by George J Elbaum
This was my second visit to Mission San Jose High School (MSJ), whose high academic goals and commensurate achievements are best represented by the school’s ranking by US News and World Report as 6th best in California and 76th nationwide, and by Newsweek as 10th best in the U.S. for math and science, and No. 1 among public high schools. (MSJ students’ test scores in English, math, and science were 2-to-3 times the California average!)
My presentation on this visit to MSJ was attended by approximately 400 9th and 10th grade students in the combined College Prep and Honors English classes of teachers Katherine Geers, who organized this event, John Boegman, Pat Weed-Wolnick, Ryan Marple, and Morgan Goldstein. My presentation was a part of a collaborative six-week course on Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Holocaust and Human Behavior, a book published by Facing History and Ourselves. The course provides historical context and explores the choices individuals, groups, and governments made during the Holocaust. Katherine described their goals in this course as follows: “We want to build and improve our students’ communication and writing skills while simultaneously working to touch their hearts and minds. We strive to enrich their understanding, develop a stronger level of empathy, expand their definition of membership and widen their universe of obligation. This should enable them to make better choices and become productive members and active Upstanders within our society.”
The presentation was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History, who introduced me to the students with his usual eloquence .…including his polished reminder of the “ever-diminishing opportunity” to hear directly from a Holocaust survivor ☺. Also, before I started my talk, Katherine Geers announced that her class plus those of teachers John Boegman, Pat Weed-Wolnick, Ryan Marple, and Morgan Goldstein took up a collection in their classes and donated the funds to Facing History in my honor – a wonderful gesture that I truly appreciate. Thank you, all! Attending the presentation also were Kim Wallace (Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum), James Maxwell (Director of Secondary Education), Zack Larsen (Principal of Mission San Jose High School), Carli Kim (Assistant Principal of Mission San Jose High School), and Dawn Nogueiro (Secondary Education English Language Arts Coach).
After my presentation and a short Q&A, most of the students left to attend other scheduled classes while about 70 students of Katherine Geers’ and Morgan Goldstein’s classes were able to to remain for a continued Q&A. In this smaller and more intimate setting the students’ questions began to flow, and my answers were often augmented and expanded by Jack Weinstein (who arranged my presentation) as well as by Katherine Geers. The session evolved into a truly active, stimulating and enriching discussion about the Holocaust era as well as the current world situation. For me, this whole event was very enjoyable and gratifying.
Letters from Students
A week after my visit to Mission San Jose HS I received an envelope with letters from teacher John Boegman and his 10th grade class. Delayed by the Christmas holiday, the next day after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ heartfelt openness and sensitivity reflected in these letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story. Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.
- If success in school is determined by what we learn each day, then today was a very fruitful day for me indeed. Through your words, I learned much about the Holocaust from a unique perspective and discovered new ways to see the world.
- Your words that we should dedicate our lives for something, not against, resonated with me the most. I reflected on my own life with your words in mind. Instead of trying not to fail a test, maybe I should try my best to ace it. Instead of trying not to be excluded, maybe I should actively try to make friends. Instead of fighting against ignorance and apathy, maybe we should fight for awareness and action.
- Thank you for everything that you have taught me within just one class period. Thank you for opening my eyes and helping me realize that there are people who are willing to risk their lives, to save those of others.
- Thank you for proposing an amazing question that allowed me to think of topics that I would have never thought of otherwise.
- Regarding your question of whether I would give a persecuted victim refuge under my roof at my own risk, I honestly don’t know. I do know that it is the right and moral thing to do, and that it would be my wish if I were the victim, but the consequences are great. I must ponder more over this dilemma, but I do hope that I would be open to giving my protection to others whose lives depended on it.
- It is difficult to think that others would dehumanize me because of my culture or opinion.
- Another aspect of the presentation that fascinated me was the critical question regarding one’s morals: “If you lived during the Holocaust, would you house and try to save a four-year-old child who had done nothing wrong, knowing that your own life would be at stake?” It forced me to deeply ponder the dilemma and consider my own beliefs.
- Living in such a peaceful era now, I still wonder how people during World War 2 had the courage to live until the next day.
- Your recollections of harsh conditions and your survival through pure luck reminded me of how fortunate I am for living in a time of relative peace.
- I feel even more motivated to live and am thankful for the human rights that I might be taking for granted.
- The main point that I took away from your presentation is that we can choose our own paths, and that the Holocaust could have been avoided if people had chosen the path of kindness instead of anger and hatred.
- Having you speak in front of us was an absolute blessing – simply having a real, breathing person who saw, heard, and felt the thing we only read about in text books was an unprecedented experience.
- Your talking to us helped to humanize an event that is normally taught without emotion in school.
- This was my first time meeting and hearing a Holocaust survivor talk about his experience. It was enlightening and made a previously distant event into something more human.
- There are people who don’t have much knowledge about what happened (like me) and I love how you are educating young people.
- I have realized that hate is easy in any circumstance, but to love during adversity is a gift that should be cherished as long as it is there.
- (From a teacher: I appreciate that your visit has inspired my students to think more carefully about the human costs and human benefits to the responses we have when we are put in difficult positions that require us to make such decisions.