Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – February 3, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Milpitas High School (MHS) has a large and highly diverse student body – 3300 students, 37% Asian, 21% Filipino, 19% Hispanic, 19% White, and 4% African-American – and was the very first school in northern California to develop a Facing History course.  Jack Weinstein, Facing History’s Senior Program Advisor (formerly Director), taught at MHS from 1978 to 1997 and integrated Facing History’s resources early on within many of the school’s English courses. Then, in 1990, he developed a full-semester Facing History course focused on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. That course was an inter-disciplinary English and Social Studies course for 3 years, and then it evolved into a Social Studies elective focused not only on the Holocaust but on multiple case studies of genocide, human rights, and issues of race in American history.  When Weinstein left MHS in 1997 to establish the Bay Area office of Facing History, it was continued by other teachers so the course is among the longest-running electives in the school’s history.  In addition, nearly all freshman English courses now include a multi-week unit on the Holocaust with the study of Elie Wiesel’s Night as its centerpiece.

This was my third visit to MHS, and the 300-some students attending this talk were again well-prepared.   What made this visit especially memorable for me was the Q & A during which the students asked several questions that I’ve never been asked before, such as “Considering what you’ve been through, what do you fear the most?” and “Because of today’s situation, do you think a genocide of Muslims in America is a possibility?”  The students were from the multiple freshman English courses taught by Lindsay Gutierrez (formerly Lindsay Mohundro), who organized this year’s event, and Annie Marple, Caitlin Bellotti and Jennifer Loomis, all teachers who clearly pass their own enthusiasm to their students.  Also attending the talk was Phil Morales, MHS Principal.  Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were again made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

Letters from Students

A few weeks after my visit to Milpitas High School I received a thick envelope with letters from teacher Lindsay Gutierrez and students from her freshman English class and those taught by other English teachers.   After some delay due to my travels, my wife Mimi and I finally read each of the dozens of letters, with Mimi reading 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 and the stated effect it had on them.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below, and the very large number of these excerpts shows me how well these students were prepared for my talk and, consequently, how well they understood and felt it.

  • Your talk was especially timely given the divisive political climate in our country, and your words gave me and other students the courage and conviction to be an upstanders in our own lives.
  • In this recent political climate and with neo-Nazis becoming bolder in the U.S., it’s important to know the history of the Holocaust and its lasting effects on Jewish people.
  • It is important to know the facts and numbers but it is even more important to hear first witness accounts and individual stories. Hearing your experience opened my eyes.
  • I’m writing this letter to thank you for sharing a part of your past for the good of the future.
  • Not every Holocaust survivor had to have had the experience of the gruesome concentration camps and witness brutal killings. In your presentation I was expecting a story not much different from Elie Wiesel’s, but instead I heard about your past that was on a wholly different level than Elie’s.  Bigger or smaller, it does not matter, Elie and you shared the same pain and sorrows with different experiences, yet came up with the same outcome of enduring those occurrences and sharing your story with today’s youth.
  • I think back about how I just take everything I have for granted. Your presentation made me realize that I should appreciate everything I have now and how lucky I am to be here today.  It also inspired me to have more faith in my God and not to give up or lose hope.
  • Reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel I did not get to really understand what it did to those people, but when I got to hear your story it really hit me that this was such a horrifying event.
  • From the story you told us about waiting so long to tell your story, I could tell how hard it was to decide to open up.
  • Your story did not only give me a much rounder insight into the Holocaust, I know that it made me a better person in all I do. That is what you gave us: a reason to be courageous.  It is one of the greatest gifts a person can receive.
  • Your story has changed my life and you need to know that. Every time I have the choice of helping a person, I will think back to those families that hid you and how you continued with your first speech ever.  Thank you with the utmost respect for the gift of courage you gave us and for forgoing your right to privacy to give us this gift.
  • Reading books in a classroom is one thing, but being able to hear the voice of a witness is like jumping into a time machine and diving straight into the heart of history.
  • Aside from the historical aspect, your presentation taught me the value of refusing to be a bystander and speaking out against the acts of injustice.
  • From your account I have learned to always be for something and never against, to never achieve something by tearing others down, and that every single story matters.
  • The knowledge you have shared with us will not be forgotten.
  • I asked you a question: “If you were able to go back in time from your childhood, knowing what you know now, what would you change?” I remember you responding: “If only there was a button for the Holocaust not to happen.”  Though your response was quite concise, I thought harder about your response and wondered how there should be a “light switch” for the aspects in life.  Although, not having that “light switch” makes an individual who they are and stronger from their past.
  • I cannot express how much your heartrending tale has changed my perspective on my life and life itself. I see it now as a true gift, something that was so easily taken away from many during the years of the Holocaust.  I hope you continue to speak to more people about your story and continue to touch their hearts like you did mine.
  • I learned a lot from your answer to the question of how you came to write a book about your experiences. I had no idea that it was so hard for Holocausts survivor to commit to writing a book based on their experiences.  I now understand that it is painful for them to write about these past experiences as they are full of unpleasant memories.
  • Feelings of anger and hatred towards humanity stirred inside me as people can commit horrifying sins. However, you acted like a doctor and prescribed me with hope.
  • Thank you so much for sparing your time to narrate your story of a stolen childhood.
  • Thanks to you, I realized that I should think positively throughout any situation. You have given me faith, everything can get better even with bumpy roads.
  • Everything you said at the theatre made me realize a couple of things. I should cherish every moment with my family because not everyone could do the same.  Also, you taught me that I should act as an upstander and listen to my parents more often.  You would have been out of luck if you did not listen to your mom.
  • This new experience has really changed me, and made me think more about putting myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve really started to consider others’ points of view more.
  • I especially thank you for showing me that if you keep going and work hard, there will be results at the end that may be worth all that suffering and hardship.
  • Thank you so much for coming and speaking to us, it was truly inspirational and with perfect timing. I was personally, dangerously close to losing hope on continuing to follow music.  Despite that, you came to talk, I came to listen, and it reminded me that I needed to keep going to get anywhere.
  • During your speech you talked about forgetting the Polish language because you didn’t want to think about the Holocaust, and I find that relatable because if something like that happened to me I would do whatever it took to forget about what happened.
  • Thank you again for coming to our school and inspiring us to live life and don’t let anyone stop you from doing things you love.
  • It could not have been easy to talk about something as private and devastating as your childhood, and your willingness to talk about it is invaluable to many people.
  • It’s important that people understand what happened in the past and why repeating history is not beneficial to anyone, especially with all of the bias and prejudice going on right now.
  • Even though I had never seen or lived through an event as devastating as the Holocaust, your presentation really opened my eyes to take in the fact that it was a real event.
  • If it weren’t for you, I don’t think that many of the students at Milpitas High School would have really understood the importance of everything that happened in our history.
  • A lot of students take what they learn as a joke. They don’t seem to understand the importance of what they are being taught, but because of speakers like you their eyes are opened to a whole new world, and they understand once they have seen the importance of not forgetting with their own eyes.
  • It definitely wasn’t until I heard your story that I truly believed that something as terrible and chilling as the Holocaust was real and took place in history.
  • Your story has taught me that there is no point dwelling on the past, or looking into the future. You have to live the now.  Thank you, again, for your wonderful story.  It had a great impact on how I will look at my life.
  • We are the last generation to actually “be a big part” of the Holocaust. By the next generation the survivors of the Holocaust will be gone and there will be no living witness to describe the gruesome events that happened.  As a witness to you story I will make sure to pass it down to my children and I am sure they will thank you.
  • Before your account, I was baffled as to how hate could cause a genocide as massive as the Holocaust. I wondered how humanity could possibly kill 6 million people because of hate and prejudice.  After your talk, I realized that as soon as we see a particular group of people as being inferior, violence can easily result.
  • Your story has brought light into a dark room because you filled my head with real events that I never knew could have existed.
  • I haven’t personally cared much for the horrific events of World War II as most others did. Yet, when you mentioned your relationship with your mom, you lit a fire in me that has made me want to focus my attention on the Holocaust.
  • I hope you will continue to move the hearts and minds of many others around the world by standing up for what many victims could not say. 
the audience

the audience

starting, with Caitlin Bellotti and Jack Weinstein looking on

starting my talk with Caitlin Bellotti and Jack Weinstein looking on

About gelbaum

Reluctant author
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