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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Gibson Ek High School, Issaquah, WA – January 22, 2018

by George J Elbaum

Gibson Ek High School, founded in 2016, is a public school to which students from the school district can apply for admission and are then selected by lottery.  The school follows a non-traditional learning model in which students earn academic competencies through hands-on projects rather than earning grades through courses, and 2 days a week students connect with mentors in the real world through internships.  Gibson Ek is sometimes called a “Big Picture” school, the name given to the school-design model which emphasizes project-based learning and internships over traditional grades and classes.  Gibson Ek is among more than 65 schools nationwide that have adopted this model.  (Locally, two other school districts also offer Big Picture schools.)

Since Gibson Ek has no traditional classes, most students attend school-facilitated internships 2 days a week while their other 3 school days have 4 main components:

Advisory. Students are assigned to a multi-age advisory group led by a certified teacher known as an advisor. The advisory is the space where students bond with a smaller group, plan and organize their project-based learning, and work on various requirements such as autobiography writing.

Exploration Time. This is the block of unstructured time in which students engage in their project work independently.  Advisors are available for advice or support but do not direct student’s work during this time.  Self-motivated students thrive during Exploration Time; others can find it challenging to complete work.

Content Time. Students work in quiet spaces on online math program or world language for one hour each day.

Design Labs. These are essentially month-long themed courses anchored by teacher-guided projects. Students select from a menu based on their interests.  Design Labs may include topics such as Ancient Civilizations, Forensics, Bridge Building, Literature Study, Photographic Storytelling, the Art of Persuasion, or Graphic Design.

The school’s focus on students is exemplified by the Gibsonek.org home page which, a short scroll from the top, showcases recent student experiences with photos and names of the participating students.

My talk at Gibson Ek was organized by 9th grade student, Carlos Kassner, as part of his Exploration Time (see above) and supported by teachers Tim Hemker and Hillary Nadell.  Attending the talk were also teachers Karin Walen, Robin Lowell and Casey Henry, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity. 

 

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St. Peter’s School, San Francisco, CA – January 11, 2018

by George J Elbaum

St. Peter’s Elementary School, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1878, is an elementary and middle school with approximately 300 students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade.  The school is one of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Catholic Schools and a vital part of the parish, a predominantly Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Since its foundation, St. Peter’s has served all economic levels of the community by providing a well-rounded academic and Catholic education in a partnership with parents, who are recognized as the primary educators of their children.  The school recognizes its important role in the growth and development of students and their families, and it thus promotes Gospel values and fosters peace, justice, integrity, honesty and love for learning.

As part of that effort, St. Peter’s has a month-long study of the Holocaust for its 8th grade students taught by Nina Martinez Fuaau, Language Arts Teacher, who organized today’s event and took photos during it.  This was my third visit to St. Peter’s, and in preparation the students read Elie Wiesel’s Night and are currently viewing Schindler’s List, so their questions during Q&A reflected their knowledge plus natural curiosity, which I always admire.  Upon my arrival I was greeted at the school’s parking lot by two helpful and enthusiastic students, Anderson and Emilio, with whom I had a nice chat while they guided me to the room for my presentation and afterwards escorted me back to my car.

My presentation was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center.

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Proof School at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – December 12, 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, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.

Among its many services, the JFCS provides the facilities and arranges presentations on the Holocaust to visiting student groups.  Such day-long visits to the Holocaust Center normally start with a lesson from Holocaust Center staff to provide historical context that ties into and is followed by a presentation from a Holocaust survivor.  My talk today was to the 9th grade students from Proof School, a math-oriented (grades 6-12) school in San Francisco, who are engaged in a 6-weeks study unit on the Holocaust as part of their World History curriculum. (“Our students come to Proof School as math kids. Where they go, and who they become, is discovered each year, in secondary school and beyond.….We aim for our graduates to lead in the world as analytical, literate, compassionate citizens.”)  This was their second consecutive year for Proof School students to visit the JFCS, guided by history teacher Eve Simister and science teacher Kaushik Basu.

My talk, preparation, parking, etc., was ably arranged by Nikki Bambauer, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator, while JFCS Holocaust Center’s Associate Director Alexis Herr led a workshop with the students on the history of Jewish ghettos, introduced me to the audience and attended the talk.

Students’ Letters

Several weeks (Christmas vacation, etc) after my talk to a dozen Proof School students visiting JFCS I received an envelope with letters from the 9th grade students plus a very thoughtful letter from their history teacher Eve Simister.  As usual, my wife Mimi and I read the letters, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally.   Considering these were 9th grade students, we were amazed by the maturity, perceptiveness and sensitivity shown in the letters, which is evident by the so many great statements from their 12 letters that particularly resonated with us and are excerpted below.  Also evident was a very good class discussion facilitated by the teacher after my talk.  We were thus very gratified by the students’ responses to my story, and a special “thank you” to the ingenuous student who attached an excellent full-page drawing of my book’s cover image, but with two visually minor but conceptually major changes: his airplane does not have the Nazi insignia, and it is towing a large advertising-type banner saying “THANK YOU!”

  • Thank you so much for sharing with us not only your incredible, miraculous story, but also some of the most meaningful pieces of wisdom I have ever received. From you, I learned much more than the history of the Holocaust – I gained a new perspective on it too.
  • The Holocaust had never felt as real to me as it did when I heard your experiences. For so long, in fact, it had been something impossibly distant from me, something I couldn’t even begin to imagine.  Hearing you speak of your inspiring and wild personal experiences, the Holocaust suddenly felt not as something affecting “the masses” but as an atrocity that impacted people like me.
  • I appreciate people like you who strive to tell us what we can learn from the Holocaust. It must take immense bravery and will power to place yourself into those horrors again to teach another generation, and I thank you for that.
  • By telling the individual stories of the Holocaust, we do not lose sight of individuals, and therefore humanity.
  • Courage is often thought of as going into a difficult situation without hesitation the first time, but your courage is the ability to go back many times into a genocide to help prevent another one.
  • I appreciate your heart to heart conversation with us. You left us with sincere thoughts about what we will do with our lives & what values we will treasure.
  • I truly admire your passion & desire to continue spreading your message & story to others.
  • Thank you so much for coming and talking with such compassion. I especially think the Holocaust seems real only when talking with a survivor.  When I was told that I would meet a survivor, I knew that it would be special.  However, I didn’t realize until during the talk the true uniqueness.
  • It was such a mind-boggling experience to hear from a Holocaust survivor and be able to see the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who was inside of it and survived it, and I loved how you somehow slipped in some humor into your stories.
  • Your narration was so compelling and gripping that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I especially loved how you connected the narration to the events going on in the world right now, and what we should do about them
  • The day after your talk we brainstormed in class some questions that we would want to ask you if we could meet you again. I’ll check your website to see if you have answered them already.
  • Your experience was vivid and real, and the Holocaust began to feel real to me. I was no longer distanced from it.
  • As I grow up, I will think harder about whether my actions display peace and tolerance or anger and intolerance.
  • I want to thank your wife, Mimi, for encouraging you to do these talks and write your book. Because of her, you have inspired countless people.
  • I realize now that, when studying the Holocaust before, I thought of it in an abstract way. It was a distant event, completely separated from the present.  However, hearing you talk about it completely changed this image.  You helped me understand the impact of the Holocaust in a way that reading about it never could.
  • I admire your striving to spread your story because you see it as a duty to educate younger generations, and I hope you reach your goal of 50 lessons this year.
  • In times like these, when there is fake news and false information spreading everywhere, it is so important to have trusted sources of knowledge, so thank you for sharing your truth with us and so many other students.
  • In all my studies of the Holocaust, none of them have been as personal and moving as your story. 

Teacher’s letter

  • Hearing about your experience was the most powerful part of our study of the Holocaust.  I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust on a more personal level, as the vast numbers can feel incomprehensible.  I also found your comparison to the population of San Francisco incredibly helpful, and I hope to share a similar comparison with future students.
  • I was particularly inspired by your goal of doubling the number of talks you give in 2017 as your response to the current political climate.

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Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, CA – December 11, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Amador Valley High School (AVHS) has set a challenging question for its 2640 students to explore: “How will you A.I.D. your world?” wherein A stands for Academic Achievement, I for Innovative Thinking, and D for Demonstration of Civic Responsibility.  The school success in academic achievement is shown by being deemed a three-time California Distinguished School, a National School of Character, and a two-time National Blue Ribbon School.  The Daily Beast/Newsweek ranked Amador Valley High School 238th in its list of the 1,000 Best High Schools in America.  This success in academics is paralleled in AVHS’s extracurricular activities such as music, theater, and athletics, as well as the development of civic awareness and responsibility in its students.  In national competitions such as We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, the Amador Valley team has ranked in the top four places 10 times in recent years, including 2006-2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014.

In developing the students’ civic responsibility, the study of the Holocaust and reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night is included as part of teacher Stacey Sklar’s Honors Sophomore English course.  To augment their Holocaust study, Ms. Sklar and Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves organized my visit to AVHS.  The students were well prepared, and while the schedule was for the usual 90 minutes of presentation and Q&A, student interest and enthusiasm were such that we continued an impromptu discussion and Q&A while standing in a small group for almost another hour.  The visit to AVHS was for me very gratifying!

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Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – December 8, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Milpitas High School (MHS) has a large and highly diverse student body – 3300 students, 37% Asian, 21% Filipino, 19% Hispanic, 19% White, and 4% African-American – and was the very first school in northern California to develop a Facing History course.  Jack Weinstein, Facing History and Ourselves’s Senior Program Advisor (formerly Director), taught at MHS from 1978 to 1997 and integrated Facing History’s resources early on within many of the school’s English courses. Then, in 1990, he developed a full-semester Facing History course focused on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. That course was an inter-disciplinary English and Social Studies course for 3 years, and then it evolved into a Social Studies elective focused not only on the Holocaust but on multiple case studies of genocide, human rights, and issues of race in American history.  When Weinstein left MHS in 1996 to establish the Bay Area office of Facing History, it was continued by other teachers so the course is among the longest-running electives in the school’s history.  In addition, nearly all freshman English courses now include a multi-week unit on the Holocaust with the study of Elie Wiesel’s Night as its centerpiece.

This was my 4th visit to MHS, and the students attending this talk were again well-prepared and we had a good, engaging Q&A session.  The students were from the multiple Social Studies courses taught by Jennifer Loomis and Caitlin Bellotti, who organized this event and who pass their own enthusiasm to their students.  Also attending the talk were Francis Rojas, MHS Principal, and Ruben Mata, MHS’s at-risk intervention specialist.   Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were again made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

Letters from students

A couple of weeks after visiting MHS I received a large envelope with a dozen letters from the students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each one aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by the thoughtful responses and the empathy with which they related to my story.  The statements in these letters that resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • You inspired me to work hard and to be successful in whatever I do.
  • When I got home the first thing I did was tell my mom how I met you and how much you and your mother inspire me. You made me work harder in school, football and everything I do now.
  • I am so sorry that something as intense and grotesque as the Holocaust happened and affected you and millions of other people too.
  • I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to live your life in constant fear and anxiety every day.
  • I wish I could write more than this letter but my English has a limit.
  • Dear George, we appreciate the time and effort you gave.                                                          In exchange we will take your story and change how we behave.                                                  (The entire letter was written in rhyming couplets, as above.)
  • You inspire me to help other people who are in need of getting back into society due to their bad habits.
  • Your story helps me to fit into society because I came to America as an immigrant and I didn’t know what to do as a kid.
  • I wish people like you would live on forever and tell your stories so that we can learn what you guys went through as a kid.
  • Just thinking about sacrificing my pet in order to save my own life makes me feel beyond sad.
  • Reading in a book or a video just doesn’t fully explain how hard it was to be a Jewish little kid doing no wrong.
  • Joining this Facing History class I thought it was just going to be a regular history class, but I was wrong. This is now one of my favorite classes.
  • Hearing your story was a good learning opportunity to never take life for granted. Also to pay it forward at any opportunity to the less fortunate or people in need.

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