by George J Elbaum
This was the fourth consecutive year that I spoke at Charles Wright Academy’s (CWA) Global Teen Summit, which this year included CWA students plus 31 high school students and teachers from China, Colombia, and Poland, all staying with CWA host families during their visit. CWA’s annual Global Teen Summit is a 10-day program designed to promote peace and social justice by exposing the visiting students to and developing their understanding of the concepts of universal human rights and justice, fair trade and sustainable life styles, and by demonstrating how the choices that each of us makes every day can impact the world. The core of the Summit is a series of speakers whose personal experiences reflect directly on these subjects, and their presentations are followed by group discussions on these very concepts. My presentation, which started this year’s program, was probably the first time that most of these students heard directly from a Holocaust survivor, and their subsequent comments, questions, and personal expressions of thanks were very gratifying – the very reason that, in spite of some emotional discomfort during my talks, afterwards I’m always glad I did it. (The next speaker was Carl Wilkens, the former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda. He was the only American who chose to remain in Rwanda after the genocide began in 1994 and heroically protected the locals who depended on him.) The Summit’s founder, organizer, and guiding force is Nick Coddington, whose amazingly intense and varied background is exceeded only by his enthusiasm in instilling the Summit’s concepts in his students. (This presentation was arranged by the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.)
Letters from Students
A week after the CWA event I went abroad for a month, and in the mountain of mail that accumulated during my absence I found a packet of 85 letters from the students who attended my talk, plus a very kind “thank you” note from Nick Coddington. A few days later, after dinner, my wife Mimi read each letter aloud to me while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally, and felt very gratified by the students’ responses to my story. Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below, grouped by the 4 countries (in alphabetical order) of the attending students.
- We Chinese people have the same feeling about WWII when the Japanese did the same thing as the Nazis. Sometimes people say they can forget history, but in fact memory is memory, and it is very hard to forget what we experienced. But life is still life, and we should look forward and plan what to do for a bright future. We should be tolerant and resist prejudices as much as we can.
- I’m glad to be here to hear your story. There is also a bad memory in every Chinese mind about WWII. Japanese made a carnage in Nanjing where 300,000 people died. It is difficult to escape from such a disaster and how sad we are for those who did not escape and are gone. I thank you and wish the world will be healed by peace.
- I think you bring very good message to us, which is “peace” and “kindness.” I love what you said “We can choose to do what we think is right or we can let hate and anger lead us.” You speak of your good luck, and I hope you will bring good luck for everyone else.
- I thank you for sharing your experience – your story teaches us about hope.
- I have never really thought about luck, and how we can “make” somebody’s luck. I support your quest for individuals who search for justice, and to your challenge question my answer is that I would have taken the risk to hide a persecuted minority.
- Your experience made me realize how any decision can change somebody’s life, how a couple of minutes or a single yes or no can change the fate of a person. I now know that I’m responsible not only for myself but also for others around me. Thank you for making me see how terrible the Holocaust was and how with strength, brains and luck, we can overcome even the worst of situations.
- Although I live in Poland, I didn’t really know what had happened during WWII. Your story makes me think a bit differently about the people who surround me.
- I thank you for your speech – I learned so much from it, and it was an amazing experience for me. This was important for me because I live in Poland, and we should know our history. Your memories are very deep, and I was touched by them.
- I met you in Poland this year, so this speech in CWA was my second. I was so glad that you fought your past and did visit us in Poland. Thank you!
- Philosophers disagree about human nature, but I believe that genocide is a part of life. This sounds terrible, but it’s true. If there’s one thing to take away from your talk it is the importance of understanding and justice.
- I learned that one’s actions can be someone else’s luck. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to make better decisions that don’t benefit only ourselves but also others.
- Your talk inspired me and now I’ll try to make a difference. I’ll be more tolerant and accept that our uniqueness is what makes us special rather than a reason to fight. Also, that my decisions can be someone else’s luck. Thank you!
- When I first heard that we would be listening to a Holocaust survivor I envisioned a broken skinny man with haunted eyes and an unsmiling sad face. I was wrong, as you proved to be funny and kind and obviously full of life, and I was moved by your speech.