Lick-Wilmerding High School, San Francisco, CA – March 5, 2013

by George J Elbaum

Lick-Wilmerding High School’s uniqueness today is based on its history of 139 years.  Founded in 1874 as the California School of Mechanical Arts, LWHS today is nationally recognized as the only independent school in the nation that offers students a rigorous college preparatory curriculum plus unparalleled courses in the Technical Arts.  This “head, heart, and hands” curriculum consists of the usual spectrum of academic courses (English literature, history, math, the sciences, foreign languages) plus the Technical Arts: Design & Technology and shop classes in electronics, fabrications, glass, jewelry/metal art, and woodworking.  Culture is also represented at LWHS, with classes in architecture, animation/film/video, drawing/painting, photography and sculpture, plus Performing Arts (dance, instrumental and vocal music, and theatre), as are athletics (including a rock climbing wall).  The school strives to be an inclusive community, so its student body of approximately 450 includes more than 50% students-of-color and more than 40% of LWHS families benefit from the school’s Flexible Tuition program.  Because of its reputation for educational and cultural quality, the school’s acceptance rate of 15% is comparable with that of the nation’s top colleges.

My presentation at LWHS was organized by teacher Mary Finn as part of her History course “Genocide and Human Behavior: Facing History and Ourselves” and was arranged by Katie Cook of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Letters from Students

A week after my visit to Lick-Wilmerding High School I received a large envelope with letters from the students who attended my talk.  When our calendar cleared a few days later and we had a quiet evening at home, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  Reading the first letter we were both amazed by the depth of understanding it exhibited about the Holocaust, and how well the writer internalized and related it to her own life, including the internal conflict of feeling fear vs. sense of obligation in being a “bystander” vs. an “upstander” in dangerous circumstances.  When similar understanding and sensitivity were exhibited by more letters, with similarly insightful statements, we realized that this could only result from an excellent preparation before my talk, and afterwards a meaningful class discussion led by their teacher, Mary Finn.  This echoes the truism that excellent students result from excellent teachers, so thank you, Ms. Finn.

In reading these letters we highlighted the statements that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • Hearing your experiences, especially about the unpleasantness of some of your host families, gave me a fuller understanding of the variety and diversity of situations that different hidden children experienced.  This made me ponder on the complexities of being an up-stander at the time.  Every hidden child’s story is different.
  • I had heard of (the ghetto) uprising, but had no understanding of the weight of its meaning, that civilians fought against trained German troops with no chance of winning, in “hopeless act of defiance” just so they would die fighting instead of in a gas chamber.
  • I had no idea that in Poland, even after the war was over, pogroms occurred that targeted surviving Jews – Jews that had been hidden by other Poles who risked their own lives to save them.  This paradox is so hard for me to wrap my head around.
  • I do believe that as a witness to a Holocaust survivor, I have an obligation to fight and counter Holocaust deniers.
  • When you shared the story about the little dog, your story became very real, and the weight of what you went through really settled in.
  • Listening to your story made me question my strength, my resilience, and my ability to endure something as horrible as the Holocaust.  I learned that being an up-stander is a lot harder than just thinking that you would do something to help someone.
  • I feel confident that I will spread awareness and knowledge to those who come after me, because I can say: “I have met a Holocaust survivor, and here is what he would want you to know.”
  • When you said your mother was able to get a “temporary permit to continue living” (made me think that) the idea that one human being has enough power over another to give them a “permit to continue living” is despicable.
  • You reminded me of my privilege when you said: “In America, if you want something bad enough and you’re willing to work for it, you can do it.”  I often forget how appreciative I should be for my privilege and I want to start better utilizing my opportunities.
  • If I am ever in a compromising position, I hope I will remember your words and be an upstander.
  • Your story made me realize that we only have each other to look out for, and although being an upstander can be hard, it’s the upstanders that change lives.  It seems usually when it’s the hardest to stand up is when others need you to stand up the most.
  • It is fascinating to me now to think of how the citizens of Germany redefined themselves after being forced to choose.
  • There is no way to determine whether a person will be a bystander or upstander until they are forced into the situation.
  • Your story taught me a great deal about being a human being, and how we cope with incredibly difficult circumstances.
  • Considering the potential consequences of being found out, it is hard to say whether or not I would be brave enough to hide another family, knowing that it could result in the death of my own family.  I have tremendous amount of respect for all the families who took such risk in order to do the right thing.
  • It’s hard to imagine what life would be like living in constant fear of your life and being born into a world where you are publicly hated.
  • After hearing this story, I believe that I have an obligation to be cognizant and appreciative of my privileges in all aspects of my life, and to never take things for granted.
  • I did not fully realize that denial is inevitable in all genocides because that it the coping mechanism that some people use.
  • Your experiences made me thing a lot about obligation.  This sense of obligation also begs the question of how much is enough?  Is it enough for someone to take in a stranger…. but not to treat them fairly and kindly?
  • I was intrigued by your question about whether we would be willing to risk our lives in order to save the life of a stranger.  This question made me think of the moral obligation an individual has to another individual just for being human.
  • I have a greater appreciation for the fact that genocide last far longer, (beyond) the surrender of the perpetrators; the harm done to the young in their formative years can stifle the identity of future generations.
  • How do we make upstanding individuals a majority?  Is such a shift impossible for…. humankind?

Group photo

About gelbaum

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4 Responses to Lick-Wilmerding High School, San Francisco, CA – March 5, 2013

  1. Oknomex.Pl says:

    Hello! I’ve been following your website for some
    time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you
    a shout out from Huffman Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the great job!

    • gelbaum says:

      Thank you. I will continue as long as the feedback from my audiences continues to be as gratifying as it has been. For example, yesterday I spoke again at the Global Teen Summit of the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, WA (as I have the 3 previous Septembers) and feedback such as theirs is why I keep doing this.

  2. ogłowie says:

    It’s difficult to find educated people on this topic, but
    you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

    • gelbaum says:

      Thank you, but the reason it’s difficult to find such people is because one had to live through it, and (as I’m sure you know) not many did. Also, I wrote my book and started speaking about the Holocaust only after keeping silent for over 60 years, and then I was surprised to learn that such decades-long silences are typical of many survivors.

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