Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – March 27, 2012

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has approximately 2000 students and high diversity, with 34% Latino, 30% White, 27% Asian and Filipino, 7% African-American, and 2% other ethnic or racial groups.  In preparation for my visit the students not only read Eli Wiesel’s Night but also took a field trip the preceding week to San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  There, they engaged in discussion with museum staff about the history of Jewish life in the Bay Area.  They were introduced to the idea that while it is crucial to learn about the history of the Holocaust, it would mean even more in the context of learning about Jewish life, culture, and diversity.  Their summative discussion was organized by Jack Weinstein of Facing History & Ourselves, who also arranged my visit to Arroyo HS and gave an introductory presentation.  My talk to about 120 enthusiastic students was organized by teachers Jorja Santillan and Kevin Beal, and attended by Assistant Principal Alex Palau.

Letters from Students

A week after our visit to Arroyo High School I received a large, thick envelope with 84 (yes, 84!) letters from the students at my talk.  As has become our habit by now, that evening immediately after dinner my wife Mimi reads each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were both touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in the letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.

Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • When you were telling us your story I felt like my throat contained by heart and I’m having the same feeling as I’m writing this letter to you now.  At other times you told us things that made us all smile and laugh, and it reminded me that there’s always something to be happy about.
  • You taught us that the most important thing is what we do in the present, and not to waste time  wishing that we could change what we know we can’t.  The future will come as long as we focus on the present.
  • I’m sitting here thinking how crazy it is that there could be such ignorance and hatred towards someone who didn’t do a thing to deserve it.
  • I hope that you are doing well and that reading all our letters makes you feel like you really did open each and every one of our eyes and hearts.  You trusted us with your past to inform us and others.
  • I wonder if you really love your life.  With all those near-death experiences I know I would have.  I am glad that you’ve written your book because I look forward to reading it.
  • I am impressed by the amount of work you put into making your dreams come true.
  • Coming to your event changed my mind about the Holocaust and let me realize how important it is in our history.
  • Hearing your story made me realize that even when someone goes through something horrible they are still able to keep themselves optimistic and push forward.
  • You taught me three very important things today.  One, you shouldn’t let others discourage you from your dreams.  Two, you’re not going to be able to please everyone.  Three, to  not dwell on the past and just keep moving forward with your life.
  • The fact that you and your mother made it out alive during the war is amazing, and it makes me feel like I’ve taken my childhood for granted.
  • It’s still surprising to me that something tragic like the Holocaust was not that long ago.  I almost feel like it’s something that would happen hundreds of years ago, but knowing that you’re one of the survivors makes me snap back to thinking that it was just a few years ago.
  • You went through so much as a young child but still you continued to stay strong.  I don’t know how you did it, because the littlest things happen to me and it seems like the end of the world, but what you went through was so much worse.  I would like to be as strong as you were and are.
  • You have inspired me to never give up.
  • Today I felt that this is not just a story we heard; it’s a big lesson to us.  We learned the truth and felt the pains.
  • We study this in class and we read about it in books, and, yes, we feel bad and disgusted, but then most of us move on once we’ve read the story.  To hear live from somebody who has actually lived through it makes me appreciate it a lot more.
  • I appreciate you putting a real life example to all the terrible things we are learning about.
  • By telling us the story of what you and your mother went through, you entrusted us to tell the next generation.
  • Your story has left me completely stunned.  It made me think about the atrocities that took place during the war and how we must never let any of those horrible actions ever take place again.
  • I couldn’t deal without seeing my mom.  It would always bother me because I wouldn’t know if she was OK or not.  Did you sometimes thing like that?  I probably would always think that.
  • Hearing it from a first person point of view really humanized the story for us.
  • Pure luck is what kept you alive, you said, and ignorance as well, ha ha.  All this time I thought that ignorance was the cause of intolerance but hearing your story made me think in another way because in your case “ignorance” saved you many times.
  • I find it incredible that some people don’t believe that the Holocaust happened, but I think it is because they don’t want to accept that people just sat around and let it all happen, so they prefer to put it in the back of their mind.
  • Your story helped me look at life differently.
  • That made me think about how life is measured by the actions you make and how you take responsibility for your actions.  You also made me realize that I shouldn’t be thinking too much about the future but rather taking the steps now to get me to where I want to be in life.
  • I want to say thank you for your time talking to my school because it is people like you that kids like me strive to be when I grow up.
  • I learned that even though times may be hard, to keep my head held high because it can get better.
  • I also feel that if you keep looking back at the bad things, it can hurt your future.
  • I’m German and I had a great grandfather who was a German officer.  I realize you said that you don’t have anything against German people but I can’t help feeling guilty.  I am playfully harassed by friends calling me a Nazi and such.  Anyway, for the most part I’m struggling to keep the words “I’m sorry” out of this letter.  (My response: there’s absolutely no need to feel guilty, since you are responsible only for your own actions, not for those of any ancestors.  Also, do tell your friends not to call you such a cruel name, even playfully.)
  • I took everything you told us and told my parents.  They now want to go to San Francisco and look at the museum.
  • I never really realized that history is very important, until high school.  As I got older and had a better understanding, I realized that history is what makes today.
  • I believe that everything happens for a reason.  You survived for a reason, you met your wife for a reason, you became a grandfather for a reason, you came to speak to us for a reason.
  • You are an inspiration to me to stay strong no matter what is happening in the world.  We truly can get through anything.
  • For me to hear your story makes me want to make a change.
  • It makes me happy to know that not all the people living in the Holocaust had become inhumane, since those Polish Catholic families agreed to take care of you.
  • The Holocaust was a time when the world was at its worst.
  • You have given me more motivation to not lose faith in myself, and in my family.
  • I really like that you don’t remember the bad things and focus on the good.  I wish everyone in the world could feel that way because life would be lived to the fullest.
  • People who do not believe in the Holocaust blow my mind.  Those people say it’s a lie so they can sleep at night.  They don’t want to believe the human race is capable of such things and that is what is most scary.
  • I go by “forget the past, live in the present, and expect the best for the future.”
  • I will also stand up for people when they are called bad names.  I will tell people we don’t do those things at this school.

(Note: Please send me via this site the missing names of A and B or any errors in names in the photos below and  I’ll correct these.)

About gelbaum

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2 Responses to Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – March 27, 2012

  1. Janell Ramos says:

    My 16 year old daughter was deeply moved by your vist as well as by this entire era. She came home from school on the day of your visit and told us everything that you spoke of and the passion in which she told us was amazing to see. She has always been on fire when it comes to history but this was a moving vision for me as a mother. To find that she understands and will not accept the injustice that occured and vows to not see it happen again gives me hope for her future. After reading these letters, some from kids that I know, I have regained hope in their generation. We are blessed to have wonderful teachers like Mrs. Santillan and Mr.Beal. We are even more blessed by having you visit and leave such a lasting and hopeful impression. Thank you.

    • gelbaum says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. It is indeed the feedback from students such as your daughter that keep me doing these talks – which were quite difficult for me emotionally but are getting easier with time – so I very much appreciate your feedback also. I do feel that the only hope for change is the next generation so they are the ones to whom I direct my talks.

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