zespol Szkol No. 112 Gimnazjum No. 32 (named after poet Adam Asnyk) is located in Warsaw’s Praga district, on the east bank of the Wisla river, and my presentation there was organized by its English teacher Yvonne Saleta.  Since her students also study history, she emailed me that “it would be very interesting for them to have a real history lesson in English.”  To prepare her students for my presentation and make them more aware of the Holocaust, Ms. Saleta launched them into several projects on the subject of hatred, such as taking them to a theater to see a monodrama of Ann Frank’s diary and also having them compose and prepare anti-war posters.  (Her explanation: “The happenings in Ukraine have had a great impact on all of us. We talk to our students, discuss possible scenarios. We naively thought that war was not possible in our region now. How disappointed we all are….”)  This preparation resulted in an engaged student audience as shown by their subsequent questions.  The relative fluency of their questions as well as their one-on-one comments to me during the book signing showed me that I need not have worried about their English – since they expressed themselves in English quite well, they surely understood it also quite well.

My presentation was attended by Ms. Saleta and her students, teachers Agnieszka Galaszewska and Renata Wilczynska, vice principal Jolanta Kudlak and principal Wojciech Nasilowski.  In addition, Ms. Saleta also invited students and officials from some nearby schools, resulting in an audience of approximately 100.

After the presentation and signing my books for the students, we joined our gracious hosts for a special lunch of Polish family-style cooking which the school’s cook had prepared for us. It was a wonderful sign of their warm hospitality and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Gimnazjum No. 3, Warsaw, Poland – May 6, 2014 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Gimnazjum No. 3, named for Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, is located in Mokotow on the southern edge of central Warsaw, only a few blocks from the primary school that I attended before leaving for the U.S. in 1949, so going there for my presentation felt a bit like homecoming.  The event was organized by Violetta Tarnowska, the energetic and idealistic teacher of Polish and English.  She has noticed that students are becoming less and less aware and interested in Warsaw’s history before and during WWII and she earnestly wants to ensure that they learn and remember it, including that of its pre-war Jewish community (which was 1/3 of Warsaw’s total population) and of the Holocaust.  She therefore wholeheartedly welcomed my presentation and even invited students from other gimnazjums plus representatives of Warsaw school authorities, resulting in an audience of approximately 180 in total.  Since my presentation was entirely in English, I was concerned about the need for translation, but Ms. Tarnowska assured me that most of the students were sufficiently competent in English so only unique words or terms would need translation and she would provide for it.  Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised with the students’ competence in English: during my presentation only words such as “barbed wire”, “stuttering” or “sawmill” needed translation, and in my brief one-to-one conversations during book-signing I was especially surprised at most students’ comfort in speaking with me.

My strong desire to speak to high schools in Warsaw (and Lublin also) was precipitated by a professional survey of approximately 1500 Warsaw high school students a year ago that revealed an amazingly high degree of anti-Semitism.  Since the surveyed students probably never met a Jew as there remain only several thousand in all of Poland, I wanted to speak to such students and show them that Jews are absolutely normal and nothing to fear or hate. A few days after my talk at Gimnazjum No. 3 I was very gratified by an email from Ms. Tarnowska, as follows:

“There was one thing that impressed me most. Before your arrival a 15-year old student told my colleague-teacher that he was not going to take part in an event in which a Jewish-origin person would be addressing him. The teacher talked with this boy and asked him about the roots of his attitude. He was so nervous and answered that he strongly disliked Jews because of what his grandfather told him about them. The teacher made an effort to calm him down, asked some detailed questions and explained things, but after that she told him it would probably be better if he didn’t participate in this meeting. However, the boy did attend it, and something unusual happened: the boy probably understood the simple truth that he was brought up in hate and hostility by his family, that there are good and bad Jews, just like there are good and bad Poles, Americans, etc.  I saw this boy smiling after your speech and queuing for nearly an hour for your autograph in his copy of your book. That is why I believe it is worth talking to people, especially the youth because they are so open-minded, unspoiled. If you had not come to visit us, this young boy would probably be prejudiced against all the Jews till the end of his life and would bring up his children in hate.  You know, it hurts me that there is still this kind of prejudice in my country.”

I could not have wished for anything more, and I thank Ms. Tarnowska for sending this email to me!  I feel that this one vocal boy was surely not the only one in the audience with an anti-Semitic attitude (as shown by last year’s survey), only the others did not face their teachers with it.  However, as in his case, their prejudice is probably only on the surface, caused by what their parents or grandparents have said rather than anything they’ve witnessed themselves, so perhaps some of them also had a change of heart, as he has, and I helped to make it happen.  This is what is important, and this is what makes me continue doing these talks, though it still involves some emotional discomfort.

In addition to Ms. Tarnowska, attending my presentation were the Gimnazjum’s headmaster Katarzyna Hampel and English teacher Magdalena Cieslik, my wife Mimi (who took these photographs), our son Jordan and our friends Richard & Evelyn Gumpert.

Introduction by teacher Violetta Tarnowska

Introduction by teacher Violetta Tarnowska

Start of presentation

Start of presentation

 

 

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Miramonte High School, Orinda, CA – April 25, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Miramonte High School is a public high school serving the residential communities of Orinda, Moraga, and others, just over the hills east of UC Berkeley. With a student body of approximately 1200, it has a strong college preparatory program with 98% of its graduates going to college. The quality of its academics is reflected in its ratings which, in the past 5 years, included #21 in California and #126 in the US as ranked by US News and World Report, #89 and #173 in the US as ranked by Newsweek, and 1st in California’s Academic Performance Index (API). In addition to high academics, Miramonte has also produced many championship teams in football and water polo.

My presentation at Miramonte was part of a culminating set of activities at the end of their exploration of WWII and of the Holocaust for their approximately 300 freshman class. The timing was explicitly configured to help students connect their study of a subject that is “long ago and far away” from their own lives, and a speaker telling them about personal experiences always makes it more meaningful.  The activities started the previous day when the students met a Pearl Harbor survivor. “Mickey,” as he told the students to call him, is 95 years young and enjoyed meeting the students as much as they enjoyed meeting him. Also, just prior to my talk Facing History Director Jack Weinstein met with and presented a session for the students on the concept of bystander vs. upstander behavior in history. Through interactive exchanges and discussion about a short film, students had the chance to confront questions about moral choice-making in the context of the study of the Holocaust. These activities show that the school’s leaders are committed to the idea that history matters, that its study should not be limited to books or films, and that personal testimony is of unique value. The level of attention paid to me by the students during and especially after my talk certainly indicated that these hopes are lived out in the culture of the school, and the appreciation displayed by the audience seemed authentic and sincere. The event was organized by Associate Principal Jan Carlson, my participation was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, and my “photographic support” was graciously provided by teacher Meredith Hawkins.

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – April 24, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has approximately 1,760 students and high diversity. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the third year in a row that I have visited its Future Academy for Social Change.  Based on my past two visits, I looked forward to an enthusiastic and well-prepared audience, and I was not disappointed.  I observed again how the enthusiasm of teacher Jorja Santillan transfers to her students, whom she prepares through her Facing History-based unit. In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive. I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”

The Future Academy, as it is often called, is known for attention to broadening its students’ exposure to the wider community. One example is that when the students study a subject such as the Holocaust, they not only explore its historical context but also read a memoir, meet a scholar or survivor, and consider contemporary issues related to what they have studied.  They have also visited San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum to learn something about Jewish life today.  Jack Weinstein, of Facing History and Ourselves, who arranged for my presentation at Arroyo on all three occasions, participates in teaching the Holocaust unit and says, “The students do an in-depth study of the Holocaust, and it may be among the most moving explorations of their high school experiences. And their visit to the Museum teaches them that Jewish life is vibrant, diverse, and present in their own society, and that there is more to know about this subject than the Holocaust alone.” Both Jack and I were genuinely impressed by the openness and sincere interest shown by the students, especially in some one-on-one conversations after the presentation.

Letters from Students

We were away for several weeks (including in Poland where I spoke at 5 high schools in 3 cities), and the mountain of mail that greeted us on our return included a large envelope with over 70 letters from Arroyo students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in the letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • You went through so much but never gave up. It shows us that we need to keep fighting though our struggles.
  • My responsibility by listening to you is to keep your story alive as long as I can.
  • I felt responsible to change something in my life or spread your story. Your speech was a wakeup call that basically said this is real and still a problem.
  • You are the reason why I will stand up against intolerance. I will stand up for those who are oppressed and cannot fight back. Thank you for speaking to us, it really has changed my outlook on life.
  • I learned that the Holocaust did not just affect the people in the camps but also struck terror and fear into the lives of those outside the camps.
  • I was fascinated to learn that during the Holocaust, families who were not Jewish took in Jews who were trying to hide.   I found it amazing that these people knew that it was the right thing to do and they risked their lives to do it.
  • We need to keep history alive because many people don’t realize how prejudice and stereotyping can be harmful.
  • I actually shared your story with my cousin today. I told her that I met a Holocaust survivor, and she asked me what the Holocaust was!
  • I liked how you compared prejudice to bullying. It really made me realize that our actions do have an impact, and it has changed my perception on the little things I take for granted and on life, of course.
  • Please keep spreading your life & knowledge. You opened my eyes and I know you can open more.
  • Your story has opened my eyes to see that there was so much more to the Holocaust than just the idea of Hitler trying to get rid of Jews.
  • I hope you continue to share your story for years to come so that many others will get the opportunity to hear you as well.
  • I’ll make sure your story never dies. I’ll tell people about it.
  • This part of your life & experiences molded you into the person that you are today.
  • The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues.
  • You and your mother have given me a new idea of what strength and love is.
  • I will share what you have shared with me with anyone willing to listen.
  • What impacted me the most was knowing that you might not be able to see your mother ever again.
  • Yesterday I went home and told my parents, my brother, and my grandparents all about your remarkable story.
  • I know that it is our job, as this generation, to keep this history alive so it really means something, not just another statistic in history books, but so it doesn’t repeat itself.
  • Thank you so much for telling your story and offering it as a gift to the world, even though so much was taken from you.
  • I learned from you that sometimes in life we go through tough times and we don’t know why, but we must continue to fight on and find ways to turn our problems into solutions.
  • I’m grateful for your courage, because if you didn’t tell your story I wouldn’t have the new mindset that I have now.
  • It made me really reflect on my life and think of my decisions and actions. I have made a vow that from now on I will always do what is fair and just, regardless of what the outcome may be. I will follow my heart and keep you and your mother’s story alive through the kindness of my actions, for the rest of my life.
  • You said that we have the power to live our lives the way we think is right or to live in hate. These are words I recite to myself now.
  • From hearing your story I want to work for Child Protective Services, working with kids that come from tragic backgrounds.   I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity.
  • Your story opened my mind to always help others and put myself in their shoes, and not discriminate based on who they are or what they do.
  • Whatever I can do to try and make this world a better place, I will do.
  • I know that when I am older I will help people, whether it is through donations, charities, or some other ways.
  • Hearing you speak yesterday made me change the way I look on life, to appreciate what I have right now.
  • I will keep this event in my heart.  (PS: “With will one can do anything!”)
  • I’d like you to know that your story and life have ignited a fire in my soul to always stay positive, and to know that light will always be at the end of the tunnel.

 

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