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. Having visited it last year (one year and one day ago!), I looked forward to an enthusiastic and well-prepared audience, and I was not disappointed. I observed with great pleasure how the enthusiasm of teacher Jorja Santillan transfers to her students. As last year, she had already prepared the students through her Facing History-based unit focusing on Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Ms. Santillan and her students are part of a small learning community, Future Leaders for Social Change, within the larger high school; there are three other academies at Arroyo, each with a focus of its own. The Future Academy, as it is often called, is known for attention to broadening its students’ exposure to the wider community. One example is that when the students study a subject such as the Holocaust, they not only explore its historical context but also read a memoir, meet a scholar or survivor, and consider contemporary issues related to what they have studied.
In April, the group will take a field trip to San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, where they will learn something about Jewish life today. Jack Weinstein, of Facing History, who arranged for my presentation at Arroyo both last year and this year, will accompany the group. He says, “The students do an in-depth study of the Holocaust, and it may be among the most moving explorations of their high school experiences. And their visit to the Museum will teach them that Jewish life is vibrant, diverse, and present in their own society, and that there is more to know about this subject than the Holocaust alone.”
Letters from Students
After the students’ visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum with teacher Jorja Santillan and Jack Weinstein I received a large envelope with over 60 letters from them. 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.
- Hearing your story makes me want to make the world a better place. You have inspired me, and I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity.
- Your story taught us to be tolerant, to stand up for others, and never be hateful. For that I thank you.
- Now that I have heard your story I feel that I should share it with others.
- With your visit I learned that innocence is not as bad as high school students make it seem. It is a part of you that continuously saved you.
- I learned from you the name of something that I will never forget because I believe in it myself: The Golden Rule.
- I never went through a hard situation that could equal your years of pain but I understand your stuttering.
- I think that if I was risking my life for something that I believe was fair, I would rather die trying to fight for justice than let go the opportunity to do the right thing.
- After hearing your story I felt that I’ve been taking things for granted. I feel kinda guilty because I have food in my house but when I get home I say there is nothing to eat.
- Your whole story made me very grateful for the life I have right now.
- You have impacted me to not forget your story and to keep an open mind.
- I’ve gone through a really tough time since my parents’ divorce, but hearing your story made me feel that it wasn’t bad compared to what you endured during the Holocaust. I also appreciate my parents a lot more.
- I think everyone in the room who heard your story has the responsibility to tell its truth to our future children, and to anyone who doesn’t believe in that truth, because it is history, a horrible period that no one should forget or try to erase.
- Thanks for coming and for opening our minds a bit more.
- When you told us how you defended Jews but felt ashamed to be one when learning that you were, I thought of my background and I realized that I was doing the same, so I thank you for opening my eyes to not be ashamed of who I am.
- I was truly touched by your story of survival, and felt water building in my eyes time and time again. I cannot imagine having the strength to overcome such landscape of despair.
- I’ll do my best to tell the people after me what I experienced and learned during the time you shared with my class. You did not tell us only your own story but also about humanity and how to be better people.
- I felt hatred and pity towards the Nazis even if I’m not Jewish, and resent them for all the inhumane things they did. Even if the war ended there is still pain and tears to shed. There’s never enough time or too late to mourn.
- I honestly wish I could have the power to take away all the horrible things that happened.
- When you were talking I felt scared myself.
- I learned that I should follow my dreams to become anything I want, and to not take anything for granted, like my family, friends, or life. And for that I thank you, sir, for opening my eyes.
- What makes me think the most from what you said is what if this happened today? Who would you try to save, or would you just save yourself? I honestly don’t know what I would do in such a horrible situation.
- What we do now will reflect the world that will be inherited.
- Your story has changed me to want to help people in need, like the families that helped you and your mom.
- I hope you have a wonderful time on your trip to Poland. Eat many sweet pastries for me!