by George J Elbaum
St. Peter’s Elementary School, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1878, is an elementary and middle school with approximately 300 students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade. The school is one of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Catholic Schools and a vital part of the parish, a predominantly Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since its foundation, St. Peter’s has served all economic levels of the community by providing a well-rounded academic and Catholic education in a partnership with parents, who are recognized as the primary educators of their children. The school recognizes its important role in the growth and development of students and their families, and it thus promotes Gospel values and fosters peace, justice, integrity, honesty and love for learning.
As part of that effort, St. Peter’s has a month-long study of the Holocaust for its 8th grade students taught by teacher Nina Martinez, who organized today’s event with support from the school’s math teacher, Lawrence Hargarten. This was my second visit to St. Peter’s, and in preparation the students read Elie Wiesel’s Night and are currently viewing Schindler’s List, so their questions during Q&A reflected their preparedness. Upon my arrival I was greeted at the school’s parking lot by two helpful and enthusiastic students, David and Mariel, who guided me to the room for my presentation, and Nicole gets the credit for taking the photos. Afterwards, all three guided me back to my car and we had a lively discussion about their plans for high school. My presentation was arranged by Nina Grotch of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
In early February I received a large envelope containing 45 Thank You cards from the students, each in its own small envelope addressed to “George”. Several of these envelopes were very creative visually, a unique font designed by the student or artistic spirals surrounding “George”, or the cards included drawings applicable to my story. I would like to thank, among others, Andrea, Christopher, Dominic and Ysabella for their artwork. I would also like to thank those students who wished me a speedy recovery of my leg, which was quite painful during my visit that I had to sit down occasionally. Two weeks later (September 2, the same day as the postmark on the envelope containing the cards), I had a back operation to relieve the leg pain, and am now on the way to a successful recovery – your good wishes plus the surgery worked!
Several days after I returned home from the hospital my wife Mimi and I did what we usually do upon receiving student letters: after dinner Mimi read each of the cards aloud while I listened and absorbed the student’s message, and we selected sentences or phrases that especially resonated with us. Today I added these to my website, below.
- Your mother had to leave you with Polish families again and again without knowing if you would ever see each other again. You also had to re-identify yourself multiple times in order to stay alive.
- I will try to forgive those who inflict or provoke negative things, thoughts or actions in me.
- I have learned and continue to appreciate living in this world.
- It must be really hard calling yourself a name or religion that you’re really not.
- It surprises me that people actually had the heart to keep and hide you, knowing the risks.
- My favorite part of your story was when the Russian officer gave you the sugar cube, because it felt to me like the happiest moment in your life and also like a moment of joy and freedom.
- The part when you told us about the sugar cube and how you were free made me so, so happy! I even wanted to clap!
- When you mentioned that you didn’t want to talk about the past, even after so many years had passed, really made me reflect on how serious this all was, and how damaging. When I got home from school I told my parents every detail of your experiences.
- Something that really impacted me was when you saw your father’s name in the phone book.
- I also want to thank you for giving me those little words of encouragement about going on to high school and about me wanting to become a writer. It really means a lot to me.
- I want you to know that you made me think differently: instead of whining I now try harder to succeed. Thank you.
- When you spoke about how you could achieve anything if you work hard enough really inspired me. Since you spoke no English and went to school where everyone spoke only English, and later you got into a very difficult college, inspires me to work hard and never give up. I learned that you could do anything if you really set your mind to it.
- I learned never to give up. You and your mother kept moving forward, without looking back, so thank you.
- The whole world is glad that you are alive.
- I learned to make the best of things in life and not to take my family for granted.
- You taught me not to give up on my dreams.
- One thing that has stayed with me was when you saw that airplane through the hole in the roof and instantly wanted to be there, in that airplane. It stayed with me because, if you think about it, everyone needs to find their airplane. I haven’t found mine yet, but I’m sure that I will.