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.) 

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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.

the group

mid-talk

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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.

audience

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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group

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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.

audience 1

audience2

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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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