by George J Elbaum
Washington High School (WHS) is a public school with an enrollment of approximately 2000 students of diverse backgrounds. Together with Jack Weinstein of Facing History & Ourselves, I first visited Washington High School in March 2011 and spoke to a humanities class of 11th and 12th graders entitled “Literature, Justice, and Society.” That course, which was developed by a cohort from the school after they had attended a Facing History seminar more than a decade ago, is still taught at WHS and focuses on genocide, human rights, and contemporary issues. Literature is the entry point for discussions about difficult historical and contemporary topics. In addition, social studies and general English courses include specific units of instruction on the Holocaust and many other topics meant to promote historical awareness, responsible decision-making, and upstander behavior.
As I had experienced in 2011, the current WHS students also demonstrated clear understanding of the basic historical narrative of the Holocaust and sincere respect for the process of meeting a survivor. Jack started our session with an introduction about their responsibility to become “witnesses-once-removed” by virtue of having interacted with a witness to history. It would be theirs to carry forward the messages and lessons of a survivor to the next generation. After Jack’s introduction, I gave my presentation followed by Q&A, and again the sophistication and depth of the students’ questions and interest reflected the quality of their preparation. In fact, the questions continued till eventually the students and I left the auditorium to finish outside and take a group photo. It is always a pleasure to see the results good teachers produce in their students.
Social studies and English classes currently engaged in the study of the Holocaust and of Holocaust literature participated in the current event. Assistant Principals Nathania Chaney-Aiello, Erica Donahue, and Jeff Speckels coordinated the session. Principal Bob Moran had previously arranged for English and social studies teachers to meet with Jack Weinstein for professional development sessions on integrating new Facing History resources on the theme of Holocaust and Human Behavior in their respective courses. All the students in attendance had completed a multi-week unit of instruction on the topic, and most had read Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, or Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus.
Afterwards I learned from Jack Weinstein that my talk led to writing assignments for the students, including reflective essays, letters, and messages from WHS students in response to my session. The writing project was coordinated by teacher Monica Sullivan, who also helped to organize both the session and the professional development workshops that preceded the event.
Letters from students
A couple of weeks after my visit to WHS I received a thick packet with 125(!) letters from students. With so many letters, my wife Mimi & I needed several after-dinner readings before we read all of them and, with each letter, excerpting those sentences or phrases which really resonated with us, either because of their sensitivity or empathy or beautiful phrasing. The results are below.
- You seem to me as a man who has completely overcome the trials dealt to him. You don’t seek revenge, you don’t spread hate, you exude honor and kindness. You are an inspiration to me. I hope that someday I can come to a place where I no longer feel such terrible anger at my past and the person who wronged me. You have set a perfect example.
- You made the Holocaust and all its outcomes come to life for me personally, and the audience as a whole.
- Your story helped me bring myself to how it could’ve felt during these times. Instead of facts, I was learning and understanding the Holocaust in an emotional and psychological way, something I would not have without your story.
- Your story deeply touched me and changed me as a person. You have left a beautiful mark on me.
- Your stories about courage and pride of who you are in the face of fear have inspired me to be courageous when I experience sentiments of hatred toward my middle Eastern Heritage or Islamic beliefs.
- Thank you. You have helped me in ways I am unable to describe in words.
- Recently a friend of mine was being bullied. Your wise words got me thinking that if I would have stood up for her then I would have made a positive influence on my world and would have made her life better.
- I better understand that this could happen to anyone, and that it could happen again.
- After hearing you speak, I feel that I need to cherish life every day because the same thing can happen at any time.
- I hope that you continue to talk to different schools for a very long time because your story gives us a lesson that no textbook or documentary ever could.
- I feel as though I am a bit more prepared to face the discrimination that goes on in the world, and I have your eyewitness account to thank for that.
- You made my day so much better and I’m proud to be able to retell your stories. Each story I have learned from you I have taken to heart.
- After hearing you speak, I feel though I can be open to other people’s ideas, and be kind to people, because, after all, we are on earth with other humans, and might as well be as kind and welcoming as possible.
- After hearing you speak I can better understand how lucky I am to be born when I was and where.
- Future generations may lose clarity but will always share sympathy.
- I will forever cherish your story and hope to tell it to my children one day.
- You didn’t just show us a time in history but also the emotion behind it.
- You are a different voice that people need to hear. You showed me that you can live a normal life and be successful even after hard times.
- It’s good to see that you are relatively the same as any other person just living life.
- It’s stories like yours that remind us to be human, the most important part of learning history so that it doesn’t repeat itself.
- It was quite interesting to hear of your chances of luck, as if fate itself had decided you had to live to tell the tale to us.
- I felt as if I could see just a faint outline of what it was like to live in hiding, to run, to survive in a world that hated you.
- I had several near-death experiences when I was growing up, and like you, luck was there to save me. For example, I was rock climbing and I lost grip on a rock and fell, but luckily there was a thick root sticking out from a tree on top and my foot tangled around it and saved me from falling six stories high while hanging upside down.
- After hearing you speak about your mother and grandmother, I felt way more respect and pride in my heart for my parents because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be in America, studying and writing this letter to you.
- The story you told us was really sad – it made me cry a little.
- My teacher gave us only 10 minutes to write so I have to go, but thank you so much for coming and I am so sorry for what happened to you.
- After hearing you speak I feel as though I can help try to prevent bullying situations that can happen at school due to race, ethnicity, or even their backgrounds.
- You said something that I have not stopped thinking about since: stand with things, not against things.
- Your advice on facing hatred in the world today was very interesting, and I will keep it in mind the next time I come across a situation.
- I wanted to let you know that I really appreciated the way you told your story and I feel more need to stand up to hatred.
- I was in tears for most of your story. Your words that hatred is taught is meaningful because it’s really the truth!
- I feel as if things in life that I thought are bad aren’t even close to being as bad as you had, so now I see that I need to be grateful for the little things and not be a brat when I don’t get my way. So thank you.
- This experience will help me be even more open minded, and help me to remember that acceptance is super important.
- I truly consider myself lucky for the fact that I got to hear you today. I only wish that you spoke for a longer time so that I could have skipped the boring school classes. 😊
- I now better understand the impact that this atrocity had on individuals rather than on a country as a whole.
- Your speaking helped me realize that not only is it okay to speak about personal issues but to also embrace your past.
- I believe this moment to be one of the most important memories I will have.
- Your story of surviving the Holocaust as a child has me more thankful for what I have, even if it’s not much.
- Your story has motivated me to make the relationship with my family better, and to be thankful for what I have everyday.
- I will not forget that I got to hear a Holocaust survivor’s testimony in person. Thank you very much for doing this, and I am more than eternally grateful.
- The question you asked us (to answer only to ourselves) had a big impact on me. It made me think if I’d be willing to take a risk to save a four-year-old boy. Thank you for helping me understand myself.