by George J Elbaum
This was the fifth consecutive year that I spoke at Charles Wright Academy’s (CWA) Global Teen Summit, which this year consisted of the 75 students of the CWA freshmen class and 42 high school students and teachers from China, Colombia, England and Poland, the visitors staying with CWA host families during their visit, as usual. The 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 the first time that most of these students heard directly from a Holocaust survivor, and their subsequent comments, questions, and comparisons of the Holocaust with violence in their own countries (China and Columbia) were very interesting. 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 few weeks after the CWA event the mail brought a packet with more than 100 letters from the students who attended my talk. A few days later, after dinner, my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, 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 5 countries (in alphabetical order) of the attending students.
- The Holocaust has always been a far-away topic for me. I only knew that many Jews lost their lives, but I couldn’t feel their fear, their pain, their despair, or their hope of surviving. The one who told me all of these things was you.
- Your story reminds me about the uneasiness of living, and how important it is to have hope when we are facing suffering.
- You said that you survived by pure luck, but I think that luck is partly produced by decisions.
- I’m interested in your expectations for the next generation.
- As a Chinese, I’ve always been interested in the totalitarianism in WWII, since we were one of the victim countries.
- I appreciate taking part in the Global Teen Summit. As teenagers, we definitely live in a world that is more fair and full of opportunities than in WWII, and I’m glad to get hold of my own life and make my own decisions.
- I asked you “If somehow you were able to meet or decide the fate of the people who kept your family captive, who might have killed your father, would you be able to forgive them?” and I felt my question could not have been more thoroughly answered. Indeed, the heart has to make many of the toughest decisions of our lives, and these are the right ones regardless of the results, because no matter the outcome you will always be at ease with yourself.
- Nowadays Colombia is endeavoring to put a halt to its 50 years of conflict, pursuing a peace treaty in which both sides can reach an equitable agreement. However, both sides MUST forgive each other: the mother must forgive her son’s murderer, the sister must overlook the night she had to hold her brother’s corpse, and a whole country must pardon its own siblings and look forward to growing as one. It’s when we need to agree that such decision can overcome the pain, misery and suffering and open the gates for understanding, and thus serve our future. This principle is applicable to both your and our story.
- I’m from Colombia, an as you know it’s not a very peaceful country. Since I was little I’ve been aware and frustrated by all the violence and corruption that hurts my beautiful country, full of wonderful people and the potential to become a great nation. Hearing your story and understanding how Poland, Germany and other countries which were involved in this terrible war were able to literally come back from ashes and become the countries they are now, gives me hope for my country and my people.
- I think that denying something terrible that happened is the same as doing nothing.
- For me and most Colombians, WWII victims are an alien topic in which the history is acknowledged but the stories aren’t felt. Hearing you has taught me an important lesson: a man can be shattered physically, but as long as there is a shine of hope and courage, this man will survive.
- Thank you for changing people’s lives and making us realize that difficulties can be overcome if you persevere and believe in yourself.
- I know it’s difficult for you to recall those painful memories, but this will help our generation to learn from these mistakes of humanity in order to never do it again.
- You can have no doubt that our generation will carry your story as a gift and will share it with others so it would never be forgotten, and hopefully one day we’ll make a difference.
- I liked your story in particular because it shows how this awful moment in human history was perceived through the eyes of a young child. The innocence of your younger self gives a new and unique perspective on these events. I thank you for telling your deeply touching story.
- Your story was first-hand and real, and it seriously hit me hard what you and thousands of other children had to go through at that time, and if they survived, the hurt they would carry for the rest of their lives.
- Your story truly touched my heart and made me appreciate the amazing life I live. Not having fear haunt me and terrify me everyday of my life, we are all so very lucky.
- Your story left me feeling extremely lucky and privileged to live in the world we live in today.
- If everyone on this planet heard your story, I am certain that this world would be a better place.
- I saw the concentration camp in Majdanek and after that it was something unforgettable to hear your story.
- Your story should make every Pole feel real pride for the good that was done or maybe real sadness for what wasn’t done.
- (Several letters expressed surprise or sadness that I did not feel Polish but rather American, and my answer is: time. I lived in Poland and was aware of my surroundings only 8 years (from age of 3 to 11) and some of these were not very happy years, but I’ve lived in America the next 65 years (from 11 to 76). I grew up in America, my adult consciousness was developed in America, and thus it is natural that I would feel as an American, not because of any feeling against Poland but rather for America – it is my home.)
- People can study all about the Holocaust and not realize what it really was until it’s put into the perspective of an actual witness, survivor or victim. It struck me how lucky we are to live here at this time and how lucky you are to be alive.
- It disgusts me that some people lie to themselves that the Holocaust never happened and that all the victims just moved to Israel, even with so many images, films and records that entire generations were murdered. That is like saying that the dinosaurs didn’t die but all went on a vacation to the moon.
- I have heard of other Holocaust survivors saying that they have given up on God and love because of the unjust hardships and unbelievable prejudice that they faced during the war. To hear from someone who has seen so much horror and so much of the cruelty of human nature, yet who still remains a hopeful, optimistic, and loving person was amazing to me.
- While you were speaking, I felt like I’m also a refugee in the horrible, brutal war under Germany’s invasion. I appreciate the choice you made to pass down your story and let us know the history better.
- It was the “Dark Period” of the world.
- Having you here taught me so much more about the Holocaust than if a teacher had given us a lecture. You also made our everyday troubles seem so small, which helped us to see that we are very fortunate to live in the United States and go to a great school.
- I learned about the Holocaust last year, but I feel now like I could go through it in my own eyes with your story.
- Hearing someone’s experience made the whole event a lot more horrible than just hearing about it in a History class. It helped bring the story to life, and I felt like I was there, watching each little scene happen.
- The things you talked about, especially how the choices we make affect others, have inspired me to try to become a better person.
- After your speech, my peers and I engaged in a lively conversation, and it was interesting to see my classmates reflect on your powerful words.
- I will be more prepared to talk about the Holocaust with others, and relay the terrible truths and moral ideas that come with it.