Islander Middle School, Mercer Island, WA – May 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Islander Middle School (IMS) is the only public middle school (grades 6 thru 8) on Mercer Island.  Its enrollment is approximately 1100 students with 28% minority.  IMS utilizes district-adopted curriculum as the foundation for its core classes as well as offering a variety of engaging learning electives, and it clearly succeeds in this task as it’s ranked an impressive 10th of 441 Washington middle schools.  The school’s mission statement, “We strive to ensure a challenging, relevant and engaging experience where every student is able to advance to a greater level of understanding, ability and performance,” clearly extends beyond only academics, as it prepares its students to “thrive in today’s cognitive, digital, and global world while sustaining their passion and inspiration for learning.”

In addition to academics, IMS has a strong social and societal focus, presenting and promoting subjects such as race and equality, civil rights, and other current issues of our society.  The monthly Principal’s Message on its website also includes down-to-earth advice for students, such as use and misuse of social media, and a monthly Character Trait Dare, such as honesty, forgiveness, etc, with specific suggestions for students to test themselves on that trait.

As part of the school’s societal focus I was invited to speak about my Holocaust childhood to the 8th grade class (approx. 200 students) as I did the previous 3 years.  Unlike the past years, however, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to switch from in-person to online teaching, and my talk also online via Zoom.  All went according to plan until Zoom crashed several minutes before the end of my presentation and the start of Q&A.  I therefore lost the opportunity to encourage students to speak up when faced with bullying, antisemitism or racism, and also to address the list of 28 questions that they assembled before my talk plus an equal number submitted during the talk via Zoom’s chat feature.  Since I feel strongly that the Q&A is a critical part of the talk, I committed to answering these questions via email.

The event was again organized by Language Arts teacher Joseph Gushanas and attended by Principal MaryJo Budzius and English teachers Aaron Miller and Weston Lucas.  My participation was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Research Coordinator, Holocaust Center for Humanity.

The event was again organized by Language Arts teacher Joseph Gushanas and arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Research Coordinator, Holocaust Center for Humanity.

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Catholic Memorial School, West Roxbury, MA – May 18, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Catholic Memorial School (CM) is an all-boys college preparatory school (grades 7–12) with an attendance of 732 students (650 in grades 9-12) and a stated purpose to “prepare boys for college, manhood and a world full of unknown challenges, ambiguity and complex problems and the importance of relationships.”

In addition to academics, Catholic Memorial prepares its students for community leadership roles through its speech and debate program, and nearly every student participates in “forensics”, or speech and debate, at one point in his academic career.  CM faculty teach students public speaking skills through various classroom activities.  In the Speech and Debate club students perform and compete inter-scholastically as they recite speeches, dramatic acts and original oratory.  The school’s Speech and Debate program has produced over 25 state and three national champions, and its Forensics program has won two straight Massachusetts Speech and Debate league championships in 2017 and 2018.

CM’s mission also includes the mandate to teach young men to “lead through service”.  CM students participate in numerous domestic and international trips each year, and these build a community among the students and immerse students in service experiences.  Additionally, a required 60-hour senior service program begins at the start of each year, with seniors serving at inner-city grammar schools, hospitals, non-profit agencies, clothing distribution centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens.  Volunteers from all grades and CM’s ten community service clubs contribute thousands of hours of service each year.

Athletics is also a strong focus at CM, and its ice hockey program is regarded as one of the premier high school ice hockey programs in the country.  As such, its team has been ranked #1 team in the United States several times and won the Massachusetts Super Eight Tournament 17 times.  CM has also produced state champions in wrestling and lacrosse.

My talk at Central Catholic via Zoom was organized by Peter Hill, its International Student Coordinator and member of the Social Studies Faculty.  The audience was the 10th grade Western Civilization Honors class that was currently in the midst of studying WWII and the Holocaust, using materials developed by Facing History and Ourselves.  Attending also were Vin Bradley, Social Studies Department Chair, and Michael Kotsopoulos, Theology teacher and Assistant Director of Communications. Over the years I’ve come to believe that the quality of students’ questions reflects the quality of teaching, and thus their teacher, and these students asked some very important & perceptive questions, several that have never been asked of me in my 260+ talks.  Bravo!

The talk was arranged by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves.

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA (again) – May 13, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,800 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 9th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust.  This year, however, it was unfortunately not face-to-face but via the internet and Zoom, with each student at their computer at home, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restricted all of us to our homes.  Looking at my web posts of previous visits to Arroyo, with dozens & dozens of photos of students and remembering the brief but memorable chats with students & teachers, I look forward to a real rather than virtual visit to Arroyo next year.

This year’s virtual “visit” was organized by teacher Jorja Santillan, who organized my actual (non-virtual) visits to Arroyo since 2012, so this was the 12th annual “visit” in a row.  Although this “virtual” class was much smaller than her classes to which I spoke directly in past years, I still observed how Jorja’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the history and ramifications of the Holocaust.   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.”

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College Park High School, Pleasant Hill, CA – May 1, 2020

by George J Elbaum

College Park High School has a current enrollment of 2022 students of which 50% are minority and 22% are economically disadvantaged.  Despite these demographics, it is far above California state average of college and career readiness, such as student test scores (English 74% vs. 51% CA average and Math 48% vs. CA average) and 97% graduation rate.  It is therefore rated 9/10 by GreatSchools.org and USNews.com.

This presentation to College Park 10th-12th grade students was organized by World History teacher Lauren Weaver, who also organized last year’s presentation.  Her students have studied WWII and the Holocaust, and were therefore aware of governmental persecution in Germany in the 1930s, including targeted boycotts, the Nuremberg Laws, planned stages of identification and separation in Ghettos, acts of violence such as Kiristallnacht, and eventual removal of Jews to concentration and death camps.  The main difference in my presentation this year was that starting in March, all classes were held online rather than on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so I spoke to 70+ students via Zoom vs. several hundred last year.  The main contact with the students was via the typed-in chats that Zoom allows, but unfortunately no real-time feedback from the students, and obviously no photographs.  I missed that feedback and look forward to returning to College Park and Lauren Weaver’s class next year.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator at the Holocaust Center of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Emails from students

Following the Zoom session several students responded with short messages, and I’ve excerpted the comments which most strongly resonated with me and listed these below.

  • I am really happy that you turned an awful memory into a turning point to inspire others.
  • Your story about a high school counselor telling you that you were not smart enough to pursue your dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer really resonated with me, because I have been told something similar.
  • What I learned from your story is that you should never feel sorry for yourself because you never know what someone else is going through, which could be worse.
  • It is such a blessing that you are still here today to share your story.
  • (from an immigrant) Even though I survived, I would not be able to be as calm as you and share with others. It’s a grey memory that I don’t want to remember.  Thank you very much for sharing.  Hope you stay safe.
  • It was inspiring to hear how you were able to survive as a young child and still stay optimistic after seeing the horrors you have been through. I hope life brings you many joys to come, and you continue to share and bring awareness to your story.  Again, thank you for sharing something that this generation will hopefully never have to face themselves.
  • I don’t think I realized how families were affected by the end of the war and the return of the soldiers after the Holocaust, and just the state of cities and towns they returned to.
  • It’s truly incredible the amount you’ve seen and been through and to come out and speak of your experiences. I want to let you know that it opens my eyes to a perspective of life and death that makes me so appreciative.  Thank you.
  • I feel very grateful that I was able to listen to you. It really helped me to hear what you personally went through and made it easier to connect what I had learned in our readings.  I feel more educated about the Holocaust now than by just reading and watching the films.
  • It opened my eyes and said ” wow this man made it through the worst thing in human history”.
  • I really liked how you put us in your shoes, even though you were very young and don’t remember much. It must be hard to talk about it
  • Your presentation opened my eyes about how living in secrecy and fear changed your views on life. I admire how you look at the positive side of all the negative that had happened and stayed true to yourself.
  • My Polish great, great grandfather was sent to Auschwitz, and then transferred to Mauthausen. Eventually, he was liberated by Americans, and he thanked an American in a tanker. The crazy thing was my mother actually worked with a relative of that American.

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – April 28, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,800 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 9th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust.  This year, however, it was unfortunately not face-to-face but via the internet and Zoom, with each student at their computer at home, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restricted all of us to our homes.  Looking at my web posts of previous visits to Arroyo, with dozens & dozens of photos of students and remembering the brief but memorable chats with students & teachers, I look forward to a real rather than virtual visit to Arroyo next year.

This year’s virtual “visit” was organized by teacher Jess Vaughn, who had participated in several of my previous visits to Arroyo, and I was truly impressed by the quality of the students’ questions: they were perceptive, sensitive, and mature.  I view students’ questions as a reflection not only of the students themselves but also of the teaching, so it was obvious that Jess Vaughn prepared her class very well.  (In Student Questions, most of the dozen from #3 thru #14 were asked at this session.)

The event was arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

Students’ post-talk comments & questions 

If Mr. Elbaum could give advice to the world about how to deal with hate and prejudice, what would he say?  I don’t think that hate and prejudice can be eliminated totally as these are part of human nature, despite 6000+ years of civilization, but each of us can do our share to decrease them by following the Golden Rule, which is treating others as we would want to be treated, and by raising our children to do the same. 

I honestly thought that the ghettos were more comfortable and habitable than what George explained, but when he told us there were starving people and people dying then it definitely changed my mind.

Hearing his story being told by himself was a very fulfilling experience and I think what he does is great. 

It definitely helps me have more empathy for survivors of the Holocaust. They experienced years of pain and suffering that no human being should ever have to go through. I’m very appreciative of Mr. Elbaum for taking time out of his life to share his experiences with us.

How hard was it to start a new life?  Since I was moved as a child from one family of strangers to another, starting a “new life” was traumatic the first few times, and then it became almost a “normal” part of my life.  That pattern continued until I came to America in 1949. 

Terrible moments in history like the Holocaust, should never, ever be repeated again in the future.  (Unfortunately, “should” has little meaning in history of mankind.)

How does his experience with the Holocaust affect his everyday life?  The title of my book, “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows”, answers this question: as a child I learned instinctively to forget the pains of Yesterdays and not to look to Tomorrows because I never knew when or whether I would see my mother again.  I therefore focus on the today, knowing from experience that I will address tomorrow when it arrives.

His mother dyed her hair blond so she wouldn’t be suspected of being Jewish.  I wonder if that was painful for her to see part of her identity leave?  Did she feel empty?  Whereas I had never asked her about this specifically, I suspect that she focused on its necessity for survival rather than a feeling of “identity”.  I’ve been asked a similar question about having to change my last name several times, and I apparently learned for emotional survival that my identity was not in my last name but what’s inside of me.  

Learning about Mr Elbaum’s story shows me that the strength resides in your ability to be resilient and strive for change.

This helps me understand that thing was not a joke and people died for nothing.  (I presume “that thing” means the Holocaust, and I am stunned!) 

 Learning his story affects the way I see the world because it shows how demonic the world can really be.  I know that the Holocaust was a long time ago, but glimpses of it are still present in the world today, such as discrimination, racism, hatred. 

It makes me wonder how people can be so cruel, and how people can be so dehumanizing with no everlasting effect on how they are to society or how their ideas aren’t rejected.  (Apparently one can find kindred spirits in kindness & charity, but also in cruelty & prejudice.)

By learning Mr. Elbaum’s story, I am able to see the great lengths that a guardian may go for the well-being of their child as well as the strength one must obtain under such challenging times. (These words would have pleased my mother very, very much!) 

Humans can be easily corrupted under the sense of false superiority; the lust for power can drive a person to forgo their morals and undertake inhumane actions.  There are times where anyone can lose sight of their path, blinded by the aspirations of others. 

The meeting was very meaningful.  As a person, I see that there is more to life and only so much time.  I plan to make the most out of life, even if there are others that do not wish the same for me.  The world can be cruel, yet kindness and care prevail. 

How many people escaped the camps?  Very few people escaped, but the importance is in how many millions were killed!

I would have liked to have more time and listen to more of George’s story.

I am grateful that our English class got to hear him speak about his very heartfelt experience.  Telling a story about a traumatic event in history must be hard, so I appreciate him for that. 

It helps me to understand that prejudice towards a certain race, religion, or community is not acceptable. 

After learning his story, it changed the way I saw children in different societies.  I understood that most families have different luxuries and lifestyles, but seeing what other children had to go through without choice, makes me feel spoiled and very lucky to be in my position.

How long did it take Mr. Elbaum and other survivors to finally speak on this very hard topic and what made them want to do it?  It took me 65 years from the end of the war till I could write my book and start speaking about the Holocaust, and it was a documentary film, “Paper Clips,” that made me realize that my story has value.  I was then surprised to learn that most survivors who do it, do so only when old.

 I was moved by your story and I admire your resolve and your golden rule to treat others with respect like you would like to be treated.

Thinking that my generation may be the last to hear from a Holocaust survivor such as yourself make me want to hold on to your story.  History repeats itself when old events are forgotten, and I do not want the atrocities spoken of to happen in the future.  Keep doing what you do, I appreciate you and I think you inspire everyone you share your story with.

Thank you for speaking to our class about your experience during the Holocaust and how it affected you.  People like you are what inspire change in the world.

You’ve been through a lot of hardship, yet you use those experiences to grow and to teach others.  Some people who have been through difficult situations may not learn from them, they just stew or take their pain out on others and that’s the exact opposite of what you have done.

Many people try to deny that racism and oppression still exists, but it does.  We need to constantly have conversations about it so that we can move forward.  People like you inspire my generation to stand up for what we know is right.

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Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – April 21, 2020

by George J Elbaum

My very first talk was on Yom Hashoah ten years ago, April 10, 2010, organized by MIT Hillel at the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  It was a painful experience, but immediately afterwards I was encouraged by the audience to “Keep doing this!”, and today, 10 years later, this is my 260th talk.  It was organized by Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity as part of its Yom Hashoah commemoration.  Of necessity it, was presented online via video Zoom because of the currently ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  On the other hand, being online made it much easier to attend than a physical event, and the Zoom tally showed an audience of 500+.

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3gSF Jewish Family and Children’s Services, San Francisco, CA – April 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

3gSF is a group formed by the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and my talk was organized by Penny Savryn, the Center’s Program Coordinator.  Of necessity, it was not presented in person but online via video Zoom because of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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