by George J Elbaum
Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,800 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 7th consecutive year that I have visited and spoken. This year the audience was approximately 250 10th grade students studying the Holocaust based unit taught by teachers Kaeden Peters, Jill Jacobs, Angela Kerubo, Jess Vaughn, and Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit. Based on my previous visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and once again I observed how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the history and ramifications 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.”
During my last visit to Arroyo in June 2017 I saw and was impressed by the creativity, sensitivity and effort that the students applied in building the table-top memorials of the Holocaust. Several students told me enthusiastically about their creations and I look forward to receiving from them photos when the projects are completed.
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. It’s both sad and 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 to our country.
My visit was again arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who gave his usual excellent introduction and the importance of hearing this history from those who lived through it.
After the Q&A and the 3 dozen photos (below), two students told me that as part of the Holocaust project each of them had written a poem inspired by it and they wanted to share these with me. I thanked them for the copies they gave me and told them that I would include it on my website.
Red Flower by Renad Banana
A red flower trying to rescue a little daisy by feeding her seeds. Rescuing her from death, murdered and bloody. A red flower trying her hardest to secretly feed her little daisy. Surviving from all the death around them. To not be burned. To not be killed. To not be murdered. Having a positive mood that tomorrow will be better. A red flower with her little daisy.
The Time Shall Pass by Malanie Doi
They are all many leaves but one tree For we suffer different things as individuals We are all together united and strong Against a common enemy that never shall be forgotten
The moment has come to seize the day To fight for freedom, liberty, and justice With dignity, pride, and hope Of a better future to come to the day
The reality was revealed Everything he possesses that was once part of him Suffered the destruction with no dignity left, no humanity But the will to gain the initiation to be known once again is stronger than ever
Letters from Students
Several weeks after my talk at Arroyo High School my wife Mimi and I left for a long trip abroad, and shortly after our return I received a large envelope with 100+ letters from its students. After taking care of all the accumulated chores, bills, and other to-do’s, we started reading the letters. As has been our custom for some years, Mimi and I would read the letters together, with Mimi reading aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally, and we would jointly choose the statements that particularly resonated with us and excerpt these – see below.
- Listening to your story made me realize that life is not a game, and too short to play with.
- Had it not been for the stars aligning the way they did, who knows if you would be able to share your story.
- I think stories like yours bring sensitivity to our lives, and we lack that more than anything now.
- You are so strong and have such a kind soul. I appreciate how you spoke about the events – your words contained no hate, only pure love and loss.
- George, you’ve made me believe in myself. You’ve made me see a light that I never thought to look at before….. I’m so thankful for that. Thank you for our conversation, for your thoughts, advice, and hugs. You don’t understand how much that has helped me. I wish you nothing but the best that this world has to offer.
- Getting to hear this from someone who was there personally and experienced it at a young age, and to survive this tragic moment was really heart touching. What I learned was to keep hope alive.
- You inspired me to be a better person in general.
- I learned that it takes courage to do what you just did, telling us your story. To be honest, I am focusing on my shyness and I don’t want to be shy anymore. I’d rather be brave or full of courage than being shy all the time. Thank you for giving me the courage and inspiring me to be brave. I want to be able to keep your story alive and living. To do that, something good will happen.
- Your story opened my eyes more and now I realize why history is important.
- When we learn about this dark time in history, it does not even seem like something so horrific could have happened. But as you stand in front of us and share all the details of your very own experience, everything seems so much more real, so much more emotional, so much more gruesome. I felt so many emotions listening to you speak.
- Your talk to our sophomore class has already opened my mind so much.
- I took every word you said to heart. You seem really kind, I want to just talk and hang out with you.
- I will keep your story alive by telling my relatives and friends.
- To keep your story alive I’ve already started sharing it with close family and friends.
- When I got into my mom’s car after school I immediately began to share your story and kept asking her how she would have reacted and if she would have done what your mom did.
- This experience is one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life and pass on to as many people as possible to keep it alive. It’s so important to keep survival stories from slipping through the cracks and being forgotten.
- Carrying this piece of history onward not only shines light on the tragedy of it, but also allows us to recognize the brave souls that were there.
- Keeping your story alive is important because in a way it’s like remembering all those people who are didn’t survive.
- I promise to keep your story alive. I never want something like the Holocaust to happen again, so I will be an educator to younger and future generations, until my time is up.
- I want to make my promise to teach the younger children what I know about your story when the time comes.
- Next generations will not be able to hear from Holocaust survivors, so my idea is to make Holocaust survivors holograms to teach the next generations so nobody with such hate and power will be able to repeat such history.
- My Great-Great-Uncle faced torture in the Philippines, so I can understand the effects of the Holocaust, the death and torture people endured, and how some like your mother and my Great-Great-Uncle never fully recovered from it.
- I could relate to your story because my family came from Mexico and they as well started from zero, trying to raise me and my sister alone in this country.
- What I got from your story is that discipline and perseverance will help make your dreams come true. It got me thinking and boosted my confidence, for which I thank you.
- Oh, one question: did you ever have a dream or a sign/signal or just a random person tell you that you were going to survive the Holocaust? No, not that I remember, but I was lucky enough to instinctively focus only on the moment, to forget the bad past (“Neither Yesterdays…) and not look hopefully to the uncertain future (…Nor Tomorrows).
- I cherish my time listening to you. By hearing your story I learned things about myself. I learned that I am fortunate to have my family with me and I should show my appreciation. Another lesson is “do not dwell on the what-ifs.” This is one thing I will carry forever. Lastly, you told us of how you don’t remember the bad memories. That is a reminder to me to stay positive, and to remember and cherish the good.
- Hearing your story just made me realize that everyone does have power, it’s just that it’s their decision if they want to use it or not.
- I so dearly admire your courage and ability to speak up and share your story, to reopen old wounds and relive those horrible memories.
- It’s not only brave but also inspiring to others who are also struggling to keep their strength and willingness to keep pushing. I know I will never feel the pain you went through as a 6-year-old, having to wait months to see your mother. Yet you pushed through the sacrifices to become who you are today.
- I was amazed that you were able to seem so calm and collected. Even your voice was steady and soothing. It made your story seem calmer than it was.
- I find your strength, bravery and confidence talking about it very admirable.
- I’m glad you made it out to tell your story. Please live as long as possible.
- Your story was very detailed and so heart warming that I felt like I was actually there. I hope your stories continue until you’re gone from the Earth.
- You’re very passionate and respectful. I would want to be as good a person as you are one day.
- I wish you the best for the rest of the journey.
- I want you to know that I am very sorry for everything you went through. I can’t imagine a life so scary and I hope you are living the life you wish. I know my “sorries” won’t help, but it makes me sad to think such things used to happen from the bottom of my heart.
- No words can explain how your story opened my eyes.
- Your speech taught me to take the good and the bad in one hand and look to the future and see how our experiences can be turned into a good way, like how you did with your book.
- Your story was very inspirational. It inspired me to do better and to be a better person.
- I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to hear and learn from you. Thank you.
- My mind has been more open to everything since your story, and to be genuine and sensitive.
- You are a complete inspiration to our generation, that you are not scared to be so open and honest about your past.
- Your story inspired me to do better and look forward to the future, and not look at the negative things, and go for what I really want. I learned to let things go and not hold grudges.
- It amazes me how you lived without your mom. I honestly think I couldn’t go on without my mom by my side, especially during the Holocaust. Words can’t explain how shook I am by this experience. I’ve learned many lessons from your experience and most importantly to not take life for granted.
- I’m having similar experience like you on how you did not see your mom for months. Right now I’ve not seen my dad for six months, but I’ve talked to him once in a while. The good thing is that he’ll be home soon.
- Listening to your life story I learned about the harsh realities of the world during the Holocaust. I connected with many things you said & it made me feel many emotions.
- When you were explaining how you survived throughout that time, I admired the intelligence of your mother & the extreme luck you have.
- I like how you’ve done something good from your bad experiences. I want to be someone who gives hope like you do.
- I feel that people need to know that there were other survivors who weren’t in the camps but in hiding. I can also post about it and more people will be aware.
- We learned a lot about the Holocaust in class creating desktop projects with powerful meanings.
- I also liked hearing all the advice you told us, such as to choose justice and fairness over anger and hatred. Another powerful thing you said that made me think was “You can either choose to be against something or for something.”
- Thanks for taking the time to read my letter…. and sorry that my handwriting is so bad!!! Yes, I did need my wife’s help to read parts of you letter, but other students’ letters also. 😊