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.

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.

JFCS 12-3-14

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.

group photo

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.

group copy

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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.

total group4

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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.

Cover Photo A

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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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