by George J Elbaum
Oceana High School is a small public high school in northern Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 652 students, of which 81% are minority and 32% are economically disadvantaged, but it nevertheless has earned a “Best High Schools in California” rating by the US News & World Report Rankings and an Academic Performance Index of 817. It has accomplished this by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students.
My presentation to approximately 190 10th grade students was organized by Oceana’s humanities teachers Adam Weinstein, Keziah David, and Roisin Madden. Also attending the presentation were Oceana’s Vice Principal John Neuberger and teachers Paul Orth, Ben Barnett, Rebecca Uhrenholt, and Kent Yuen, and the volunteer photographer was Demetrius Ontiveros (thank you!). The presentation was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who introduced me to the audience and after my talk provided some very meaningful context for the students.
A couple weeks after my talk at Oceana I received a box containing 111 letters from the students, plus a bag of marshmallows to remind me of my train ride from Warsaw to Paris when I was 10 years old! Much thanks for this surprise! After an unplanned delay, my wife Mimi and I read these letters together at the dinner table (though not all 111 in one evening!) as we have done in the past. We were truly touched by the thoughtfulness and heartfelt emotion shown in these letters, some even resulting in a lump in my throat with a sense of deep gratitude for their feedback. The statements and phrases that particularly resonated with us are listed below.
- Having a speaker was definitely a change of learning. The same raw emotions cannot be conveyed by a teacher who never experienced the same events.
- From your first encounter with an officer to the plane flying against the bright, blue sky, I was able to imagine scenes. I saw the young boy with dreamy eyes when he was introduced to sugar, I saw the worried face of a young mother. It felt as if I was right there with you.
- I want to thank you for reminding me that I shouldn’t stress myself over things that happened in the past or that are going to happen in the future. The past is history that I should acknowledge, but not look back on and regret. The future is something I know nothing about; anything could happen so I shouldn’t envision the worst.
- The one thing that struck me in your speech was your ideology: living in the moment and not dwelling on the future or the past. This struck me because I’m the opposite: I dwell on the future and the past constantly and I stress out a lot from it. You are now a role model for me, and I hope to adopt your ideology and not dwell on the past/future but just live in the moment.
- The lesson that I will never forget is where you said to focus on the present in order to be wherever you want to be, because focusing on the past won’t change the future and only focusing on the present will get you far.
- Telling your story in front of thousands makes you dig into the past hoping that the future will be better.
- I appreciate how you taught me to be content and to focus on the present.
- One thing I learned specifically was to live in the present – you are alive in the present, and that should be what matters.
- I learned a lot from what you said, but what really struck out to me was how you moved on from whatever happened.
- Through your story I learned about the importance of resilience and the ability to move forward.
- If I was in the same position I’m sure that I would cry myself to sleep thinking about the events that happened each day and wondering if I will survive to see another night.
- I want to spread word about your book, but mostly about your living the Golden Rule, which is to treat others as you would like to be treated, and living a life full of happiness and not anger and hatred.
- Thank you for teaching us the morals that make me want to be reflect on what kind of person I have become and how I can be a better person each day.
- I’m really glad that you learned how to live such an optimistic life despite going through such a horrific event like the Holocaust.
- Your stories about being lucky really shocked me, and I realized just how much the odds were against you to survive.
- I’ll tell my friends and family how luck is a mysterious thing.
- What really stood out for me was your emphasis on luck. One less smile at a soldier, one more moment holding that grenade…. It’s astonishing to imagine “walking away” from these events.
- I believe things always happen for a reason, so I think that “luck” brought you here so you could share your story with our generation who is among the last to hear it directly from a survivor.
- I was surprised to hear how you smiled at the Nazi soldier while you were eating soup, and how he walked away without harming you. It really shows how survival during the Holocaust was so much from luck and not from strategy. Also, it inspired me to smile more. My older sister says that I always look angry, so smiling will help me a lot.
- A unique thing that I learned from your sharing your story is that I should cherish my time with my family and the people I love, because I don’t know when it’ll be the next time I see them.
- Your story made me look over my life and taught me to be thankful for what I have and to not complain about the things that I don’t.
- I learned that when miserable things happen to you like war, you start to enjoy the little things in life, no matter how small they are.
- I now think of how you went through life whenever I am stressed and it makes me feel better, because I think to myself that if you survived that, then I can survive this.
- I learned that concentration camps were not the only place where there was suffering during the Holocaust.
- I related to how your mom left you with other families because I was constantly taken care of by babysitters, since my mom had to work a lot to provide a stable living environment for me. The babysitters weren’t always the nicest people, just as the families you lived with weren’t always kind either.
- I can hardly imagine how hard it was for you as a child to wake up each day and notice that your mother was not by your side with you.
- Your story is something that I will always remember when hearing the words “Hidden child.”
- I learned how risky it was for families to harbor or safe-house Jews, that they were risking their lives. They may not have always been kind to you, but I hope none were too terrible, and if so, I hope you don’t remember it.
- When you talked about doing what’s right despite the risk made me wonder what would I do if asked to put my family and myself in danger by taking in someone else’s kid. It would be very hard to choose between what is right and protection of my family.
- Your story has changed the way that I look at doing what’s right and what’s wrong.
- Your story inspires me to be an upstander.
- Many people who have gone through what you did are traumatized by it and can’t even mention it. It may have taken you 60 years to come out with your story, but your presentation showed that you are happy and can talk about these horrible things, which I admire and appreciate a lot.
- Dear George Elbaum, and all of the other names you’ve had through your life J
- Since you’ve had to change your name several times, I’ve been wondering how you felt about it and whether you felt sometimes that you lost a part of your identity with it. (Response: my identity was my first name, which I never changed, only my last name.)
- Equally powerful was the story of your mother and the decisions she made to keep you alive. She must have been extremely worried when she left you at the houses of complete strangers. It’s also difficult to imagine the risks and dangers she faced each time she returned to visit you.
- I found your story to be very bittersweet, but it shows how innocent and accepting children can be. Nobody is born racist or judgmental. Your story is a great example for this
- I was always interested about the Holocaust and deeply perplexed by how people could ever do such a disgusting, grotesque, nasty, and cruel act against humanity and other human beings. I guess it’s what happens when people with broken minds get extreme power, sadly.
- If I had the chance, I would go through and relive all the terrible experiences of all the Jews who were murdered if it meant that it would have never happened.
- I don’t think I could describe your story to my friends and family in words, how it felt to hear your story. It’s similar to when you read a good book and someone asks you what the book is about, and all you can reply back is, “You have to read it yourself.”
- When everyone who has first handedly experienced the Holocaust is gone, the type of personal connection you made with us students through your story can never be done again. However, we students can pass on stories of what we have heard from people like you and hopefully create that connection again.
- Thanks again, and ….you rock!!