by George J Elbaum
Jefferson High School in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, has about 1200 students with a rather unusual diversity of 44% Latino and 36% Filipino, with all other ethnic or racial groups comprising only 20%. This is reflected in its tri-lingual website: English, Spanish, and Tagalog. My presentation to almost 200 students was organized by teacher Stacey Farrell together with Pilar Coronado and John Falabella and arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who spoke about each person’s responsibility in the face of intolerance.
LETTERS FROM STUDENTS, ETC.
A week after my talk at Jefferson High School I received in the mail an envelope with about 40 letters from students and one from teacher Stacey Farrell. A nice surprise in these letters was that, in addition to thoughtful and heartfelt words, many also included small decorations such as colored-in words and phrases, delicate curlicue border trim, various flowers, sun with its rays falling on a flower, a happy face with “thumbs up”, several hearts, a smiling turtle with a “for you” caption, an exploding hand grenade (presumably referring to my story in chapter “August 1944 – Warsaw Uprising”), and even a sensitive letter on paper printed with the student’s photo with me! My wife and I read these letters together and were truly touched by them. Short (and some not-so-short) excerpts from letters that particularly resonated with me are listed below, including the first one from Stacy Farrell herself.
- Many of my students found hope in your ability to live in the present. Many mention that they have experienced challenges in their lives and that you inspire them to focus on the good, not the bad. As much as students connected to your story of survival, I think that many also connected to your story of immigration. It is so valuable for those students who were born in other countries to hear the story of someone with similar experience, who met challenges and succeeded in the United States.
- I always thought I had a tough life moving from place to place and never really seeing my father. But as I heard your story, it made me realize that I must appreciate what I have. I hope you have changed the way other students thought just like the way you changed my thinking.
- One thing I appreciate about your story is that life is never easy, and if you want to survive you must make sacrifices. Hearing about your experiences changed my view of the world by realizing that we only have one life and we should live it to the fullest.
- Your story made me think “what if I was in this situation?” I admire that you forget the bad things in life and focus on the present and good memories.
- What you told us about the Holocaust made me feel like I was there. Your story connects to my life because when you spoke about your dad and was wondering where he was, I was wondering how it would be to have a dad, which is probably how you felt at the time.
- Your presentation bettered my understanding of the Holocaust by showing me the little details in-between the big topics that usually define the Holocaust, such as concentration camps and Nazis. I admire that you acknowledge your luck and the fact that you moved on instead of letting the past trap you.
- Your story connects to my life because when I was young I also suffered many things growing up.
- You taught me that as long as you are persistent and have a little luck, you can accomplish your goal. (This was followed by a “thumbs up” drawing.)
- I learned that hope is very important because you never lost hope for a better life, and you got it.
- Your presentation will help me learn to leave the bad memories behind. It is important to me because I have a bad habit of dwelling on the past and it begins to to affect my future. You taught me that people can have a successful, beautiful future even if they had a dark past. Your story gives me hope.
- Hearing your experiences changed my view of the world by letting me know that there are good people who are willing to risk everything for something they believe is right.
- I admire that you are able to step out of your comfort zone and not hide your story any more. You have taught me not to take for granted the moments I have with my family.
- You helped me understand that even in the darkest of times you should enjoy the smallest of things. This is important to me because I always expect too much from my parents. Your story connects to my life because when I’m feeling sad I push everybody away and don’t talk about my feelings, but I’m learning to stop hiding and it makes me a better person.
- I learned from you that there were many people who actually cared for complete strangers.
- I learned from you to block out the bad things in life and stay positive.
- Recently my great grandmother passed away, just yesterday actually. Her death made me appreciate everyone in my family and enjoy their company, a privilege that can be taken away any day. My grandma and great grandmother both are Jewish. I’m not sure if they had any relatives who were in the Holocaust but I’ll ask my grandma. …. Hearing about your experiences made me realize how cruel people can be and how taking a stand we can make a difference.
- I get really scared to speak in front of many people but you inspired me to get up on stage to speak in front of everyone. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you to tell your story, but if you can do it, so can I!
- I admire that you believe anyone who can work hard for a dream or certain goal and it can come true because I had dreams and goals that other people doubted, yet these happened through hard work.
- Your story connects to my life because I also have been taken to another family who took care of me for at least a year because both of my parents were working hard at that time. When I make choices in the future I will consider how these affect others and not just me. I would like to thank you for your courageous speech.
- I learned that during the Holocaust one would be afraid to go out for fear of never returning. When I go out with friends I never give it a second thought since it is a “yes” that I’ll come home to kiss my mom goodnight again.
- I find it very wrong that mankind will willingly kill mankind for little or no differences whatsoever.
- You helped me understand that the Holocaust was a tragic time, and that there are people who react ignorantly and refuse to know the truth.
- I learned that your mom did everything she could to protect you and I know that my mom would do the same.
- Your story connects to my life because my older brother was in the Airborne and in one of his parachute jumps he had a major accident. I had never been more scared in my life. I think we experienced the same feeling of being useless to help or make a difference, of giving up and wishing it was all a bad dream. My brother is learning to walk and run again but we will never be the same, just as you will never be the same with your experience of the Holocaust, which reminded me of mine, so I understand better what you went through. Even though I will never understand your pain first hand, I will always understand the feeling of being alone and lost. Thank you for sharing your story and making all the difference.