Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – June 7, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,900 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 6th consecutive year that I have visited and spoken to its Future Academy for Social Change.  The audience was a 100+ 10th grade students taking the Facing History based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit.  Based on my previous 5 visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and I was definitely not disappointed – once again I observed how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the various aspects of the Holocaust.  In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories, and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive.  I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”

What made this visit to Arroyo different from the previous 5 was that this time students had also been assigned to create, singly or in small groups, table-top projects reflecting their view of the Holocaust.  A dozen of these projects, each requiring artistic creativity, sensitivity and craftmanship, are shown in the photos below.

Each visit to Arroyo  reminds me that it is the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers such as Jorja Santillan who truly teach our next generation, and thus on whom America’s future depends.  Thus it is ironic that our public officials, while lauding in speeches and proclamations the critical value of education, do so little to provide America’s teachers a compensation that’s commensurate with this value vs. other employments.

My visit was again arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who gave his usual excellent introduction plus skillfully answered questions during the Q & A when these went beyond my personal knowledge of the Holocaust.

Letters from Students

Summer is often a slow-down time, and so it was with these Letters from Students.  It took a month+ for the 72 letters to reach me and then another month+ for us (my wife Mimi and me) to finally have time to read them all and excerpt the phrases, sentences, and passages that resonated with us.  These excerpts are shown below.

  • I want to show people that we need one another right now more than ever with this political problem, and so we need to come together as one and not look at each other by religion, race or ethnicity. We are all humans.
  • History plays an important role in the world because many of these events can happen again; discrimination is an ongoing problem in the world today.
  • Keeping this history alive is important so that it doesn’t repeat itself. In this time, it seems that very possible for something like this to happen.
  • I really look up to you because you went through so much and you are successful. This shows that someone’s past doesn’t determine their present.
  • You taught me that confidence is something that can keep you alive. That’s something that I’ll apply in real life.
  • You taught me that it is possible to rise back up from a point where hopes and dreams were so far away.
  • Following what you’re passionate about is hard for everyone, and the fact that you did it even when you had someone doubt you straight to your face is truly inspiring.
  • Your past makes me think of things differently, and makes me realize how good I have it.
  • It makes me feel so inspired that I live in a society that I can basically do what I want. What I learned was that I always act like I have such a bad life but I really don’t.
  • Your story inspired me to help people even more and become aware of the world and what’s happening.
  • You have shown me to be caring to all, appreciative of what everyone does for me, and grateful for the stuff I have and am given.
  • Thank you for opening my eyes to a world I was once blinded to.
  • I knew from reading that it was a very sad event, but actually hearing a person talk about this event hit me like 10x harder.
  • It opened my eyes when you showed us the very impactful pictures and made me realize that so many people let this happen.
  • It’s not a horror story, even though it sounds like one – it really happened. I have difficulty wrapping my mind around it.
  • Thank you for living through life with optimism and wanting to make change in the world. Your story is now a part of mine!
  • I really love your story, and for some reason I want to hear it again.
  • Hopefully with your sweet tooth you are enjoying life’s sweets as you travel around & maybe even having that dinner of sweets of your dreams…if your wife doesn’t catch you. Fill the rest of your memory with happy memories to outweigh those bad ones.
  • You have inspired me to push through whatever difficulty comes my way. You’ve helped me understand the Holocaust better and made me want to make a difference in the world.
  • Years from now people will still be telling your story. Your history will live on forever; my classmates will make sure of that.
  • I hope everyone realizes that what they have is great compared to what others may have. We shouldn’t take the many things we do have for granted.
  • I really enjoyed your speech because I have a problem with public speaking and to think that you can talk about such a life changing event I was really moved and I commend you for what you do.
  • Hearing your story of living with strangers made me be thankful for my own bed & a floor under my feet & a roof over my head. I can’t imagine how you lived without your mom because I myself am so attached to my own mom & can’t imagine life without her.
  • What I took with me after hearing your story was the appreciation I have for my mom.
  • “There is no greater agony than hearing an untold story inside you.” This is a beautiful quote from Maya Angelou that I thought to myself when listening to your story.  You reminded me that we all have a hidden story inside us.
  • I liked how you put things into more human terms, as when you said that the 6 million Jews who died was the same as the population of San Francisco x 8. It really opened my eyes because before that the 6 million was just a number.
  • We all know that the Holocaust happened, but once you hear someone’s story who went through it, that changes our perspective.
  • You wanted us high schoolers to make a difference when we’re older to stop sad events like the Holocaust.
  • Teens may be able to read and do research about the Holocaust, but being able to experience it through somebody else’s eyes is life changing and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
  • The chapters you read made it seem like I was there and it brings out the emotions of wanting to help.
  • By learning and understanding the characteristics of these events, and the events that led up to these tragedies, we will be better at catching early warning signs of similar events if they begin to occur.
  • What’s beautiful is that some who survive the brutality of these awful regimes come to have a new appreciation in life and educate others on the importance of fighting for justice even if it’s not popular.
  • I learned from you that I don’t need to feel hopeless when learning the world’s history. I learned that I can use that knowledge and its stories to improve the world and be better.  That is the most powerful thing we have against tragedies and war, to be upstanders and hope.  With hope and courage we can fight any monster that comes our way.
  • One of the things I learned is to treat people like people, and as my parents have always told me, to treat others how you would want to be treated.
  • You asked us to think if we would risk our lives for a child we don’t even know. Your question was really impactful because we would like to think that we would, but if we were actually put in that situation I feel that only some of us would.
  • The Holocaust was more than camps or labor, it was trying to move forward every day and hope that you could wake up the next morning and thank God for being alive and still here. Hearing what you had to go through makes me ever more grateful for my life and for appreciating everything I have because you actually had a struggle.
  • This is truly one of the most learning experiences I’ve ever had and I will take this with me forever. I’m making it my responsibility to keep your story alive because people don’t understand what’s it like to live that life, and to help them understand a little and change a little would be amazing.
  • I just can’t imagine going through something so terrifying by myself with strangers. Considering how young you were, I think of my little siblings as they are around the age you were, and again I just can’t imagine it.
  • I hope you were amazed by the artworks that my classmates and I worked really hard on. We made sure to make them the best we could just for you.
  • Thank you for showing us what not giving up looks like.
  • Thank you Mr. Elbaum for your story, bravery, wisdom & love.
  • Thank you so much for opening my eyes and for giving me a wakeup call.
  • I believe that we should never forget. I think that making projects as we did in class and getting a presentation like yours for sure helps to make history come alive more.
  • I liked seeing your reaction to our projects because we worked so hard on them to impress you.
  • Keep doing what you do best, and that is inspiring others.

Introductions by Jorja Santillan followed by Jack Weinstein


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