Stefan Zeromski Liceum, Zyrardow, Poland – March 6, 2018 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

 Stefan Żeromski Liceum in Zyrardow, a town 60 km. from Warsaw, was established in 1920 and is the oldest school in the city.  The population of Zyrardow is approximately 42,000 today, but before WWII it was 28,000 of which almost 20% was Jewish.  In October 1940 a ghetto was created by the Nazis to contain its Jewish population, and 1,000 Jews from neighboring towns were also forced into it.  About 5,000 people were living in the Zyrardow ghetto in February 1941 when all were moved to the Warsaw Ghetto – none survive today.

The Stefan Zeromski High School took part in School of Dialogue training in 2010 at the initiative of one of its history teachers, Bożena Gąsiorowska, who organized my talk at the school today and who is also a Leader of Dialogue in Żyrardów.  The school’s Principal, Beata Stawicka, plus many teachers and 120 students took part in today’s event, which was arranged by the Forum for Dialogue’s Communication Coordinator Marta Usiekniewicz.

the audience, with Principal Beata Stawicka


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I Spoleczne Liceum Bednarska, Warsaw, Poland – March 5, 2018 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

1989 marked the end of communism in Poland, and just a few months after the first democratic elections a group of opposition (i.e. non-communist) leaders founded the Bednarska High School as the first independent (i.e. non-governmental) school in post-communist Poland.  The stated ideals on which it was based are Democracy, Tolerance, and Cooperation (teachers and students respecting one another, unlike the highly hierarchical system heretofore).  Bednarska’s old timers feel that these ideals have been maintained since its founding, so teachers are able to inspire and engage their students.

Per Bednarska’s website, the following makes the school special:

  • An individual approach to learning.
  • Each grade and each class has an original name which is given by students and their tutors.
  • A wide range of foreign language classes (English as well as French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish or Latin).
  • ECO TRIPS for students at the beginning and the end of the school year to rural areas/forests, during which students learn how to live an ecologically sustainable life. (They travel by bike or walk, take part in daily activities such as collecting brushwood, cooking their meals, sleeping in tents or barns, and have no internet connection!)

Student statements about Bednarska, as recorded on video I received, are quite reminiscent of the early hippie movement in America: “a community of people with shared ideals”; “a state of mind”; “a group of people who think in a specific way and want to change things”; “a place where I feel free”; “our second home”; “it’s everything to me.”  Walking through the school I saw much student art being created and displayed, and sensed a free flowing, free-wheeling atmosphere, thus the reminiscence and hope that things are truly as good and idealistic as proclaimed.

During the Q&A, students questioned my feeling about “Poland nowadays” (i.e. the whole political situation) and the situation in America, which led to a discussion on human nature, which in turn led to one teacher pointing to the famous Stanford prison experiment of 1971.  All in all, a very stimulating afternoon.

My visit to  Bednarska was organized by teacher Katarzyna Rymsza, and arranged by Violetta Tarnowska.


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Szkola Podstawowa Nr. 260 im. Jana Matejki, Warsaw, Poland – March 5, 2018 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

XXXIII Szkola Podstawowa No. 260 named for the painter Jan Matejko 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.  This was my 3rd talk in the school (in 2014, 2017 and again now, but the school’s name has been changed recently from the previous Gimnazjum No. 3 named for Marshall Jozef Pilsudski.)  The event was once again organized by Violetta Tarnowska, the energetic and idealistic teacher of Polish and English.  Some years ago she noticed that students were becoming less and less aware and interested in Warsaw’s history before and during WWII and she wanted 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 welcomed and organized my first talk in her school in May 2014 and invited students from other gimnazjums plus representatives of Warsaw school authorities, resulting in an audience of almost 200.  Because my first talk in her school would be 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, all went smoothly without extra translation each of the 3 times.

After her successful organization of my May 2014 presentation Ms. Tarnowska continued her interest in providing a broad and balanced education for her students, so in July 2016 she accepted a month-long internship in Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity to broaden her knowledge.  On her return to Warsaw she launched a project with her students consisting of 1,500 hand-painted stones to commemorate the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, and she personally placed it in the Treblinka Museum in Treblinka.  Then, when I informed her of my interest to return to Warsaw in May 2017 to once again give talks in Warsaw schools she volunteered to arrange these talks, and this was repeated again for the current talk to which she invited students and teachers from 4 more schools:  Gimnazjum Przymierza Rodzin im. Jana Pawła II, Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. Jarosława Dąbrowskiego, Liceum im. Miguela de Cervantesa, and Liceum im. Romualda Traugutta.  For this visit to Warsaw she also arranged my talks at Liceum Kopernika and Liceum Bednarska.  I very much appreciate her excellent efforts, the resulting contacts with so many Warsaw students, and their warm feedback.

Ms. Tarnowska introduced my presentation in her school, which was also attended by the school’s Director Barbara Rosz, and English teacher Magda Cieślik.

teacher Violetta Tarnowska’s introduction

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XXXIII Bilingual Liceum Kopernika, Warsaw, Poland – March 2, 2018

by George J Elbaum

The XXXIII Bilingual Liceum Mikolaja Kopernika is a public school established more than 60 years ago with current attendance of approximately 1000 students in the 5 grades of liceum + gimnazjum.  Of these, 240 students attended my presentation in English, which was possible because all entering students must pass a written & oral English proficiency test, as all classes are taught bilingually.

The Liceum is certified to teach the IB Diploma Programme, which is authorized and managed by the International Baccalaureate Organization in only 33 schools in Poland.  During two years of study, the students prepare for final examinations in 6 subjects in the following groups: native language, foreign languages, mathematics, social sciences, and natural sciences.  Additionally, IB students write research papers, participate in Theory of Knowledge classes and extracurricular activities to develop their creativity as well as physical and social skills.  The IB Programme is conducted in English and the IB Diploma is recognized by universities around the world.

This was the first of my 6 talks in Poland this year, and it occurred only weeks after the Polish government criminalized any suggestion that Poles might have been complicit in the Holocaust in any way.  This excessive, nationalistically-inspired measure raised an international outcry, as the truth is widely known (and as I personally experienced) that while many Poles risked their lives to hide and save Jews, yet some did indeed collaborate with the Nazis.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised that students in this school and also in the other 5 were aware of this and asked me questions on this subject, such as “What was the attitude of Poles toward Jews during the war?” and “Do you blame Poles who were afraid and did not hide Jews?” and “What is taught about the Holocaust in America?”

My visit to Liceum Kopernika was organized by teacher Agnieszka White and arranged by Violetta Tarnowska, who has ably arranged talks for me in Warsaw schools since I first spoke in her school in May 2014.

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Forum for Dialogue Gala, Warsaw, Poland – March 1, 2018

by George J Elbaum

The Forum for Dialogue is a Polish nonprofit organization established 20 years ago to promote and enhance the dialogue and understanding between modern day Poland and the Jewish community abroad, and thus to help heal the consequences of the Holocaust.  The Forum’s primary focus is Poland’s youth, its high school students, because they are “old enough to understand and young enough to have an open mind,” the key guideline which I learned before my very first talk 8 years ago and have followed since.  Toward this goal the Forum’s specific approach is to focus on schools in the many small towns throughout Poland which had a significant Jewish population (25-50%) before WWII but which was annihilated by the Nazis, to teach volunteering students their town’s Jewish history, and train them to guide visiting groups of Jews from English-speaking countries through the remnants of their town’s Jewish sites, such as the cemeteries, synagogues, schools, etc.  Polish schools which participate in this program to earn the title Schools of Dialogue, and the Gala is an annual event to honor those schools and their students which earned that title in the preceding year.

The Schools of Dialogue Gala is a big, festive event held in Warsaw’s National Opera, an audience of 1200, and this year it honored 40 new Schools of Dialogue and their 1000 students.  The Gala included an artistic performances by students (including a truly talented, soulful singer), special awards to schools for Diversity, for Impact on Local Community, for Innovation, etc, and speeches by the Forum’s President Andrzej Folwarczny, Poland’s Speaker of the Senate Bogdan Borusewicz, Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission Ruth Cohen-Dar, Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Sylvia Spurek, the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schurich, and Deputy Mayor of Warsaw Wlodzimierz Paszynski.  The Gala’s last speaker has traditionally been its Special Guest, a Holocaust survivor, and this year I was this Special Guest.   Last year the Forum translated Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows into Polish and arranged talks for me in 6 Schools of Dialogue and another 6 schools after this year’s Gala, so I felt quite honored.

Organizing and managing the Gala’s smooth operation is a major and demanding effort, and this year it was ably led by the Forum’s Project Coordinator Jagoda Szkarłat and assisted by the Forum team: Maria Piekarska, Julia Machnowska, Marta Rauk, Marta Usiekniewicz, Maria Sokołowska, Marcin Dziurdzik, Anna Barańska, Anna Leszczyńska-Stecka, Izabela Meyza, Jakub Petelewicz, Zuzanna Radzik, and a very dedicated group of over 40 volunteers.

Ordinarily my speech would have been a much shorter version of my usual talk in schools.  However, in recent weeks the Polish government criminalized even words or erroneous phrasing that might suggest some involvement or collaboration of Poles in the Holocaust, and to the international outrage for such Draconian excess the government responded by “doubling down” and adding that Jews might have also done the same.  In this situation I felt that I could not remain silent, and ended my presentation to the Gala’s audience with 6 sentences:

“America was born and Poland was reborn in a struggle, so both countries exist now only because of the strength and heroism of its people.

Both countries have the right to be very proud of their histories, though each country’s history also has dark times during which there was not only heroism but also dark actions which we regret, because they are shameful.

As an American, I know our history, and you in the audience know yours.

But we also know that only by facing our dark actions, our social sins as countries or our personal sins as individuals, is there any hope for improvement and redemption.

For any country’s government or any individual, hiding painful truth is moral failure. Both of our governments are now struggling to face past sins, but with mixed success.

For the sake of our two democracies and our peoples, I very much hope that truth will prevail.”

students from 40 new schools being honored

students from all schools being honored

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Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA – February 13, 2018

by George J Elbaum

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) staged an exhibit, Tour and Talk: Resilience, Holocaust, and the Architecture of Life, which asks the question: “How do we move forward from the past while vowing to never forget?”  The architecture of The CJM is a testament to history and resilience: it is a celebration of life and strength designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, a child of Holocaust survivors, with deeply embedded Jewish symbolism and meaning.  A first-hand testimony by a Holocaust survivor (me on this day) is at the heart of this 2 ½ hour Museum experience, which includes an exploration of the symbolism of The CJM’s architecture through the lens of resilience and artistic reflection.

This is the second year of CJM’s program of student tours, pairing these with talks by Holocaust survivors through partnering with the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS).  These talks offer the students a unique opportunity to connect art, architecture, and history, to humanize historical events and cultivate empathy, and to strengthen links between past and present.  Today’s program included 56 10th grade students from Quarry Lane High School in Dublin, CA, who attended my presentation and then separated into 3 smaller groups for in-depth discussion led by Quarry Lane teachers Ekta Shah, Lance Miller and Ron Bialkowski.  It was interesting, though not surprising, that only a few students asked questions during the Q & A at the end of my talk, but their questions flowed more freely when I joined each of the 3 smaller groups for photos immediately afterwards.  Following the groups’ discussions on the talk, they were led by CJM’s Museum Educators on an exploration of the symbolism of the CJM architecture followed by a hands-on project related to memory.

The event was organized by Janine Okmin, CJM’s Associate Director of Education, and Cara Buchalter, Tour & Education Associate.  Other CJM staff who attended were Kerry King, Chief Operating Officer; Lori Starr, Executive Director; Fraidy Aber, Director of Education & Civic Engagement; PJ Policarpio, Youth Programs Manager; Stacy Rackusin, Director of Development; Andrea Morgan, Director of Institutional Giving; and Joan Hammer, Museum Educator.

My presentation was arranged by JFCS’s Program Coordinator, Nikki Bambauer.

Quarry Lane High School’s 10th graders


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Francisco Middle School, San Francisco, CA – January 25, 2018

by George J Elbaum

Francisco Middle School was established in 1924, and during its more than 90 years of San Francisco history has served many illustrious young students, such as baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and 9/11 hero Betty Ann Ong. Now its high-diversity student body, numbering over 600 youth in grades 6, 7 and 8, mostly live in San Francisco’s North Beach, Chinatown, and Tenderloin neighborhoods.  Since these neighborhoods still include large populations of first- and second-generation immigrants, around 80% of Francisco MS students speak a language other than English at home, and roughly 90% are classified as somewhat economically disadvantaged.  Francisco’s focus therefore must be on facilitating its students’ enduring success in high school and beyond by providing them with a deft command of academic English.  Furthermore, many students and their families originally come from nations such as Vietnam, Yemen, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where war or violence have been or still are a tragic part of their recent experience and modern history.  Effective teaching of such students must be, in my opinion, more challenging, but also more gratifying than teaching ‘typical’ American students, and it therefore calls for teachers with a special dedication or calling to their profession.  At the same time, Francisco students who have experienced war or violence in their home country, or in previous generations of their extended family, perhaps can relate much easier to my childhood.

My presentation at Francisco was part of an 8th grade course on history, human rights, and the Holocaust taught by Language Arts & Social Studies teacher Michael Guenza, who organized the event with the support of Principal Patrick West.  Besides Patrick West and Michael Guenza, other Francisco staff members in attendance included Kylie Neimeth-Lazar and John-Michael Lisovsky.  The event was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator, Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center.


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