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.

Introductions by Jorja Santillan followed by Jack Weinstein

starting….

| Leave a comment

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

 

| Leave a comment

Gymnazjum No. 11, Warsaw, Poland – May 30, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

During our visit to Warsaw’s Gymnazjum No. 11 it seemed that everything worked so well.  The staff was warm and welcoming, the students were well-prepared and enthusiastic, the library where I spoke was an intimate space with good acoustics, so a microphone was not needed, and we were given beautiful flowers, lovely cards painted by one of the students, plus chocolate-coated plums (my wife Mimi’s favorite) – it all produced a comfortable feeling of a friendly conversation.  After leaving Gymnazjum   No. 11 Mimi and I talked about it being such a gratifying experience.  In short, that’s the best way to describe it!

The event was organized by the school’s Russian teacher Halina Danyluk (with whom I had an enjoyable conversation in Russian) with support from English teacher Marzena Zimnowlodzka, and arranged by teacher Violetta Tarnowska from Gymnazjum No. 3, who attended the whole session.

the audience

starting my talk

| Leave a comment

Gimnazjum No. 32, Warsaw, Poland – May 30, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Gimnazjum No. 32 (named after poet Adam Asnyk) is located in Warsaw’s Praga district on the east bank of the Wisla river.  Our first visit to the school was in May 2014, which my wife and I remember very well because of the staff’s warm hospitality and conversation over a delicious family-style Polish lunch. Today’s presentation was organized by the school’s History teacher Slawomir Kaniasty with active support from English teacher Agnieszka Galaszewska.  (Mr. Kaniasty also created a giant GE forming my initials with my books – photo below – that were just published in Polish by the Forum for Dialogue.)

My presentation was attended by Ms. Galaszewska and her students, the school’s Director Renata Wilczynska, and Mr. Kaniasty.  Students and officials from several nearby schools were also invited by Ms. Wilczynska and Mr. Kaniasty, resulting in an audience of approximately 100.

After my presentation and book signing for the students, we were about to leave for the next school and an afternoon presentation but Ms. Wilczynska, a warm and strong-willed person, insisted that we have a quick lunch, and there was no other choice but to agree! (Ms. Wilczynska’s daughter Kasia said that her mother is the same way at home, “a typical Polish mother.” 😊)  We enjoyed all of it and look forward to returning, but next time starting not at 9AM, as today, but at lunchtime.

214

 

| Leave a comment

Gimnazjum No. 1, Warsaw, Poland – May 29, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

My presentation at Gimnazjum No. 1 started quite normally, with an audience of approximately 100 students sitting on low benches in their gym, per the photo below.  It also ended quite normally, with many of the students coming to me with vocal thanks and enthusiasm and asking me to autograph my books, also in photos below.  Much of the rest of the talk, however, was a first-time and unexpected experience for me, despite the 130+ talks I’ve given in the preceding 7 years.  Within less than 15 minutes of starting my talk, several small groups of students began using their cell phones, talking audibly and giggling among themselves, girls playing with each other’s hair.  This behavior continued even when I purposely paused, approached the nearest group and continued speaking while looking directly at them.  This show of bad manners and lack of discipline was totally ignored by their teacher, till I finally finished abruptly without asking for any questions.  It was truly a disappointing experience.  However, I do appreciate the students who listened and who talked with me afterwards, and whose photos are below.

 

| Leave a comment

Gimnazjum No. 3, Warsaw, Poland – May 29, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Gimnazjum No. 3, named for Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, 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, so going there for my presentation felt a bit like homecoming.  The event was 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 talk 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, I was pleasantly surprised by the students’ competence in English, and in my brief one-to-one conversations with each student during the book signing I was especially surprised at most students’ comfort in speaking with me.

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 knowledgeOn 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.  The results are the 4 talks that I just concluded in Warsaw: in Gimnazjum No. 3, followed by Gimnazjum No. 1, Gimnazjum No. 32, and Gimnazjum No. 11.  I very much appreciate her excellent efforts, the resulting contacts with so many Warsaw students, and their warm and enthusiastic feedback.

Ms. Tarnowska introduced my presentation in her school, which was also attended by the Gimnazjum’s Headmaster Katarzyna Hampel, English teacher Magdalena Cieslik, Jerzy Iwanski, plus Dr. Sylwia Spurek, Poland’s Deputy Ombudsman, who made an important statement to the audience as part of the introduction.

Introduction by organizing teacher Violetta Tarnowska

Violetta Tarnowska’s introductiion

| Leave a comment

Leaders of Dialogue Conference, Bialobrzegi, Poland – May 26, 2017

by George J Elbaum

This post is rather unique for my website because it’s the only one about an event where I didn’t talk but only listened, and I was so impressed by what I learned that I decided to post it.  My wife Mimi and I had just arrived in Warsaw to speak at several schools as arranged by the Forum for Dialogue, and they invited us to the opening dinner of the 5th National Leaders of Dialogue Conference which the Forum organized.  The Leaders of Dialogue was formed by the Forum to connect local activists from across Poland who have been involved in preserving the heritage of Jewish communities that existed in their towns and were annihilated in the Holocaust.  These volunteer activists are Polish, not Jewish, and most of them were unaware of each other, so they welcomed the formation of the Leaders of the Forum and its annual reunion – it made them feel no longer alone in their activism!  I found this very inspiring and accepted the invitation.

The conference’s keynote speaker this year was Marc Skvirsky, an early member of Facing History and Ourselves and now Vice President, and his talk was about Facing History’s activism and educational philosophy.  Marc is from Facing History’s Boston headquarters but I never met him despite my 7 years of connection with Facing History, so I welcomed this opportunity and was very pleased with the personal connection.

A short while before the conference the Forum translated and published my book, turning Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows into Bez wczoraj, bez jutra. The task was led by Jakub Petelewicz and the book’s translator is Anna Brzostowska. The result was excellent, and a copy of the Polish book was given to each of the conference’s 60 attendees, with some after-dinner autographing as usual.  Thank you, Jakub and Anna.

The week-end event was held in Bialobrzegi on Zegrze Lake, an hour’s drive from Warsaw, and immediately prior to the dinner & conference we witnessed a beautiful sunset across the water, which Mimi photographed.

Andrzej Folwarczny, President of the Forum for Dialogue, opens the conference

conference keynote speaker Marc Skvirsky, VP of Facing History

| Leave a comment