Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – May 8, 2012

by George J Elbaum

Milpitas High School (MHS) has a large and highly diverse student body – 3000 students, 38% Asian, 22% Filipino, 20% Hispanic, 20% White, and 4% African-American – and was the very first school in northern California to develop a Facing History course.  Jack Weinstein, Facing History’s 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 1997 to establish the Bay Area office of Facing History, teachers Cathy Mellera and Sky Draeger became the instructors, and 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.

The 300-some students attending my talk were therefore well-prepared – most were from the multiple freshman English courses taught by Sanjit Roy and Ginger Roy (who jointly organized the event) and by Lindsay Mohundro, teachers who clearly pass their own enthusiasm to their students, plus students from Sky Draeger’s junior/senior elective course Facing History.  Also in attendance were teachers Sharon Roth, Annie Marple, and Lynn Marozeck.   Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

Letters from Students

Ten days after our visit to Milpitas High School I received (via Jack Weinstein) a large, thick envelope with 75 letters from the students taught by Sanjit Roy and Ginger Roy, and a week later another envelope with a dozen letters from Lindsay Mohundro’s students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read 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.

  • I have this haunting question I must ask: what, in your eyes, is the best response to the Holocaust?  My response: to stand up & speak out against injustice whenever you encounter it – to be what Facing History calls an “upstander.”
  • After reading the book Night, by Elie Wiesel, I still cannot imagine the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust.  It makes me wonder how a human being could be so cruel to another human being.  Even if I cannot fully wrap my mind around it, the Holocaust did happen and we cannot change the past.
  • When our class started learning about the Holocaust we only knew that it was a tragedy in history.  I believe if you had not come to speak with us that all it would be was an event in history books.
  • Reading from a book only tells me about what happened and what the author wants me to know.  Listening to your life-story tells me more about what you had to do and how you felt while moving around and hiding from the Nazis.
  • I now understand what it means to go through life with struggle, pain and loss of close family members.
  • You got very personal as well, which was most definitely something I didn’t expect.  It’s something that will be hard to forget in the future.
  • After studying the Holocaust for the past few weeks, most of us couldn’t fully grasp the enormity of the subject.  The books and the movies about it seemed like fiction.  That is, until we met someone who was there.
  • It’s much better to witness someone who actually went through the Holocaust talk about when he or she experienced than just sitting in a normal classroom learning about the Holocaust in general.
  • Please continue speaking to kids because it will help them learn about the Holocaust and make the world a better place.
  • Thank you for giving your testimony, for it will remain within us until we die.
  • You were saved for a reason, though.  You were chosen so you would grow up to help students like us learn and remember what had happened.
  • I’m very pleased that even after all the things you’ve been through, you’re still a very optimistic person.
  • Your vivid details from your vignettes had an awe-striking spark to my heart and emotions.
  • I don’t know if your religious beliefs have changed since the Holocaust because being in that situation people’s views on God may have changed.  However, in my point of view, you are truly blessed.  Hearing your stories made me smile for some crazy reason.
  • Even though you think that you were just lucky, I think that you were able to live because someone up there really wanted you to survive and be able to see another smiling face on Earth.
  • What I noticed about hearing you speak is that you were very calm and had a sense of peace of mind.  That is great that you were able to keep that part of your past in the past.
  • You inspire some people to always keep hope and keep going through a bad situation.  Thanks to you, I will look at bad situations and try to make something good happen.
  • Your presentation has really enlightened me to stress the phrase “Never Again.”  However, after witnessing these horrific tragedies, how can you trust in humanity not  to be broken forever?
  • I am worried that some people still do not understand that something of this scale, while maybe not in the immediate future, could still happen.
  • Such mass murder should never be allowed to happen again, and the only way to make that possible is by spreading awareness.
  • Your comparison of 100,000 murders a month (during the Holocaust) to a city like San Francisco getting exterminated in 8 months was easy to comprehend, and now I understand just how many people died, and how quickly, too.
  • Your description of how it was after the war also helped me imagine how someone who lived through the Holocaust would start over.
  • I especially liked when you read passages from your book, Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.  I could almost visualize how life must have been for you, and I felt as if I was reliving all the joyful and saddening events you encountered.
  • I especially enjoyed how you were very open about retelling your past.
  • I cannot imagine a stranger risking their life to save me.
  • I understand that there are many who survived the tragedy, lost loved ones, and are pained whenever they are reminded of that dark corner of history.
  • You gave me a different perspective on all the Holocaust survivors.  I now realize that not everyone who was a survivor was hidden in a single place or survived the death camps, but all have different experiences and stories.
  • It gave me a great insight on how life was for some people and the difficulties they had because they were different.
  • Thanks to you, I know more about the Holocaust and how people rebuilt their lives after it was over.
  • You showed me that even though you went through such a terrible experience, it is still possible to move on, pursue your dreams and live a very happy and successful life.
  • When someone asked how you could be so cheerful and happy, your reply touched me.  You said that you were an optimist and you remember the good things and not the bad, and that will help me in the future whenever something bad happens.  I now look at the Holocaust with a different perspective, and I now understand that millions of others have their own unique stories as well.  You changed my views on the Holocaust and life itself.
  • You have inspired me to never give up and to keep pursuing my goals.
  • You and your mother have taught me that I can overcome whatever hardships life throws my way and to never give up.
  • Your talk encouraged me to cope with challenging situations.  I made a challenge for myself to try to be positive whenever I am stuck in tough situations.
  • There was a “what if” question and you didn’t necessarily answer (and) I thought that was an important lesson to be learned: there’s no reason to think about the “what ifs” – in life what happens, happens.
  • My whole life has revolved around materialistic beliefs, and I feel that I constantly choose to get what I want and not what I need.  To add to that, I myself am a bystander.  I do not act when I witness a wrongdoing, and I am guilty.  After reading Night I realized that it is selfish to complain over unnecessary flaws in life, and to stand by when someone needs help.  I am slowly starting to figure out that there are greater things in life than technology, clothes, and shoes – there is suffering.  Bullying, famine, genocide, and more occur all over the world and I now understand that it can only be stopped if people act.  I need to start taking action.
  • Your story opened up my mind to show how thankful I should be for still being alive each and every day.  I also began to realize more and more that if you primarily look forward to tomorrow you will not be able to live fully in the present, and if you were to primarily look back at yesterday you would be trying to relive the past and fix what one once had.
  • Do you still eat (and like) potatoes, bread, and soup, and does it bring back memories of your Holocaust childhood?  (see Q&A)
  • How were you changed mentally by the war, your morals and beliefs and state of mind? (see Q&A)
  • What started out as my attempt to skip my classes actually turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I grew up learning that there are only three worthwhile jobs in this world: doctor, engineer, and lawyer.  I later learned that a job should make you happy.  I still have not found that one career, but maybe one day I will be inspired just like you were.
  • I did not think hearing your story would change me in any way, but I was wrong.  Hearing your story impacted my life.
  • Thanks to you, I really understand that I shouldn’t take life for granted.
  • I feel like your stories have made me a stronger person.
  • It might have been hard for you when you first came to this country (not knowing English).  I know how you felt because I didn’t know English either, only Spanish.  Sometimes I feel bad saying that I am not from Mexico.  I have learned from you that I have to be proud of where I come from.
  • I started to think of my own life and how many futures I could choose from, whereas many others did not have this choice.  I became aware of how ungrateful I am, and that I need to change that.
  • Thanks to you I have taken a second glance, so to speak, at my own life, and I am now trying to live it in a more fulfilling way.
  • A part that really stood out for me was when you told us about how a bunch of people you did not know started to live in your home.  I can imagine how confusing this all must have been to you.  When you told us this, I really appreciated what I have in my life.
  • When your mother left you many times, I felt grateful that my mother was always by my side.
  • Learning about how you traveled from family to family yet maintained your relationship with your mother has given me a new respect for my parents, a greater realization of all the things they have given up to keep me safe and have a better life.
  • When you told us how your mom basically saved your life, it really made me think of my mom and how she would do anything to save me.
  • Before this, I could not grasp the idea of how massive the Holocaust really was until I heard it from an actual survivor like you.  It finally hit me that an unimaginable amount of people died.  Not just died, but tortured!  Your story really opened my eyes up.
  • When you told us about the sugar cube and how you loved it so much, it made me appreciate everything I have even more.
  • My favorite part in your story was when you received a sugar cube from the Russian soldier.  To me, that sugar cube symbolized hope and luck.  Ever since you came and told your story, I have been much more interested in the Holocaust – as well as in sugar cubes and airplanes.
  • I would never expect someone at your age to be riding a motorcycle and hang gliding and getting into crashes in both.
  • I think it was cute how you met your wife.  Did you know that strawberries are considered the fruits of love?  I think strawberries were the perfect way for you to meet her.
  • You have shared your story with us.  Now it is time for us to share it with others.
  • From a teacher: I was most touched by your statement that as human beings we need to stand for something, not against something.  I think that all too often we think of the things that divide us and make us different, not the things that bind us together, and your words encourage us to be people of positive action.

Jack Weinstein’s introduction

 

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One Response to Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – May 8, 2012

  1. Julie M. says:

    Hi Mr. Elbaum! I was one of the students at MHS that day, and I’m happy to see that you’ve received my letter, as I see a quote up there from my letter. Again, I have to say your presentation was amazing. 🙂 Bye!

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