Central Catholic High School, Lawrence, MA – December 3, 2013 AM

by George J Elbaum

Founded by the Marist Brothers in 1935, Central Catholic High School enrolls approximately 1,300 students from diverse backgrounds “to form a caring community of faith, learning, and service.” The school prepares its students for college which they enter in overwhelming numbers (nearly 100%), and simultaneously “it teaches and promotes social justice and compassion to make the world a better place.”  To this purpose the school offers a one-semester elective course “Facing History & Ourselves: The Holocaust & Human Behavior” in its Religious Studies Department.  As taught by teacher Tim Hart, the students explore the history, causes, and aftermath of the Holocaust and reflect on racism, social justice, the importance of global awareness and their own potential for making a difference.  Tim’s class of 68 seniors attended my presentation, as did Andrew Nikonchuk, Assistant Principal for Curriculum & Instruction, and Jaffrie Perrotti, Assistant Principal/ Associate Dean of Students.  I had looked forward to speaking again at Central Catholic HS because I spoke there two years ago (November 29, 2011) and found the atmosphere  very welcoming and the students well prepared and very enthusiastic, and it was the same this time – a real pleasure then and now.  The event was again arranged by Judi Bohn of Facing History and Ourselves.

LETTERS FROM STUDENTS

A few weeks after my talk at Central Catholic High School I received a large envelope with 60+ letters from the students, including some hand made & decorated cards, and a kind note from teacher Tim Hart.  After an unplanned delay, my wife Mimi and I read them together at the dinner table, as we have done in the past.  We were truly touched by the perceptiveness, understanding and emotion shown in these letters, some even resulting in a lump in my throat with a sense of deep gratitude for their thoughtful feedback.  The statements and phrases that particularly resonated with us are listed below.

  • Immediately after your presentation I emailed my mom and dad and told them that I loved them and was thankful to have them in my life.  I am now much more thankful for my childhood growing up, along with my crazy family.
  • You’ve left a mark on my life – because of your pure strength and powerful story, I’ve learned that life is too short to be spent upset and hateful.
  • I hugged you after the speech because you touched me deeply and I was truly moved by you.  Like you said, life would be much more peaceful if we all hugged each other.  (Thank you for enclosing Sudeep Pagedar’s poem “Holocaust” and Pearl Jam’sSirens Lyrics.”)
  • Your story encouraged me by proving that life cannot end after devastation and hardship.  You have to keep going and let your story be a testament to others.
  • Your story touched me and made me think about my purpose in life.
  • I would have loved to meet your childhood self!
  • I think that you were meant to be here – it was your fate to survive everything, to live through all the horror of the Holocaust and to tell your story.
  • Your story and your triumph were the only topic of discussion at my family’s dinner table this evening.
  • I really felt as if I was there experiencing it with you.  You had a special impact on my life.
  • Your story will forever resonate with me, an image of hope and inspiration to us all.  PS: I’m short too… and I’m proud of it!  🙂
  • Surviving all those near-death experiences really shows that if God wants you home he will take you, and you were clearly not wanted…. 🙂
  • The only way to prevent injustice is to accept that it can happen.
  • The most frightening part of the Holocaust is that it occurred only 70 years ago, in the “modern” world.
  • You are like a tree that has branched your story to other people so that we may learn and grow (followed by a drawing of a lovely tree).
  • If you were to meet now the little girl who got the presents your mom gave you when she would visit you, would you hate her?  Would you hug her?  Do you feel that having your mom’s presents taken away from you as a child makes you now appreciate things more?  (I wouldn’t hate her as she didn’t take my toys, her mom did, and yes, remembering the past makes me appreciate the present.)
  • Seeing you smile while talking about the simple but impacting moments, such as being given the sugar cube, I felt like I was given a gift.  I thank you for that gift.
  • I am starting to appreciate my family more because I cannot imagine a day when they could be gone.
  • I left the theatre that day with a new mind set and appreciation for not only my family but also everyone I interact with on a daily basis.
  • All people handle things differently, and it is how they handle these things that determines their happiness.  (Signed: Forever changed…)
  • My mother is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, and was a young child when placed in a concentration camp.  I realize that this may be difficult for her to talk about, but I want to hear more about her childhood.  I’ve always wanted to write a book about her side of the family and after your talk I’m more motivated to do so.
  • It’s truly inspiring, especially for people my age who are thinking about our future and what our passions are, to hear someone who achieved what they wanted even if all odds were against them.
  • When you first saw the plane through the roof of the shack, you didn’t see the injustice of your being in the shack but rather the beauty in the plane.
  • Your survival story and decision to inform our young minds is unimaginably valuable and I thank you for sharing a difficult story with us.
  • The Holocaust is something we learn about in history classes and it becomes more memorized than understood, but hearing your story made it real – it’s now a tangible thing.
  • I have an attitude toward my mom at times, but I probably wouldn’t last 6 months without her.
  • We were asked to write you a thank you letter, but I don’t know how to thank someone for telling me so many personal details about their life.  I feel that words are too limited to express my gratitude, so I will write a simple thank you.
  • I went through that day thinking about the question you asked us: “If you had a chance to help save someone even if might mean death for you, would you?”  At first, I said yes, without even worrying about being caught.  Then I thought what if they threatened my family? Friends?  Then I remembered your host families, and how much they must have sacrificed to keep you with them.  I would love to be able to do that and wholeheartedly say yes, but given those circumstances I honestly don’t know what I would do.
  • I would like to go into forensic psychology some day and for that reason I want to know why this happened, not how.
  • In the 8th grade we did our mini version of the Paperclips project after watching the film, and seeing all those paperclips collected it was hard to grasp the enormous number of deaths and murders that occurred during the Holocaust (followed by copies of colored paperclips!)
  • Determination and ambition are the major things I pulled out of your story.
  • I am part of the last generation that will have first-hand interactions with Holocaust survivors.  Those who come after me will not have the same understanding about the Holocaust that I do because they couldn’t hear survivors like you tell their stories and feel the emotions in their voices.
  • Your experience didn’t only shape who you are but hearing it changed me.

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