Proof School at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – December 12, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) is a San Francisco Bay Area social services organization whose mission statement is “Serving individuals and families of all faiths and backgrounds, guided by the Jewish value of caring for those in our community most in need.” As such, JFCS carries a special responsibility within the Jewish community for reaching out to children, the aged, those with special needs, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.

Among its many services, the JFCS provides the facilities and arranges presentations on the Holocaust to visiting student groups.  Such day-long visits to the Holocaust Center normally start with a lesson from Holocaust Center staff to provide historical context that ties into and is followed by a presentation from a Holocaust survivor.  My talk today was to the 9th grade students from Proof School, a math-oriented (grades 6-12) school in San Francisco, who are engaged in a 6-weeks study unit on the Holocaust as part of their World History curriculum. (“Our students come to Proof School as math kids. Where they go, and who they become, is discovered each year, in secondary school and beyond.….We aim for our graduates to lead in the world as analytical, literate, compassionate citizens.”)  This was their second consecutive year for Proof School students to visit the JFCS, guided by history teacher Eve Simister and science teacher Kaushik Basu.

My talk, preparation, parking, etc., was ably arranged by Nikki Bambauer, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator, while JFCS Holocaust Center’s Associate Director Alexis Herr led a workshop with the students on the history of Jewish ghettos, introduced me to the audience and attended the talk.

Students’ Letters

Several weeks (Christmas vacation, etc) after my talk to a dozen Proof School students visiting JFCS I received an envelope with letters from the 9th grade students plus a very thoughtful letter from their history teacher Eve Simister.  As usual, my wife Mimi and I read the letters, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally.   Considering these were 9th grade students, we were amazed by the maturity, perceptiveness and sensitivity shown in the letters, which is evident by the so many great statements from their 12 letters that particularly resonated with us and are excerpted below.  Also evident was a very good class discussion facilitated by the teacher after my talk.  We were thus very gratified by the students’ responses to my story, and a special “thank you” to the ingenuous student who attached an excellent full-page drawing of my book’s cover image, but with two visually minor but conceptually major changes: his airplane does not have the Nazi insignia, and it is towing a large advertising-type banner saying “THANK YOU!”

  • Thank you so much for sharing with us not only your incredible, miraculous story, but also some of the most meaningful pieces of wisdom I have ever received. From you, I learned much more than the history of the Holocaust – I gained a new perspective on it too.
  • The Holocaust had never felt as real to me as it did when I heard your experiences. For so long, in fact, it had been something impossibly distant from me, something I couldn’t even begin to imagine.  Hearing you speak of your inspiring and wild personal experiences, the Holocaust suddenly felt not as something affecting “the masses” but as an atrocity that impacted people like me.
  • I appreciate people like you who strive to tell us what we can learn from the Holocaust. It must take immense bravery and will power to place yourself into those horrors again to teach another generation, and I thank you for that.
  • By telling the individual stories of the Holocaust, we do not lose sight of individuals, and therefore humanity.
  • Courage is often thought of as going into a difficult situation without hesitation the first time, but your courage is the ability to go back many times into a genocide to help prevent another one.
  • I appreciate your heart to heart conversation with us. You left us with sincere thoughts about what we will do with our lives & what values we will treasure.
  • I truly admire your passion & desire to continue spreading your message & story to others.
  • Thank you so much for coming and talking with such compassion. I especially think the Holocaust seems real only when talking with a survivor.  When I was told that I would meet a survivor, I knew that it would be special.  However, I didn’t realize until during the talk the true uniqueness.
  • It was such a mind-boggling experience to hear from a Holocaust survivor and be able to see the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who was inside of it and survived it, and I loved how you somehow slipped in some humor into your stories.
  • Your narration was so compelling and gripping that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I especially loved how you connected the narration to the events going on in the world right now, and what we should do about them
  • The day after your talk we brainstormed in class some questions that we would want to ask you if we could meet you again. I’ll check your website to see if you have answered them already.
  • Your experience was vivid and real, and the Holocaust began to feel real to me. I was no longer distanced from it.
  • As I grow up, I will think harder about whether my actions display peace and tolerance or anger and intolerance.
  • I want to thank your wife, Mimi, for encouraging you to do these talks and write your book. Because of her, you have inspired countless people.
  • I realize now that, when studying the Holocaust before, I thought of it in an abstract way. It was a distant event, completely separated from the present.  However, hearing you talk about it completely changed this image.  You helped me understand the impact of the Holocaust in a way that reading about it never could.
  • I admire your striving to spread your story because you see it as a duty to educate younger generations, and I hope you reach your goal of 50 lessons this year.
  • In times like these, when there is fake news and false information spreading everywhere, it is so important to have trusted sources of knowledge, so thank you for sharing your truth with us and so many other students.
  • In all my studies of the Holocaust, none of them have been as personal and moving as your story. 

Teacher’s letter

  • Hearing about your experience was the most powerful part of our study of the Holocaust.  I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust on a more personal level, as the vast numbers can feel incomprehensible.  I also found your comparison to the population of San Francisco incredibly helpful, and I hope to share a similar comparison with future students.
  • I was particularly inspired by your goal of doubling the number of talks you give in 2017 as your response to the current political climate.

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