Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – August 14, 2017

by George J Elbaum

The Holocaust Center for Humanity (HCH) arranged my very first two talks to students in October 2010, and has continued to arrange many more for my subsequent visits to Seattle.  The Holocaust Center teaches the lessons of the Holocaust, inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity, and take action. The Center reaches 40,000 students a year in schools and communities around the Pacific Northwest with educational resources and programs, and provides immersive learning experiences to thousands of additional students at their museum and education center.

The Holocaust Center’s impressive facility provides not only space for offices but also for the museum and, most importantly, for exhibitions and educational seminars.  One wonderful example of the former is last year’s exhibit Anne Frank – A History for Today which drew audiences of up to 500 per day, while educational seminars are exemplified by the talks I’ve given at HCH in past years and again today.

In addition, by the end of 2017 the Holocaust Center (partnering with the ADL and USHMM) will have trained the entire Seattle Police Department in a program called Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.  This program draws on universal and timely lessons learned from the Holocaust to challenge law enforcement officials to examine their relationship with the public they serve, and to explore issues related to the personal responsibility of officers to administer their authority ethically.

Today’s talk was attended by adults and entire families who have participated in related HCH events, such as HCH’s trip to Poland and its Student Leadership Board, and it also included small groups from the Northwest Communities of Burma and from the King County heritage group, 4Culture.  Several hours after the talk I received an email from one of the attendees with photos that he took during the session and the following wonderful comment: “It was a pleasure meeting you and listening to your story. I think I am speaking for all of us when I say we walked away as more thoughtful human beings.”  Thank you!

The talk was organized by Julia Thompson, HCH’s Education Associate who introduced me to the audience, and attended by Karen Chachkes, Director of External Affairs; Richard Greene, Museum Experience and Technology Director; and Dee Simon, Baral Family Executive Director of the HCH, who opened the event and welcomed the audience.

 

 

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JFCS YouthFirst Internship Program at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – July 10, 2017

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, the alienated and the dependent, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.  Through its YouthFirst Internship Program, JFCS offers internships for high school and college students by placing them in Bay Area firms and allowing them to learn important on-the-job skills.  Supporting these internships are YouthFirst workshops focusing on topics such as office etiquette, responsible work behavior, researching job opportunities, résumé writing, and interviewing skills.

My talk was attended by three dozen students in JFCS YouthFirst Summer Internship Program.  This year the students came from 16 schools in 10 Bay Area cities, and the internship placements included law offices, real estate firms, restaurants, a bakery, an engineering firm, Exploratorium, office of an Assembly Member, the Bar Association, a summer camp, and JFCS itself – obviously a wide range of employments and diverse learning experiences.  The event was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and was attended by Morgan Blum Schneider, Director of Education, JFCS Holocaust Center, Linda Karlin, Director JFCS YouthFirst Program and Leah Shapiro, Program Coordinator JFCS YouthFirst Program.

Notes from YouthFirst Interns

Two weeks after my talk at JFCS with YouthFirst interns I received a large home-made Thank You card with words of appreciation and their signatures, plus individual Thank You notes from the interns.  After reading these notes I excerpted the statements and phrases that particularly resonated with me and these are listed below.

  • Your story was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability in sharing this difficult part of your life.  While many topics you explored are unfathomable to outsiders, the theme of Luck seems universal to me.  Luck is something I grapple with in my own life and it was very interesting to see the way it has affected others.  Again, thank you so much.
  • I know that it must have been difficult for you to open up to complete strangers about the things you endured at such a young age.
  • A lot of us take our lives for granted, which is so wrong because we are so lucky to be where we are. I hope you continue sharing your experiences with people for many, many years to come.
  • Your speech was so inspirational. I almost started to tear up from your story when you started to talk about your luck.
  • I will forever take the memory of your words and pass them on to my children for them to remember.
  • Thank you for sharing your incredible story with us. I am so thankful that I am from a generation that still has an opportunity to hear stories first-hand from survivors like you, and I truly feel that I learned a lot.  Thank you for being so open with us.
  • Thank you for sharing your fascinating and diverse story of your survival, because it is crucial that people hear a more personalized part of the Shoah and can grasp it.
  • You really taught me to believe in luck and that things will work out for the better.
  • By sharing your story, you are not only doing a great mitzvah for the Jewish people, but you also possess the ability to teach and inspire others to promote tolerance and peace, something that no classroom textbook can teach us. I will treasure the moments of meeting people like you forever.

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Facing History and Ourselves, Redwood City, CA – June 29, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Facing History and Ourselves presented this 5-day seminar Democracy at Risk: Holocaust and Human Behavior for teachers of 6-12th grades of U.S. history, world history, humanities, and English language arts, because in today’s world, questions of how to best build and maintain democratic societies that are pluralistic, open, and resilient to violence are more relevant than ever. Studying the Holocaust using Facing History’s approach allows students to wrestle with profound moral questions raised by this history and fosters their skills in ethical reasoning, critical thinking, empathy, and civic engagement—all of which are critical for sustaining democracy.

This seminar features the fully revised, printed edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior which was given to each of the attending teachers.  It was co-facilitated by Facing History’s Jack Weinstein and Sarah Altschul, with support from Brian Fong and Emily Ocon, and was also attended by Facing History’s Board of Directors member, Joyce Reynolds-Sinclair.

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – June 7, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,900 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 6th consecutive year that I have visited and spoken to its Future Academy for Social Change.  The audience was a 100+ 10th grade students taking the Facing History based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit.  Based on my previous 5 visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and I was definitely not disappointed – once again I observed how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the various aspects 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.”

What made this visit to Arroyo different from the previous 5 was that this time students had also been assigned to create, singly or in small groups, table-top projects reflecting their view of the Holocaust.  A dozen of these projects, each requiring artistic creativity, sensitivity and craftmanship, are shown in the photos below.

Each visit to Arroyo  reminds me that it is the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers such as Jorja Santillan who truly teach our next generation, and thus on whom America’s future depends.  Thus it is ironic that our public officials, while lauding in speeches and proclamations the critical value of education, do so little to provide America’s teachers a compensation that’s commensurate with this value vs. other employments.

My visit was again arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who gave his usual excellent introduction plus skillfully answered questions during the Q & A when these went beyond my personal knowledge of the Holocaust.

Letters from Students

Summer is often a slow-down time, and so it was with these Letters from Students.  It took a month+ for the 72 letters to reach me and then another month+ for us (my wife Mimi and me) to finally have time to read them all and excerpt the phrases, sentences, and passages that resonated with us.  These excerpts are shown below.

  • I want to show people that we need one another right now more than ever with this political problem, and so we need to come together as one and not look at each other by religion, race or ethnicity. We are all humans.
  • History plays an important role in the world because many of these events can happen again; discrimination is an ongoing problem in the world today.
  • Keeping this history alive is important so that it doesn’t repeat itself. In this time, it seems that very possible for something like this to happen.
  • I really look up to you because you went through so much and you are successful. This shows that someone’s past doesn’t determine their present.
  • You taught me that confidence is something that can keep you alive. That’s something that I’ll apply in real life.
  • You taught me that it is possible to rise back up from a point where hopes and dreams were so far away.
  • Following what you’re passionate about is hard for everyone, and the fact that you did it even when you had someone doubt you straight to your face is truly inspiring.
  • Your past makes me think of things differently, and makes me realize how good I have it.
  • It makes me feel so inspired that I live in a society that I can basically do what I want. What I learned was that I always act like I have such a bad life but I really don’t.
  • Your story inspired me to help people even more and become aware of the world and what’s happening.
  • You have shown me to be caring to all, appreciative of what everyone does for me, and grateful for the stuff I have and am given.
  • Thank you for opening my eyes to a world I was once blinded to.
  • I knew from reading that it was a very sad event, but actually hearing a person talk about this event hit me like 10x harder.
  • It opened my eyes when you showed us the very impactful pictures and made me realize that so many people let this happen.
  • It’s not a horror story, even though it sounds like one – it really happened. I have difficulty wrapping my mind around it.
  • Thank you for living through life with optimism and wanting to make change in the world. Your story is now a part of mine!
  • I really love your story, and for some reason I want to hear it again.
  • Hopefully with your sweet tooth you are enjoying life’s sweets as you travel around & maybe even having that dinner of sweets of your dreams…if your wife doesn’t catch you. Fill the rest of your memory with happy memories to outweigh those bad ones.
  • You have inspired me to push through whatever difficulty comes my way. You’ve helped me understand the Holocaust better and made me want to make a difference in the world.
  • Years from now people will still be telling your story. Your history will live on forever; my classmates will make sure of that.
  • I hope everyone realizes that what they have is great compared to what others may have. We shouldn’t take the many things we do have for granted.
  • I really enjoyed your speech because I have a problem with public speaking and to think that you can talk about such a life changing event I was really moved and I commend you for what you do.
  • Hearing your story of living with strangers made me be thankful for my own bed & a floor under my feet & a roof over my head. I can’t imagine how you lived without your mom because I myself am so attached to my own mom & can’t imagine life without her.
  • What I took with me after hearing your story was the appreciation I have for my mom.
  • “There is no greater agony than hearing an untold story inside you.” This is a beautiful quote from Maya Angelou that I thought to myself when listening to your story.  You reminded me that we all have a hidden story inside us.
  • I liked how you put things into more human terms, as when you said that the 6 million Jews who died was the same as the population of San Francisco x 8. It really opened my eyes because before that the 6 million was just a number.
  • We all know that the Holocaust happened, but once you hear someone’s story who went through it, that changes our perspective.
  • You wanted us high schoolers to make a difference when we’re older to stop sad events like the Holocaust.
  • Teens may be able to read and do research about the Holocaust, but being able to experience it through somebody else’s eyes is life changing and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
  • The chapters you read made it seem like I was there and it brings out the emotions of wanting to help.
  • By learning and understanding the characteristics of these events, and the events that led up to these tragedies, we will be better at catching early warning signs of similar events if they begin to occur.
  • What’s beautiful is that some who survive the brutality of these awful regimes come to have a new appreciation in life and educate others on the importance of fighting for justice even if it’s not popular.
  • I learned from you that I don’t need to feel hopeless when learning the world’s history. I learned that I can use that knowledge and its stories to improve the world and be better.  That is the most powerful thing we have against tragedies and war, to be upstanders and hope.  With hope and courage we can fight any monster that comes our way.
  • One of the things I learned is to treat people like people, and as my parents have always told me, to treat others how you would want to be treated.
  • You asked us to think if we would risk our lives for a child we don’t even know. Your question was really impactful because we would like to think that we would, but if we were actually put in that situation I feel that only some of us would.
  • The Holocaust was more than camps or labor, it was trying to move forward every day and hope that you could wake up the next morning and thank God for being alive and still here. Hearing what you had to go through makes me ever more grateful for my life and for appreciating everything I have because you actually had a struggle.
  • This is truly one of the most learning experiences I’ve ever had and I will take this with me forever. I’m making it my responsibility to keep your story alive because people don’t understand what’s it like to live that life, and to help them understand a little and change a little would be amazing.
  • I just can’t imagine going through something so terrifying by myself with strangers. Considering how young you were, I think of my little siblings as they are around the age you were, and again I just can’t imagine it.
  • I hope you were amazed by the artworks that my classmates and I worked really hard on. We made sure to make them the best we could just for you.
  • Thank you for showing us what not giving up looks like.
  • Thank you Mr. Elbaum for your story, bravery, wisdom & love.
  • Thank you so much for opening my eyes and for giving me a wakeup call.
  • I believe that we should never forget. I think that making projects as we did in class and getting a presentation like yours for sure helps to make history come alive more.
  • I liked seeing your reaction to our projects because we worked so hard on them to impress you.
  • Keep doing what you do best, and that is inspiring others.

Introductions by Jorja Santillan followed by Jack Weinstein

starting….

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Public Junior High School named after Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Grojec, Poland – June 1, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Grojec is a town approximately 25 miles south of Warsaw with a current population of 15,000.  Prior to the Nazi invasion in 1939, its population of 11,000 was 50% Jewish, and in the preceding century it had been up to 60%.  In July 1940, the Nazis established a Jewish ghetto in Grójec to confine its Jewish population and liquidated it in September 1942, when all its 5,200–6,000 inhabitants were transported in cattle cars to the Warsaw Ghetto.  From there, most inmates were sent to Treblinka extermination camp and their death.  Today there are no Jews in Grojec.

It is because of this history that in 2013, the Forum for Dialogue started educating student volunteers from the Public Junior High School in Grojec named after Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (nicknamed the Primate of the Millennium) about the town’s Jewish past, its inhabitants and their life, including the school, synagogue, cemetery and homes.  This education consisted of the usual 4 one-day sessions over a month’s period and included the students’ own research and a project commemorating the Jewish history of their town.  It also included inviting and guiding a group of their friends or family and neighbors through these very sites and eventually groups of foreign visitors, usually Jewish groups, which the Forum would bring to Grojec.

Our visit to the Grojec school was the 3rd of the school talks arranged for me by the Forum for Dialogue, and our guide/escort/translator and companion to Grojec was its Director of International Relations Olga Kaczmarek, with whom I’d been communicating by email for 6 months but had never met until this morning.  (“Yes, you really do exist!” we both must have said or at least thought at that moment.)  The school visit started with my talk (and students Marta, Natalia, Paulina, Ola and Filip reading chapters from my book, newly translated by the Forum into Polish), followed by book signing and photos.  Then most of the group, including my wife Mimi, son Jordan and his wife Rebecca, went on an hour+ walking tour of the Jewish heritage sites in Grojec, including the site of the former Jewish cemetery.   Afterwards, Mimi told me that within the site of the cemetery stands a monument to the town’s victims of the Holocaust, where Marta beautifully and emotionally recited a Holocaust poem by Alf Hutchison, which concluded the tour.  (At Mimi’s request, after returning to the school Marta repeated the powerful poem to me and gave us a copy.)

I could not go on the tour because of recent surgery, so together with Olga Kaczmarek and students Filip, Paulina and Daria we stayed behind in the school and had a very stimulating discussion that ranged from the current political and academic situations in Poland and America to deep philosophical and personal issues, such as Daria’s question, “What is your personal view of the purpose of life?” which both she and I addressed.  This very meaningful discussion ended on a very sweet note when I was presented with a double portion of my very favorite pastry, homemade Polish cheesecake.  (Being a devoted husband, I ate only one portion, saving the other for Mimi, and she, a devoted wife, ate only half of her portion and gave the other half to me.)

Our full and fulfilling day in Grojec was organized by teacher Malgorzata Andrychowicz, whom I had met at the Leaders of Forum evening on May 26, supported by Anna Desponds, a Forum Educator, and teachers Wieslawa Swiader and Magdalena Czerwaty.

starting…

afterwards, kneeling: Ola, Filip, Anna Desponds, Patryk; standing front row: Daria, Kinga, Paulina, me, Dominik, Natalia, Anna, Malgorzata Andrychowicz, Olga Kaczmarek; standing back row: Kasia, Kuba, Dawid

afterwards, front row: Patryk, Anna, Marta, Olga Kaczmarek, me, Tomek, Daria, Filip, Anna Desponds; back row: Kasia, Kuba, Dominik, Paulina, Jakub, Kinga

 

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Mszczonow School Complex, Mszczonow, Poland – May 31, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Mszczonow is a town approximately 25 miles southwest of Warsaw with a current population of 6000. Its population was only slightly smaller in 1939 when the Nazis invaded it, and at that time 40% of it was Jewish. Now it is zero. The town’s “School Complex” became a part of the Forum for Dialogue’s School of Dialogue program only a few months ago, and the students have just very recently finished their chosen project.

This afternoon my wife Mimi and I were taken to the school in Mszczonow by Zuzanna Radzik, the Forum’s Executive Board Member, who arranged my talk and translated it for those in the audience whose English was not quite as fluent as most others. The school’s principal and Polish teacher Marianna Sosinska organized the event with the help of history teacher Wioletta Pokora, who introduced me to the audience of students and staff.  It was held in the auditorium of the town’s modern Osrodek Kultury.  During my talk, students Karolina, Ilona, Szymon, and Piotr read passages from my book (which the Forum had translated and published in Polish), and this was followed by an active question & answer session.  Afterwards, Mimi, Zuza and I received gifts of truly beautiful flowers, books and ceramic mugs, followed by an extended book signing which was made enjoyable for me by brief chats with students (per the photos below). After a very full day we drove back to Warsaw, tired but very pleased by the day’s activities and the warm welcome that we received.

starting the presentation

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M.M. Kolbe Gymnazjum No. 2, Blonie, Poland – May 31, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Blonie is a town 15 miles west of Warsaw with a current population of approximately 13,000.  When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Blonie’s population was 8700, of which 3000+ were Jewish.  For them, the Holocaust started 2 weeks after the invasion when the Nazis executed 50 civilians, mostly Jews. It continued when the Nazis established the town’s Jewish ghetto in 1940, then the next year when the town’s remaining 2100 Jews were shipped to the Warsaw Ghetto, and from there to the Treblinka extermination camp and their death.  No Jews live in Blonie now.

My introduction to Blonie was on May 26, 2017: at the dinner for Leaders of Dialogue organized by Forum for Dialogue, I met Dorota Berlińska, a social studies teacher and school principal at Blonie’s M.M. Kolbe Junior High, who has led her students in restoring some of the remains of Jewish heritage in their town, and where I’d be speaking in 5 days.  Indeed, on the morning of May 31, 2017, my wife Mimi and I traveled to Blonie accompanied by Zuzanna Radzik, the Forum’s Executive Board Member, who would also translate my talk into Polish as not all of Blonie students were fully fluent in English.

On arrival at the school we were met by the principal, Dorota Berlinska, and a welcome committee of students Janek, Julka, Wiktoria, Maja and Kasia, who conducted a short interview.  Led by Maja and Kasia, these students had previously done a school project about Irena Sendler, who had heroically smuggled and thus saved approximately 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

The school had already received my books in Polish which had just been translated and published by the Forum, and those parts of the book that I normally read during a talk were now read from the Polish edition by students Julia, Amelia, Emilia, Michał.

During the Q&A that followed the first question was asked in fluent English by Krzysztof, who took the initiative to have already read my book and thus asked several very pertinent questions.  More questions continued, with Lukasz and others asking many excellent ones, and this was followed by a lively book signing during which I had short but enjoyable chats with many of the students, all in English.  Receiving the school’s presents, I was surprised that the colorful, handmade ceramic mugs were filled to the brim with marzipan, my favorite confectionary, and then I realized that I describe that in my book which some of them had already read. It was all a very, very enjoyable experience, organized by the school’s principal Dorota Berlinska and teachers Dorota Ambroziak, Joanna Szymanska, and Mariola Kopanska-Wyrzykowska.

Introduction by Dorota Berlinska, the school’s principal

talk starts

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