by George J Elbaum
Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,900 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 4th year in a row that I have visited and spoken to its Future Academy for Social Change. The audience was approximately 100 10th grade students taking the Facing History-based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit as arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History. Based on my past visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and I was not disappointed. I observed again how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the various aspects of the Holocaust. 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.”
On this visit to Arroyo I saw in the library 13 desk-top Holocaust memorials (shown on the photos below) which were built by Jorja Santillan’s students as part of the Facing History unit, and after the visit I emailed her asking how she defined this assignments for her students. Rather than just addressing the memorials, she broadened her answer by describing her approach to teaching the Facing History unit, as follows:
“During our study of the Holocaust, my students have engaged in a variety of activities to complicate their thinking about issues related to it. We initially discussed the power of labels and how they can positively or negatively impact us. This relates to the impact of hateful labels and stereotyping of the Jews (also other groups), which were exploited by Hitler and his regime. Students also developed their understanding of the history of anti-Semitism, the historical context leading up to WWII, how the Nazis continuously gained power, and the murderous strategies used to annihilate Jews and other minority groups. In addition, we also studied bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust because students often think that the Jews or others did not resist, which many did. We discussed how there are many ways to resist even if not through physical force. Next, they would navigate Birkenau online, reading about the different areas of this concentration camp and viewing photos to give them a glimpse of what Elie Wiesel experiences in Night. As we read it, we focused on the power of faith to inspire or to destroy, the dehumanization and the struggle to survive. As we study the Holocaust and read Night, I remind students that there are many different Holocaust stories, and that it’s a complex issue with multiple perspectives or experiences.
For the culmination of the unit, students create a Holocaust memorial to honor a person, group, or event. They review existing memorials in the US to get ideas, and then work in groups of 3 or 4 to create a proposal outlining the details of the memorial (title, sizes, materials, location, and artist’s statement explaining the symbolism), which I approve. Afterwards they construct the memorial and, once finished, they present it to the class. After all the presentations, each class voted on the memorials they believed were the best representations to exhibit in the library.”
It is the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers like Jorja Santillan who truly teach our next generation, and thus on whom our country’s future depends.
Letters from Students
I was away for several weeks, and when I returned the accumulated mail included a large envelope with 80+ 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.
- Hearing your story was one of those things in life that I will never forget.
- Some people may not like talking about tough times in their lives but I’m happy that you did because you really opened our eyes on how much the Holocaust impacted everyone.
- It’s important for your words to be spread and shared to new generations. One day when I have kids I will tell them about my lucky experience hearing your story.
- Hearing how you stayed with 4-5 different families made me realize the value of family. Sometimes I want to be left completely alone, but your story made me realize that I’m lucky to live where I shouldn’t worry about losing my family.
- I will share your story to ensure that this history doesn’t become just a paragraph in a text book.
- I could only imagine how scary it would be living through those years of your life and now having to re-live it by telling about it. It’s incredibly inspiring how you made something so good of yourself.
- Even though the experience was very traumatic, it shaped you into the person you are today, which is inspiring. Your life turned into a “happy ever after,” which warms my heart a lot.
- Hearing your story wasn’t something I was looking forward to as I thought it was going to be another academic lecture. A few minutes into it I became more and more interested. It opened my mind, showing that this really happened, and it’s our generation’s job to remind the next generation that the Holocaust should not be forgotten.
- I believe it wasn’t just your luck that helped you make it through the dark times, but your good heart. You smiled at the face of danger and changed a man’s decision with it.
- You either escaped and survived, or were killed – there was no in between – and afterwards you had to start your life all over again without the loved ones killed by the Nazis.
- You inspired me to take advantage of the “American dream” and work hard for what I want, to appreciate the things I have in life and work hard for the things I strive for.
- After your talk I wanted to find the answers to all the questions I had that weren’t answered during the talk. Mrs. Santillan told me about the Q&A section on your website, so I went home and read through all of it. I felt so much more informed after doing so.
- You have also taught me that in dark times there are good people out there who can help.
- I told my mom about what you told us. She said that you must have had all that luck to survive because you had a purpose, and you weren’t meant to die then.
- I hadn’t thought of the fact that one day there will no longer be survivors of the Holocaust. After that day, your story and many others will still remain and must be passed on. My generation’s responsibility will be to teach and speak of this history because it’s worth telling. Thank you for coming this year!
- After hearing your story I saw the Holocaust in a whole new light. Hearing a story in person is much different than reading from a text book or even from a memoir, such as Eli Wiesel’s “Night.” Your story provided an experience that was more touching, and it broke the barriers that textbooks create for students.
- I really latched onto the title of your book, “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.” You are very right. If the past was hard, keep on going. If the future does not seem bright, stay in the now.
- You are an important beacon to history by going around and spreading the story of the Holocaust. When you share your story, you are attaching a bit of the Holocaust to everyone’s mind and heart.
- Our generation must tell the future generations about the Holocaust because it would keep history from repeating itself.
- It is now my responsibility to keep this history alive by telling someone about it, especially if they doubt the Holocaust and the drastic measures people went through to survive.
- I admire the courage and strength it took to relive the horrors of the Holocaust and share your experiences publically. I hope to take the account you told us and share it to prevent bigotry, whether it be against Jews, Muslims or African Americans. As you said, I plan to live for a purpose rather than against an idea or person.
- By meeting you I felt I met with history. You gave me a better understanding of the Jewish genocide and the crimes of the Nazis. You helped clear my sight to the truth. Thank you.
- Before meeting you I did not know what to expect. Maybe I expected someone a lot more serious with some anger still in them, but I’m glad that was not the case. I admire how you spoke to us in an inspiring way, and instead of telling us not to do or believe certain things you motivated us to make good choices and stay true to the good we believe in.
- I believe that by sharing your story in schools such as ours you are making the world a better place. I look forward to reading your book online and sharing your story with my family.
- I too have lost a loved one and was placed with guardians. It was tragic for me, and I was transferred to a whole new environment, moving homes many times and saying goodbye to new friends, so this displacement from my mom to guardians was a familiar scenario. However, motivation to keep moving forward is what kept me on my feet and striving for success in college. (My response: Bravo! With that attitude, you will do it.)