by George J Elbaum
Oceana High School is a small public high school in northern Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 652 students, of which 81% are minority and 32% are economically disadvantaged, but it nevertheless has earned a “Best High Schools in California” rating by the US News & World Report Rankings and an Academic Performance Index of 817. It has accomplished this by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students. I spoke at Oceana 2 years ago and was touched when a student who attended that talk, remembered that I spoke about a sweet tooth, and gave me a candy bar before my arrival.
My presentation was organized by Oceana’s Humanities teachers Coreen Hartig, Keziah David, and Roisin Madden for approximately 150 10th grade students who have been learning social history and concepts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universe of Obligation, the stages of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, Eugenics, and the Nazis’ rise to power. Their year-long study is based on Facing History and Ourselves’ focus on oppression and resistance: what are their causes and what are their consequences?
Also attending the presentation were Paul Orth, Science Teacher, Peter Menard, Special Education Teacher, Janice O’Leary, Library Assistant, and Bruce Higgins, Student Welfare & Attendance Monitor. The presentation was arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves, with whom I rode to-and-from Pacifica, discussing social and basic human obligations and the deep gratification of truly personal philanthropy – giving one’s time & effort, not funds – which I’ve observed from most teachers.
Letters from Students
A few weeks after my visit to Oceana High School I received a thick envelope with 101 letters from the 10th grade students who attended my talk plus a very thoughtful and touching letter from teacher Roisin Madden. After some delay due to my travels, visiting guests, etc., my wife Mimi and I finally read all the letters (several dozen after each of several dinners), 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, appreciated their decorations (drawings of flowers, hang glider, sugar cube, chocolate bar, and even an actual chocolate bar taped to one letter), and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story. Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.
- You learn about the Holocaust in school and they teach you the history, but hearing the story told from your point of view just puts a whole new perspective on how it all happened.
- I will remember this as a lesson of how people can have a choice in what path of life they choose.
- You taught me an important lesson today and it is to let go of the bad things and forget the bad memories to save more room for the good memories.
- It is so important for my generation, and the generations to come, to hear your story. Your words carry a power and truth that help us to remember and understand how our world used to be, so we must shape it into a better, far better world.
- I am fascinated by how much depth and emotion you put into what you spoke about. It was almost like I was there…. but I wasn’t, you were.
- I’m grateful to be able to stand by my Jewish culture and feel safe. I am grateful that I don’t need to change my identity to belong.
- To this day discrimination is still a big problem. No more white and black seating on the bus, no more Holocaust.
- You asked if we would take in a child in a country where it would put our lives at risk. My answer is Yes. I feel that if I turned down the opportunity to take care or raise a child, I would never forgive myself. I want to make a difference in my life and the lives of people around me.
- I want you to know that I will use your words as inspiration in my life to stay strong and to fight for what I believe.
- I was amazed when you said that you got into MIT, and that motivates me to try and get into my dream college/university.
- In class we go over citizens’ experiences, but we don’t really realize the tragic struggles they went through unless we hear it from their own perspective.
- Your story has inspired me in a way that no other has. In my life I have already lost my closest friends and family, and I hold onto the negative things that have happened to me. I have to learn to let go. Your story has taught me this, and it will help me do that.
- I have learned something really important from your talk: that hearing someone speak of their experiences helps history feel less distant and more real.
- I will always remember how you said to always be “for things, not against things.” I will remember that it is up to us to make the choices we make and not up to others.
- You said that we have a choice to live our lives full of anger, hate, and lies, or we could make the choice to live with fairness, truth, and respectfulness.
- I’m 15 and I can’t imagine losing most of my family members. That makes me cherish every single moment I have with my family and friends.
- You proved to us that the tragedies that happened in the past, though still remembered, are in the past, and all we can do is to live in the now and enjoy today.
- I’m sorry for all of your losses, however I like to believe we will all meet again one day, somewhere, somehow.
- I learned from you to not give up, to not look back, and to keep going forward day by day.
- It shows how fragile human life can be, and how easy it would have been for someone to take a wrong turn or make a wrong choice, and for future to be completely changed for a person.
- I hope that you can go on to talk to many more schools about your experience, affecting more young minds.
- I have learned that helping people and taking risks can save lives.
- Not only does your story help deepen our understanding of the Holocaust, but it will help us to be better human beings in the future.
- I find it interesting how the smallest actions can determine your chances of survival. For example, when you smiled at the soldier and then continued to eat your soup.
- Your story taught me to live in the present, neither yesterday nor tomorrow, but today.
- Just like you say, “I am lucky.” I am lucky that I did not experience an event like the Holocaust.
- Before attending your talk yesterday, I did not believe in the slightest bit about luck, and only in hard work, skill and experience. I learned not only that there is luck but also that I would be willing to do what the families hiding you did.
- You told us to reflect about whether I would be willing to hide a little boy; I would. I cannot think of turning away a small child who would otherwise be killed. They are someone’s child, a future life in my hands.
- Your personal account really gave me a new sense of the scale of how many people suffered during the Holocaust outside of just the concentration camps.
- Have you ever thought of what life might have been if the Holocaust didn’t happen and if you would live a life not in America?
- I realize that you are the first person I’ve heard to say luck made you survive instead of “God.”
- I have been to Germany and have been to a concentration camp before and learned a lot. But your coming to our school and telling us your experiences has a bigger effect than what I have previously learned.
- Your comparison to San Francisco’s population really helped me grasp the concept of how many people died in the Holocaust.
- Do you think that history will repeat itself with who we have as President of the U.S.?
- I now know more about the Holocaust and how a different perspective can change the view that I had about this event. It was shocking to know how there was an actual wall that was built to keep all these innocent people encaged.
- There was one thing I got from all of it, and that is to keep moving on. It’s never going to keep going unless you let go of what is holding you back. That is something I will always remember.
- Learning about the Holocaust or other tragedies, especially from people who have experienced such events, teaches students like me to understand oppression and hardships that cultures have faced throughout history.
- Your words moved me. I had chills running down my spine.
- I will always be thanking you for expanding my knowledge of the events that took place during the Holocaust, and for the upliftment and awareness that you have bestowed on me. I could not be more thankful.
- During your presentation, and the way you explained your story, I actually felt like I was there with you. It was a good experience to have.
- I think you are completely right about older people being unable to change their views on certain things.
- I’ve been bullied, pushed, lied & threaten for all my life. I’ve even been told to just die. When you told us how your kind were getting killed & beaten & yet you survived & saw a better future, it showed me that those who are lucky to survive shall be lucky in life. Thank you for helping me to luck in the future for a better life.
- You and your story have not only been listened to but it has been heard. Keep sharing your story. We will continue to listen.
- I’m going to write this letter as though I were speaking to you in person.
- I like to believe that in every dark time there is a moment like your “sugar cube moment.” At least I hope for there to be one.
- Your story really means a lot to me because my grandparents are Jewish. They have told me about the discrimination that they went through when growing up.
- I also want to thank you for talking to us like the young adults that we are, and for asking very important life questions that you had us think about.
- You are very lucky to still be standing today, and I also had luck to hear your real experience.
- Thank you for making your book free so people can read it.
- Many people don’t know that the Holocaust even happened, like my grandma, and when I told her she cried and was shocked to hear what happened to Jews.
- I thank you for ensuring that the younger generation is not clueless about the genocide that is the Holocaust.
- I really appreciate how you turned a page from a textbook or a presentation slide into a reality and someone’s story.
- Hearing your story inspired me to tell others about your story and how the Holocaust actually happened.
- I hope that your name and memory live on, just as your story surely will.
From a teacher
- I asked my students to consider what they will “hold onto” from today, to imagine what they might tell their children about what they heard and saw today. And in doing so, the magnitude of your gift hit me. They now have inside them a piece of history – a piece of the past so critical to our understanding of humanity, and survival, and hatred, and mercy, and will. There is no replacement for that, or for the impact that it might have each and every day they live.