The Athenian School, Danville, CA – October 19, 2017

by George J Elbaum

The Athenian School is an experiential college preparatory private middle and high school with 524 students in grades 6-12 situated on a beautiful 75 acres of rolling, oak-covered hills.  The students come from a dozen different countries (including 60 students who board on campus) and nearly 50% are people of color.  When school opened in 1965, its founder planned for both integration and coeducation, a radical concept at the time when very few private schools were recruiting students of color or were coeducational.

Athenian’s unofficial motto is “Life is an adventure of intellectual exploration and meaningful contribution,” and every day its students from the East Bay and around the world practice leadership, teamwork, empathy, and global citizenship, while mastering academic subjects by experiencing their application firsthand.  The school’s academic performance is very impressive, per 2017 test averages:

The school’s diversity, racial as well religious and cultural, is shown by the diversity of student activity clubs: Asian Club, Outdoor Adventure Club, Interweave (Gay-Straight Alliance), Jew Crew, Black Student Union, Christian Club, Interfaith Dialogue Club, Philanthropy Club, Hip Hop Club, Tea Club, Entrepreneurship, Round Square Club, and more.

Also impressive is the school’s environmental stewardship, which has been a core value since it opened.  Campus initiatives in solar energy, water conservation, waste diversion by recycling have resulted in environmental awards from the US Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, CalRecycle and others, and its efforts also teach students to steward the environment.  Students are also taught to appreciate the environment though the Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE), whereby   small groups of classmates explore the beauty of the High Sierra mountains or the Death Valley desert.  While navigating off-trail terrain, cooking group meals, rock climbing, and setting up camp, they learn how to collaborate, problem-solve, empathize, and believe in oneself and others.

My talk at The Athenian School was a part of the Holocaust Seminar, a history elective for 11th & 12th grade students, and was also attended by a 10th grade French class.  The talk was organized by Lea Hartog, humanities teacher, and arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also attending were the school’s librarian Jim Sternberg, biology teacher Elizabeth Wright, as well as relatives and parents of students.

Letters from Students

Several days after visiting Athenian we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with 11 letters from the students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity and insightfulness as reflected in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There was an unusually large number of statements in these letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • Learning about the innocence that you kept and that you lost was particularly interesting to me.
  • Having to live without your mother, but not understanding exactly how much danger you were in, was a complex and fascinating juxtaposition to me.
  • One can only imagine how repressing memories of the Holocaust and then choosing to deal with them so much later in life took a toll on you, and I thank you for wanting to tell it to the world.
  • Putting human faces and emotions to what I only see as pictures was very impactful and adds another layer to my understanding of the Holocaust.
  • I thought it was really poignant that the family with the dachshund had to kill it in the night to keep it from barking and alerting the Nazis. As I have a pet dog myself, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do something like that, so it really clearly illustrated to me the desperate times of war, and the need to survive at any cost that the Jews possessed.
  • Honestly, the idea of hearing someone speak about something so gruesome was rather intimidating for me, and I was nervous to listen to someone with firsthand experience rather than simply reading from a textbook.
  • I realized that simply discussing Jewish victims as numbers of people that were killed has no benefit to my learning and emotional connection, and your words truly transformed my idea of what the Holocaust was.
  • The public often focuses most on the hopelessness and desperation of the Jewish community at the time, and, while these feelings are completely valid, your description of your mother’s work and the other uprisings proved to me that people were doing more than sitting back and waiting to be killed.
  • Even though fear was one of the largest driving factors of the Holocaust, you gave me the ability to understand that there were incredibly intelligent and strong-willed people that attempted to fight back against the hatred, even if times may have seemed to be without any hope.
  • I thank you so much for helping me understand the process of struggle, luck, and perseverance, and I cannot express how important it is that others get the opportunity to hear your story as well.
  • The main point that I was intrigued about was how you were only seconds away from destruction multiple times. Your mom showing the paper just seconds before it was too late and Leon calling you just seconds before the explosion of the hand grenade are incredible.  You, and we as well, were very fortunate to be on the right side of time when it came down to the wire.
  • Trying to educate young people about not being “anti” and instead standing up for what is right is a very powerful and meaningful message.
  • Simply finding a grenade on the side of the road isn’t something we are used to today, and it speaks to the brutality and cruelty of the war.
  • The story you shared about the dog being choked to death was impactful to me. I have a dog that is like a part of my family and I am sure this was the same with the dog-owners who were with you in the shed.
  • Your story brought me to tears but hearing about the choking death of the dog got me bawling.
  • I really appreciated hearing your religious beliefs and your opinion on what we should be doing about prejudice in this country.
  • You really are touching lives and you certainly touched mine by telling your story, and I know you will touch many more.
  • The beginning of your story, where you set the scene of how the entire Jewish population of Warsaw was living in a miniscule portion of the city, surrounded by wall and barbed wire, gave me a much more realistic, vivid understanding of the Holocaust.
  • Thank you for expanding my perspective of the emotional damage that the Holocaust created. I often struggle to find hope when in a dark moment of my life, but your story has inspired me to try and find the hope that lies in the future.

with audience

About gelbaum

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