Oceana High School is a small public high school in Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 622 students, of which 79% are minority and 34% are economically disadvantaged. Nevertheless, it has a 4-year graduating rate of 94% and academic scores significantly above state averages: English proficiency 70% vs. CA average 50%, Math proficiency 48% vs. CA 39%, and UC/CSU entrance requirements 75% vs. CA 50%. Oceana has accomplished this impressive educational performance by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students.
This was my 4th visit to Oceana since 2015, except this “visit” was unfortunately by Zoom rather than in person because of the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic. It was organized by Stephanie Sotomayor, Chris Korp, Leigh Poehler and Alyssa Ravenwood, the Humanities 10 team, with the support of Bjorn Wickstrom, the Vice Principal.
The audience was approximately 150 10th grade students who have been learning social history and concepts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universe of Obligation, the stages of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, Eugenics, and the Nazis’ rise to power. Their year-long study is based on Facing History and Ourselves’ focus on oppression and resistance, causes and consequences. Also attending the presentation via Zoom were staff members including Erin Peters, Humanities 12 teacher and Nico Storrow, Wellness Counselor. (Stephanie’s German shepherd also had a cameo appearance on the Zoom photo matrix 😊.)
On my previous visits to Oceana I was quite impressed with the colorful student art on its concrete walls, and since this visit was by Zoom only I asked Stephanie if there was any art that I could add to the post on this virtual visit. Stephanie contacted Graham Cruickshank, Oceana’s Visual and Theatre Arts teacher, whom she described as “responsible for all the student creativity around our school” and was the key to placing student art in Oceana’s hallways. Furthermore, because “we are running out of space, he is now having students paint on wooden pallets and he hammers them around the school and rotates them out.” Per my request, Graham supplied the art shown below.
For several years I’ve been speaking at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) as part of their program of student tours organized around a current exhibit and paired with talks by Holocaust survivors, which were arranged by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) Holocaust Center. These talks offered the students an opportunity to connect art, architecture, and history, to humanize historical events and cultivate empathy, and to strengthen links between past and present. This year Covid-19 has prevented conducting museum tours and this program, so CJM’s Educator & Tour Coordinator Ron Glait organized a virtual program called Holocaust & Resistance, including a virtual tour for students, focusing on the Nazis’ rise to power and on the work of particular artists who were engaged in resistance. The CJM virtual tour brings students through the artists’ photographic journey, showcasing the work of Claude Cahun, Roman Vishniac, and others, as a way to learn about Holocaust history. These students would also attend a virtual presentation by a Holocaust survivor, such as mine.
My presentation via Zoom was to 60 9th-grade students from the Bentley School in Lafayette, CA, taught by English Instructor Melina Mamigonian. The students have previously studied World War II in their World History class and will read both Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman as a literary complement to that instruction. Later, students will readMacbeth and Kindred by Octavia Butler. Last year, students staged a dramatic production of The Diary of Anne Frank and mounted a campus-wide, interactive historical exhibition in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. Students will also be interviewing their own adult subjects who have made significant impacts on their own lives in order to produce comics of their own in emulation of Art Spiegelman’s project. In the past, these projects have also borne witness to the experience of genocide and internment, providing students with means of resistance to hatred and discrimination.
Bentley School is a highly rated private K-12 independent day school celebrating its 100 years of quality teaching, with campuses located in Oakland (K-8) and Lafayette (9-12) Arrangements for my presentation today were made by JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator Penny Savryn in partnership with CJM’s Ron Gliat.
Several years ago I received a phone call wherein the caller identified himself as Rodney Goff and said that he was looking for a Jerry Whiteman who had attended Forest Grove High School (FGHS) in Forest Grove, OR. I indeed attended FGHS 1951-1955 and my name then was Jerry Whiteman (which I changed legally in Boston while at MIT in early 1960’s), and I remember Rodney because of the conversations we had while walking together from school occasionally. “Rodney, how did you find me, and why?” I probably blurted with surprise. Rodney replied that he was organizing a reunion of our graduating class and took upon himself a personal mission to find me to invite me. After exhausting various computer searches he found a reference to me in Boston, then remembered that I had gone to MIT after FGHS graduation but nothing further. As the last resort, he checked the available Boston court records in case I had changed my name, and there he found that Jerry Whiteman changed his name to George Elbaum in 1963. Brilliant, yes?! We then launched into a long conversation about our histories since graduation, and he asked me to attend the reunion he was planning. I congratulated Rodney on his detective work and thanked him for the invitation, but could not accept it because I had a perfect record of zero reunion attendance: high school, MIT, organizations, etc, and I didn’t want to break it! He then asked my permission to write a short article about his successful search and my story in the reunion handout, and I agreed.
Fast forward to summer 2020, when I received an email from Josie Ward Heath, asking if I remember her as Josie Ward from FGHS (I did), describing an online reunion she was planning for our class’s 65th graduation anniversary, and after viewing my website she had an idea to discuss with me. She obviously got my contact info from Rodney, and while I had no interest in breaking my “perfect record” of not attending reunions, I was curious about her idea as I remembered her as someone who was always organizing something, so I phoned her. Her idea for the reunion was for me to give my talk via zoom, followed by Q&A, and then followed by reunion chatting via zoom…. which I wouldn’t have to attend if I felt it besmirched my “perfect record.”😊 After much friendly conversation we agreed that rather than giving my talk I would provide all attendees with a link to its video recording which each person could view independently prior to the reunion, and the reunion would start with introductions, followed by Q&A about my talk, and finally the reunion chatting. Re attendance, Josie thought it might be about 20 as over half of our small graduating class have passed away.
And so it happened! The screen print of attendees’ photos (below) shows a dozen who attended with zoom video, plus several more participated by audio only, and the Q&A and chatting were lively and brought many, many memories to each of us. In fact, Rodney was so committed to participating in the reunion that he can be seen in the Zoom photo in his hospital gown…but with a projected background of the Golden Gate bridge! 😊 The smiles on our faces on the photos show that we all enjoyed it. Thank you very much, Josie, for arranging it.
MIT is my alma mater, and MIT Hillelinvited me to give my talk today on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which refers to the wave of anti-Jewish violence which began on November 9-10,1938 throughout Germany and Austria. During these two days, 267 synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish stores were looted and vandalized, 90 people were killed, and the Nazis arrested 30,000 Jewish men, many of whom were sent to concentration camps. In the aftermath, the German government blamed the Jews and enacted dozens of new laws restricting their rights. Kristallnacht thus marked a transition to an era of Nazi destruction and genocide.
The Zoom audience of 97 was composed of students, faculty, and others attracted by MIT Hillel’s publicity announcements (see below), and emails. MIT Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Michelle Fisher (who “roped me” into giving my very first talk 10½ years ago on Holocaust Memorial Day) organized the event together with Hillel staffers Shoshana Gibbor, Natalie Yosipovitch, and Marissa Freed, and undergraduate student board member Joseph Feld ’23.
The audience on the anniversary of Kristallnacht of almost 100 was comprised of many faculty and guests, including 96-year-old survivor of Warsaw ghetto, Maurice Chandler. (Maurice escaped from the ghetto in 1941 when he was 16 by jumping between 2 trolley cars and paying off the non-ghetto trolley conductor not to report him to the police.) Instead of the usual Q&A after my talks to high schools, in this case there was a far-ranging discussion as much about the current state of post-election (November 3, 2020) U.S. and the world as about my specific Holocaust experience. I am therefore including this discussion here as part of the MIT Hillel program rather than with the Student Questions part of the website.
**If there are intolerant people in the world, and our message is to be tolerant and open, how should we treat those people? Being neither a psychologist nor a politician, my personal inclination is to start by being tolerant for as long as I don’t feel taken advantage of, at which point I stop being tolerant.
**What is your perspective on nonviolent vs violent resistance against intolerant movements that will use violence? If I were in the public sphere I might have a different reply, but as I am not I’ll describe my actual behavior as a child in this specific situation. I had a toy that a bigger, stronger boy tried to take away from me, so I started to fight him fairly, but seeing that I would lose the fight and the toy I stopped being fair and did something that made him run off screaming. If faced with a similar situation now, I would probably do the same.
**Do you harbor any ‘survivor guilt’? Not at all, and I don’t know how I avoided it since my mother did have it.
**We can feel relatively safe that the US will not continue to be governed by a White Supremacist. However, more than 70 million Americans thought it acceptable to vote for another 4 years of this administration, and some of them continue to undermine the legitimacy of the election. This is a divided country! What can we do to not let it happen again? That’s a very tall order, andthe ups & downs of human history show that it often does repeat itself, and we’ve not yet learned how to stabilize its swings.
**I was really moved by your statement that we have to be for things, not against things. How do we do this when we see evil and intolerance in the world? What is the correct balance of being for tolerance and acceptance and being against injustice? Evil and intolerance and injustice are, I feel, part & parcel of our animal heritage. The natural world is not “fair” – fairness is a human invention, an aspiration of human society which has not made much progress in the 8000+ years of civilization vs. our slow-moving evolution. Re the “correct balance” between tolerance & justice (fairness) vs. intolerance & injustice, my practical side says that it is very subjective and depends on how we were raised, and those who were raised believing the Golden Rule (religiously or intellectually) carry an extra load or constraint in our life vs. those who are unscrupulous. What’s our reward? The feeling that we are “doing what’s right.”
**Did your mother and her peers speak to trauma-informed therapists to help them process, or was that stigmatized? My mother definitely felt that seeking help from a psychotherapist was a personal weakness and she could never admit that she needed such help.
**Why did your mother choose to come to the US from Paris in 1949? It seems that she was doing really well in Paris. First, in Paris she was working for the Polish Communist government establishing Polish bookstores, which I would not classify as “doing really well.” More important, however, was that 1949 was only 4 years after the war ended, 3 years after anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland in which hundreds of Jews were killed by Polish mobs, and 2 years after she sent me for my safety to Palestine (aborted by a broken leg). America was the safest country in the world, not to mention the most prosperous. For any European immigrant, America was a dream come true!
**Germany was a highly educated and cultured society, yet perpetrated such atrocities and genocide, and a genocide supported by its scientific, medical, and engineering cadres. As MIT students, what should our education include to keep MIT students moral and ethical? Indeed, Germany was the best-educated country in Europe, in the world, yet all that education did not prevent its people, including scientists, doctors, and engineers, from following a dictator and committing the worst genocide in human history. Higher education obviously does not inoculate people from following charismatic charlatans. Thus if morals and ethics can be taught effectively and successfully, they should be taught to all students.
Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity launched its Student Leadership Board (SLB) 6 years ago, and its mission is “Developing Compassionate Leaders through Education and Action. Get involved and make a difference.” Selected through an application process, the SLB this school year (2020-21) consists of 62 motivated and passionate students from 41 schools in the state Washington (grades 7-12), with diversity in backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, coming together twice a month via the internet to learn, listen, and lead. Through project-based learning, SLB students develop skills for leadership and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. At the same time they gain a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and make a positive difference in their schools and in their communities. Having committed to the SLB through the end of the school year, student teams work together to carry out meaningful projects that support the Holocaust Center’s mission and provide real-world leadership experience. The students also provide feedback on the Holocaust Center’s other programs and serve as ambassadors.
The SLB is guided by Ilana Cone Kennedy, Holocaust Center’s Director of Education, and for SLB’s November 4 meeting Ilana asked me to participate by having the students review my Holocaust background and prepare questions for an extended Q&A session with me. I readily agreed, since answering student questions is my favorite part of my talks – Q&A allows the students to air their real world concerns, and via the dialogue to consider and hopefully absorb my message of tolerance and compassion vs. prejudice and hate as they mature.
I was pleased by the students’ many questions, some deep and insightful and some simply humane. Answers to questions asked during our online session and also those emailed to me afterwards via the Holocaust Center are listed in the front part of Student Questions (300+ total) category on my website www.NeitherYesterdays.com.
Lakeside School is a private school for grades 5-12 with a current enrollment of 838 students with a very strong focus on quality education as reflected by its student-to-teacher ratio of 9:1 vs. a national average of 17:1. As a result, the 2021 NICHE school ranking rates Lakeside as #1 Best Private high school in Washington, also #1 in STEM and #1 in College Prep. To earn these rankings, NICHE rates Lakeside A+ in Academics, Teachers, College Prep and Clubs & Activities, and A in Sports and Diversity. As such, majority of its courses meet or exceed the rigor and depth of the AP curriculum. In addition to academic requirements, Lakeside also requires of students a minimum of 80 hours social service (which typically is almost doubled by most), and participation in one week of Outdoor Education.
My talk was attended by some 20 students, mostly seniors, enrolled in an elective course entitled “Genocide in the Modern World” taught by History teacher James Nau, who organized the event. The students have recently concluded a unit of work on the Holocaust, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and doing a project using interviews from the book Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich. This was supported by other coursework around Nazism, historical context, and some discussion of related current events. Since finishing that first unit, students viewed a film about Cambodian genocide (First They Killed My Father) and will soon begin work on the Rwanda genocide. The students’ questions impressed me by their perceptiveness, one of which had never been asked of me before, and another one had been asked only once in my 270+ talks.
A week after my Zoom “visit” to Lakeside, teacher James Lau forwarded to me several Thank You emails from the students. I was deeply touched by these, especially some of the statements therein, and I have excerpted these and listed them below. For your emails and these statements I thank you!
–Throughout this Genocide course I’ve felt my faith in humanity get buried beneath every statistic, every story, and every crime. However, your story was different. Although it began with the horrors you and your relatives experienced, I felt that it ended with hope, a concept that I didn’t think I would find in this class. Your talk was one of the first times I’ve left class feeling inspired, and I know I’ll carry some of your words with me for the rest of my life.
–Your story is one that will stay with me forever, and I will never forget the beauty in your words and the power in your message.
–For me, your talk was inspirational. Even though I obviously wasn’t involved in the Holocaust, the themes of perseverance, belief, and hope in your talk really spoke to me. I am extremely grateful to have heard your talk and to have heard your story.
–While reading about genocide is one thing, being able to talk to someone who has lived through it makes it so much more real.
–Please keep telling your story as there are so many in this world who need to hear it, especially the younger generation.
Along with other schools and universities, my alma mater Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) closed its campus in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it moved online those operations which could be conducted online, such as lectures, seminars, consultations, planning meetings, etc. My 8 ½ years studying at MIT were in Aeronautics & Astronautics and in Nuclear Engineering Departments from which I received my PhD in 1967. When I reconnected with MIT in 1999 to start “giving back” for having benefitted from its education, it was to support the Physics Department. My logic for this choice is questionable since after getting almost all A’s in high school, the shock of getting a 20 out of 100 on my first MIT Physics test was truly an “unforgettable” experience which started a hate-love relationship with Physics.
Thus for the last 20 years I’ve maintained close personal ties with the Physics Department, and a month ago Peter Fisher, the Head of the Department and a friend, asked whether I would give my talk at the weekly lunch which he hosts via Zoom for the Physics community of faculty, staff, and students. His reasoning was the same as for my March 20 talk to the staff of the American Technion Society: “It would be good for many in the Department to hear that others have faced adversity before.”
My talk to 45 faculty, staff and graduate students was organized by Peter Fisher, with Zoom and my PowerPoint ably managed by Ryan Higgins, Events and Development Assistant, and attendees included personnel from the Department, the School of Science, and the Administration. As the thumbnail photos of attendees started to appear on the screen before the talk, I was very pleased to see dear and familiar faces and exchange comments with Elizabeth Chadis, Nergis Mavalvala, Erin McGrath Tribble, Alan Guth, and Claude Canizares. During the Q&A Bolek Wyslouch’s question took me on a memory trip to my childhood in post-war Poland, and I was truly, deeply touched by Ibrahim Cisee’s response to my talk. Also attending were Dan Kleppner, Dave Pritchard, Bob Jaffe, Bruno Coppi and others.
Forum for Dialogue is the largest and oldest Polish non-governmental organization engaging in Polish/Jewish dialogue. Since the future truly belongs to the young, in its School of Dialogue program the Forum educates Polish teenagers about local Polish/Jewish heritage and inspires them to act. Aimed at students of secondary schools, it acquaints them with the history of Jews in Poland and especially in their own towns, with focus on their contribution to the social, cultural and economic development. Since almost all Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the role that Jews played in their town’s local history is often completely unknown to today’s students. Thanks to this program, Jews cease to be ”others” and again become neighbors who, despite having perished, are not forgotten. The School of Dialogue program is held throughout the country and reaches around one thousand students annually, and it is as part of this program that I’ve been speaking at these schools in recent years.
Closely associated with educating the students in the School of Dialogue is supporting their teachers and enhancing their knowledge through seminars, workshops, and other educational activities. While the School of Dialogue workshops are led by Forum’s especially trained educators, the success of young people’s commemorative efforts often hinges on their teachers at school, who encourage and advise them. The teachers are also there to help students continue the work of bringing back memory of the local Jewish community once the program itself is over. My presentation today was aimed at these teachers, who were the majority of the audience.
Forum’s educators who conduct the School of Dialogue workshops are especially trained not only in Jewish history and culture in the local region but also how to react to difficult situations such as responding to anti-Semitic comments during workshops, overcoming resistance in the local community, etc. They, too, were invited to join the session.
Also attending the presentation were participants in the Forum’s other programs. Leaders of Dialogue is a program aimed for local activists, typically outside large municipal centers, who are involved in Polish/Jewish dialogue, combating anti-Semitism, teaching about Jewish history and culture and preserving local Jewish heritage. For them, Forum for Dialogue has created a platform for exchanging experiences and best practices, broadening their knowledge and honing their skills. Attending also were participants of the Shared Heritage program: Christian leaders and activists committed to fostering understanding between Christians and Jews in the context of Polish/Jewish history.
My presentation via Zoom was organized and moderated by Forum’s coordinators Julia Machnowska and Maria Sokolowska and translated by Maria Piekarska.
Methuen High School (MHS) is a public secondary school serving grades 9-12. It has an enrollment of 1950, of which 46% is minority and 47% from low-income families. The Holocaust is taught at MHS as part of English Department studies by teacher Jackie Rubino, who organized my presentation at MHS and uses educational materials from Facing History and Ourselves and other sources.. Approximately 80 of MHS’s 9th grade students attended today’s presentation via Zoom, and the materials they have already studied include much of the Holocaust and Human Behavior book from Facing History, “Schindler’s List,” selections from the The World Must Know,Night by Elie Wiesel, plus supplemental materials.
In the 10 years of presentations I have noticed that the quality of students’ questions during the Q&A depends on the quality of student preparation, and thus the quality of teaching. Enthusiastic teachers such as Jackie Rubino result in enthusiastic students, and that resulted in our Q&A lasting 40 minutes after my almost an hour presentation. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of her students’ questions, and some of their most thoughtful ones had been asked of me only once or twice in the 260+ talks I have given to date. I’ve long felt that the Q&A is often the most important part of my talks because it represents our 2-way communication, and I was very pleased and moved by today’s session.
Attending the presentation (by Zoom) were also 13 MHS teachers and the head of the English Department. My participation was arranged by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History.
Letters from students
Two weeks after the Zoom “visit” with Methuen, I received two memorable packages: the first was a box of wonderful sweets from teacher Jackie Rubino, visually colorful and oh-so delicious! Kept in the refrigerator and partaken judiciously, it will keep my sweet tooth happy for some time. 😊
The second package was an envelope with a pack of neatly typed letters from the students. As has been our habit, my wife Mimi and I read these letters, highlighted the sentences or sections that resonated with us because of their thoughtfulness or sensitivity, and these excerpts are listed below.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and sharing it with the world too.
Even though I don’t know you personally, I feel as if I do after learning so much about you and your childhood and early adulthood.
It’s very inspirational that you were able to look back on your past and accept that it was a part of you despite all of the terrible things that have happened to you. I hope that you live for many more years and that you continue to spread your story.
I feel very much influenced by your good energy and positive attitude. Over the past few months our country has been hit with a lot of terrorizing news changing everyone’s lives. Change for me is never easy. Subconsciously, I chose to make the worst out of it. I wasn’t doing any of my school work. I hadn’t talked to my friends for weeks. I was surrounded in a bubble of negativity and I didn’t know what to do about it. About two weeks ago I realized I was tired of living this way. I finally realized I have to make the best out of a bad situation. Your presentation gave me a sense of clarity. The way that you make the best out of a negative experience is truly inspiring, and it’s because of people like you that I continue each and every day with an optimistic outlook on life.
Your story was really touching and when I could really feel your pain, especially when you started to tear up, I felt more touched.
I loved the reasoning behind your book title “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.”
It was very special to see you talk about your mother. It was very visible that you are proud of her, and hearing about her strength to keep you and herself safe during the Holocaust was very inspiring.
I will use your message of standing up against discrimination to face situations that may need it in my future.
I love the fact that you didn’t let him (a vocational counselor) discourage you and instead thought, he’s probably discouraging you because that happened to him. That really stuck with me and showed me that I should never let anyone discourage me from something I really want to do.
It was very inspiring to hear you, who has gone through so much in their life, to be so determined and not give up on what you wanted to pursue. Even though the odds were against you, you worked hard and got to where you wanted which is something I will definitely remember and hope to do that in my lifetime.
Even in dark times you were able to find joy by looking at the airplane flying in the sky through the hole in the roof, and now you are doing what you love.
I feel very relieved that you didn’t have to go to concentration camps, but I see that you still go through pain from the tragic events that you’ve seen and felt. You have inspired me in many ways from your story.
Your words about never letting anyone tell us we cannot accomplish something or go into a career we chose are very motivational. It showed me that if I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. Even though you grew up in such a difficult position, you still made a wonderful career and life out of it.
Overall, your words made a huge difference in my understanding of the Holocaust and how I think about discrimination of many kinds.
Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center 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.
Among its many services, the JFCS Holocaust Center provides educational programs on the Holocaust for teachers, students, and community members. Their recently-launched Summer Learning Series includes virtual programming open to anyone in the world. My talk, the first of the series, was organized by the JFCS Holocaust Center jointly with the Israeli American Council (IAC) and was followed by several breakout sessions for reflection and discussion. Approximately 85 guests participated in the event, which was organized by JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator Penny Savryn in partnership with Sharona Israeli-Roth, San Francisco Regional Director of IAC. Morgan Blum Schneider, Director of the JFCS Holocaust Center, welcomed attendees and all three of them, in turn, introduced me .