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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Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma, WA – September 29, 2014

by George J Elbaum

This was the fifth consecutive year that I spoke at Charles Wright Academy’s (CWA) Global Teen Summit, which this year consisted of the 75 students of the CWA freshmen class and 42 high school students and teachers from China, Colombia, England and Poland, the visitors staying with CWA host families during their visit, as usual.  The annual Global Teen Summit is a 10-day program designed to promote peace and social justice by exposing the visiting students to and developing their understanding of the concepts of universal human rights and justice, fair trade and sustainable life styles, and by demonstrating how the choices that each of us makes every day can impact the world. The core of the Summit is a series of speakers whose personal experiences reflect directly on these subjects, and their presentations are followed by group discussions on these very concepts. My presentation, which started this year’s program, was the first time that most of these students heard directly from a Holocaust survivor, and their subsequent comments, questions, and comparisons of the Holocaust with violence in their own countries (China and Columbia) were very interesting.  The Summit’s founder, organizer, and guiding force is Nick Coddington, whose amazingly intense and varied background is exceeded only by his enthusiasm in instilling the Summit’s concepts in his students. (This presentation was arranged by the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.) 

Letters from Students

A few weeks after the CWA event the mail brought a packet with more than 100 letters from the students who attended my talk.   A few days later, after dinner, my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, and felt very gratified by the students’ responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below, grouped by the 5 countries (in alphabetical order) of the attending students.

China

  • The Holocaust has always been a far-away topic for me. I only knew that many Jews lost their lives, but I couldn’t feel their fear, their pain, their despair, or their hope of surviving.  The one who told me all of these things was you.
  • Your story reminds me about the uneasiness of living, and how important it is to have hope when we are facing suffering.
  • You said that you survived by pure luck, but I think that luck is partly produced by decisions.
  • I’m interested in your expectations for the next generation.
  • As a Chinese, I’ve always been interested in the totalitarianism in WWII, since we were one of the victim countries.
  • I appreciate taking part in the Global Teen Summit. As teenagers, we definitely live in a world that is more fair and full of opportunities than in WWII, and I’m glad to get hold of my own life and make my own decisions.

Colombia

  • I asked you “If somehow you were able to meet or decide the fate of the people who kept your family captive, who might have killed your father, would you be able to forgive them?” and I felt my question could not have been more thoroughly answered. Indeed, the heart has to make many of the toughest decisions of our lives, and these are the right ones regardless of the results, because no matter the outcome you will always be at ease with yourself.
  • Nowadays Colombia is endeavoring to put a halt to its 50 years of conflict, pursuing a peace treaty in which both sides can reach an equitable agreement. However, both sides MUST forgive each other: the mother must forgive her son’s murderer, the sister must overlook the night she had to hold her brother’s corpse, and a whole country must pardon its own siblings and look forward to growing as one.  It’s when we need to agree that such decision can overcome the pain, misery and suffering and open the gates for understanding, and thus serve our future.  This principle is applicable to both your and our story.
  • I’m from Colombia, an as you know it’s not a very peaceful country. Since I was little I’ve been aware and frustrated by all the violence and corruption that hurts my beautiful country, full of wonderful people and the potential to become a great nation.  Hearing your story and understanding how Poland, Germany and other countries which were involved in this terrible war were able to literally come back from ashes and become the countries they are now, gives me hope for my country and my people.
  • I think that denying something terrible that happened is the same as doing nothing.
  • For me and most Colombians, WWII victims are an alien topic in which the history is acknowledged but the stories aren’t felt. Hearing you has taught me an important lesson: a man can be shattered physically, but as long as there is a shine of hope and courage, this man will survive.
  • Thank you for changing people’s lives and making us realize that difficulties can be overcome if you persevere and believe in yourself.
  • I know it’s difficult for you to recall those painful memories, but this will help our generation to learn from these mistakes of humanity in order to never do it again.
  • You can have no doubt that our generation will carry your story as a gift and will share it with others so it would never be forgotten, and hopefully one day we’ll make a difference.
  • I liked your story in particular because it shows how this awful moment in human history was perceived through the eyes of a young child. The innocence of your younger self gives a new and unique perspective on these events.  I thank you for telling your deeply touching story.

England

  • Your story was first-hand and real, and it seriously hit me hard what you and thousands of other children had to go through at that time, and if they survived, the hurt they would carry for the rest of their lives.
  • Your story truly touched my heart and made me appreciate the amazing life I live. Not having fear haunt me and terrify me everyday of my life, we are all so very lucky.
  • Your story left me feeling extremely lucky and privileged to live in the world we live in today.
  • If everyone on this planet heard your story, I am certain that this world would be a better place.

Poland

  • I saw the concentration camp in Majdanek and after that it was something unforgettable to hear your story.
  • Your story should make every Pole feel real pride for the good that was done or maybe real sadness for what wasn’t done.
  • (Several letters expressed surprise or sadness that I did not feel Polish but rather American, and my answer is: time. I lived in Poland and was aware of my surroundings only 8 years (from age of 3 to 11) and some of these were not very happy years, but I’ve lived in America the next 65 years (from 11 to 76). I grew up in America, my adult consciousness was developed in America, and thus it is natural that I would feel as an American, not because of any feeling against Poland but rather for America – it is my home.) 

USA

  • People can study all about the Holocaust and not realize what it really was until it’s put into the perspective of an actual witness, survivor or victim. It struck me how lucky we are to live here at this time and how lucky you are to be alive.
  • It disgusts me that some people lie to themselves that the Holocaust never happened and that all the victims just moved to Israel, even with so many images, films and records that entire generations were murdered. That is like saying that the dinosaurs didn’t die but all went on a vacation to the moon.
  • I have heard of other Holocaust survivors saying that they have given up on God and love because of the unjust hardships and unbelievable prejudice that they faced during the war. To hear from someone who has seen so much horror and so much of the cruelty of human nature, yet who still remains a hopeful, optimistic, and loving person was amazing to me.
  • While you were speaking, I felt like I’m also a refugee in the horrible, brutal war under Germany’s invasion. I appreciate the choice you made to pass down your story and let us know the history better.
  • It was the “Dark Period” of the world.
  • Having you here taught me so much more about the Holocaust than if a teacher had given us a lecture. You also made our everyday troubles seem so small, which helped us to see that we are very fortunate to live in the United States and go to a great school.
  • I learned about the Holocaust last year, but I feel now like I could go through it in my own eyes with your story.
  • Hearing someone’s experience made the whole event a lot more horrible than just hearing about it in a History class. It helped bring the story to life, and I felt like I was there, watching each little scene happen.
  • The things you talked about, especially how the choices we make affect others, have inspired me to try to become a better person.
  • After your speech, my peers and I engaged in a lively conversation, and it was interesting to see my classmates reflect on your powerful words.
  • I will be more prepared to talk about the Holocaust with others, and relay the terrible truths and moral ideas that come with it.

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St. Luke School, Shoreline, WA – September 26, 2014

by George J Elbaum

I first spoke at St. Luke School almost 3 years ago (November 7, 2011), and I truly looked forward to returning.  My key memories were of a very enthusiastic teacher, Rosemary Conroy, and her 8th grade students who reflected her enthusiasm, and of the wonderful surprise they gave me: a red tricycle like the one I received on my 3rd birthday as described in my book Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.  My visit today only reinforced those memories, especially of Ms. Conroy’s infectious enthusiasm.

St. Luke School teaches more than 300 students in K-8 grades based on the belief that “quality Catholic education teaches the whole child spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially.”  The 8th grade Social Studies Curriculum, as organized and taught by Rosemary Conroy, is very intensive as it covers U.S. history, Washington State history, geography, economics, politics, and current events.  The curriculum highlights the formative periods of U.S. history: the Revolutionary War, development of the Constitution & Bill of Rights, Civil War, WWI and WWII, and it includes an in-depth look at the Holocaust.  Where possible, Ms. Conroy invites outside speakers who witnessed first-hand the events being studied, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Nisei relocation program, WWII POW camps and the Tuskegee Airmen.  After my talk Ms. Conroy’s class gave me a cap of the champion Seattle Seahawks, which I wore for the subsequent photographs, to the amusement of the students.

The event was arranged by Amanda Davis of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.

Letters from Students

After returning from Seattle we traveled to the East Coast for two weeks, and the mail that greeted us on our return included a large envelope with a wonderful note from teacher Rosemary Conroy and three dozen letters from her 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 their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with me are excerpted below.

  • We both had similar childhoods, hard to overcome. This made us stronger people.  I hope to meet again.
  • I liked how you intertwined your personal events with the historical events.
  • You have inspired me to try and try and try to raise awareness about the Holocaust and to teach the next generation about how one can accept others.
  • Your story was so moving and really touched my heart and mind. It gave me another perspective on what happened in the Holocaust.
  • As you were telling your story I could picture it in my head: you and your mother going to separate homes and not being able to see her for periods of time.
  • I have a cousin who is four years old and the thought of her being separated from the family breaks my heart.
  • Since you told your story I thought of this poem by Sylvia Kelly: “Strength and Courage. It takes strength to be certain, it takes courage to have doubts.  It takes strength to fit in, it takes courage to stand out.  It takes strength to share a friend’s pain, it takes courage to feel your own.  It takes strength to hide your own pain, it takes courage to show it and deal with it.  It takes strength to stand guard, it takes courage to let it down.  It takes strength to conquer, it takes courage to surrender.  It takes strength to endure abuse, it takes courage to stop it.  It takes strength to stand alone, it takes courage to lean on a friend.  It takes strength to love, it takes courage to be loved.  It takes strength to survive, it takes courage to live.”
  • Everything is going to be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK it’s not the end.
  • I can’t even believe how much courage and bravery it must have taken for the people in the ghetto to stand up against the Nazis even though they knew that they would die.
  • You taught us that there are bad people and good people in this world. Some are so mean we think we can never forgive them, but there are also ones who are so kind and loving that they would risk their life for your own.
  • You inspired me to be a better person.
  • I learned that in life you take what you’re given and make something of it, and when you don’t like it you change it.
  • Your story made me feel like I was there. It brought pain and joy to my heart.
  • Conroy told my class about your tricycle story. It was heartbreaking.  Then she told us about how she got you an almost replica of it (for your previous visit to St. Luke), and how you loved it and rode the tricycle around the classroom.  If I was there in the room, watching you ride the tricycle, I would break into tears.  It is such a touching story.
  • Jeszcze raz dziekuje bardzo za przyjezd i za przemowe. (Thank you in Polish.)
  • It is inspiring and saddening to learn about those who stood up to the Nazis and went down fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto.
  • You taught us to keep going.
  • One of the main lessons I learned is to treat others with dignity and without hate. If our society can learn to accept others, a situation like the Holocaust can be prevented.
  • You taught us to do what is right. We need to choose the side that helps others, not the side that is easiest.  These lessons will help us become more just and loving people.
  • You taught me the true meaning of what family is and how, no matter what, they will be by your side and love you unconditionally.
  • I learned some great family lessons. Just the way you spoke about your mom made me want to go home and hug mine.
  • I realize that it must have been hard for you to talk about this topic, and this to me was the most inspiring aspect of your speech.
  • Another inspiring part of your speech was the hope – the darkest part of your life and you still had hope. That is something in which I’ve not been tested and hope never to be tested, but if it does happen I know that I still will have hope.
  • Keep doing what you’re doing, spreading the word, inspiring people that times will get better, and what to them seems like a hard time, like peer pressure for me, it actually isn’t that bad!
  • I cannot quite put into words how your talk has inspired me to live my life free of judgment.
  • I learned that even if someone hurts you, always choose the fair side because it can lead to a much better outcome than choosing the revenge side.
  • I’ve had teachers tell me that the reason we study history is so we don’t repeat it. In this case, I truly believe this statement.

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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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