by George J Elbaum
Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has approximately 1,760 students and high diversity. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the third year in a row that I have visited its Future Academy for Social Change. Based on my past two visits, I looked forward to an enthusiastic and well-prepared audience, and I was not disappointed. I observed again how the enthusiasm of teacher Jorja Santillan transfers to her students, whom she prepares through her Facing History-based unit. In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive. I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”
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. They have also visited San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum to learn something about Jewish life today. Jack Weinstein, of Facing History and Ourselves, who arranged for my presentation at Arroyo on all three occasions, participates in teaching the Holocaust unit and 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 teaches 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.” Both Jack and I were genuinely impressed by the openness and sincere interest shown by the students, especially in some one-on-one conversations after the presentation.
Letters from Students
We were away for several weeks (including in Poland where I spoke at 5 high schools in 3 cities), and the mountain of mail that greeted us on our return included a large envelope with over 70 letters from Arroyo 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 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.
- You went through so much but never gave up. It shows us that we need to keep fighting though our struggles.
- My responsibility by listening to you is to keep your story alive as long as I can.
- I felt responsible to change something in my life or spread your story. Your speech was a wakeup call that basically said this is real and still a problem.
- You are the reason why I will stand up against intolerance. I will stand up for those who are oppressed and cannot fight back. Thank you for speaking to us, it really has changed my outlook on life.
- I learned that the Holocaust did not just affect the people in the camps but also struck terror and fear into the lives of those outside the camps.
- I was fascinated to learn that during the Holocaust, families who were not Jewish took in Jews who were trying to hide. I found it amazing that these people knew that it was the right thing to do and they risked their lives to do it.
- We need to keep history alive because many people don’t realize how prejudice and stereotyping can be harmful.
- I actually shared your story with my cousin today. I told her that I met a Holocaust survivor, and she asked me what the Holocaust was!
- I liked how you compared prejudice to bullying. It really made me realize that our actions do have an impact, and it has changed my perception on the little things I take for granted and on life, of course.
- Please keep spreading your life & knowledge. You opened my eyes and I know you can open more.
- Your story has opened my eyes to see that there was so much more to the Holocaust than just the idea of Hitler trying to get rid of Jews.
- I hope you continue to share your story for years to come so that many others will get the opportunity to hear you as well.
- I’ll make sure your story never dies. I’ll tell people about it.
- This part of your life & experiences molded you into the person that you are today.
- The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues.
- You and your mother have given me a new idea of what strength and love is.
- I will share what you have shared with me with anyone willing to listen.
- What impacted me the most was knowing that you might not be able to see your mother ever again.
- Yesterday I went home and told my parents, my brother, and my grandparents all about your remarkable story.
- I know that it is our job, as this generation, to keep this history alive so it really means something, not just another statistic in history books, but so it doesn’t repeat itself.
- Thank you so much for telling your story and offering it as a gift to the world, even though so much was taken from you.
- I learned from you that sometimes in life we go through tough times and we don’t know why, but we must continue to fight on and find ways to turn our problems into solutions.
- I’m grateful for your courage, because if you didn’t tell your story I wouldn’t have the new mindset that I have now.
- It made me really reflect on my life and think of my decisions and actions. I have made a vow that from now on I will always do what is fair and just, regardless of what the outcome may be. I will follow my heart and keep you and your mother’s story alive through the kindness of my actions, for the rest of my life.
- You said that we have the power to live our lives the way we think is right or to live in hate. These are words I recite to myself now.
- From hearing your story I want to work for Child Protective Services, working with kids that come from tragic backgrounds. I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity.
- Your story opened my mind to always help others and put myself in their shoes, and not discriminate based on who they are or what they do.
- Whatever I can do to try and make this world a better place, I will do.
- I know that when I am older I will help people, whether it is through donations, charities, or some other ways.
- Hearing you speak yesterday made me change the way I look on life, to appreciate what I have right now.
- I will keep this event in my heart. (PS: “With will one can do anything!”)
- I’d like you to know that your story and life have ignited a fire in my soul to always stay positive, and to know that light will always be at the end of the tunnel.