by George J Elbaum
Monte Vista High School (MVHigh) is a 9-12 public school with a student body of almost 2500 students which is 61% Caucasian, 21% Asian, 9% Hispanic, and 9% for all others. The school has a strong focus on academic excellence, which resulted in significantly increasing SAT scores for the last 3 years consecutively, and it’s therefore a 4-time California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon School. MVHigh even has College Connect, which allows students to enroll in a shortened high school schedule to attend college courses in their 11th and 12th grades and complete up to 30 units aligned with UC and CSU requirements. Thus 96% of graduating students attend either a 4-year college or a 2-year college. Athletics are not short-changed by academics, with MVHigh teams winning league and even state championships in 2016-2017 in half-dozen sports.
MVHigh is also responsive to student initiatives, as I witnessed regarding my talk. One of its students, Alexander (Sasha) Shvakel, attended a talk I gave last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and afterwards he contacted me and asked if I would be willing to do it at his school in Danville. I agreed, and he took it upon himself to bring me to MVHigh. Relying on his energy and diplomacy, he obviously succeeded… TWICE: first in March and now with his history teacher Nick Jones.
Nick is also the school’s basketball coach, and a photo in his classroom shows his 2014 team which won the California Division 1 State Championship. Pointing to the photo, Nick told me that the tall player in the back row is Spencer Rust, MVP of the East Bay Athletic League that year, and who just graduated from MIT, my alma mater! Nick’s students were well prepared for my talk, which resulted in a very active Q & A session with historical questions about the Holocaust as well as about societal situations and bigotry in the current political climate. Some of their questions were asked for the very 1st or 2nd time in the 200 talks I’ve given in the past 8 years.
My genuine thanks to both Nick Jones and Alexander Shvakel, and also to Tracy Johnson, MVHigh staff, for her timely “guidance” of a traffic-worn traveler. Attending my talk was also teacher Alison Perusso, who organized my talk at MVHigh last March.
Letters from Students
A week+ after my talk at Monte Vista I received a large envelope containing Thank You letters from the students. Last evening after dinner, as has been our custom, my wife Mimi and I read these letters together, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally, and we would jointly choose the statements that particularly resonate with us and excerpt these – see below.
- I imagine it is difficult to talk about it even now, over 70 years later, but it means a lot to me that you did. Your story helped put into context not only the Holocaust, but also other people who, like you, are going through or have gone through tough times in their lives. From war veterans to sexual assault survivors, your story helped me understand how difficult going through something like that can be.
- It is important for people to understand not only the cost of war, but also the cost of hatred and senseless violence, as well as the sheer horrors of the Nazi regime, especially for those who are anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, or favor any group that preaches hatred towards others.
- I hope that you will continue giving your presentation and spreading your story, so that more and more people are able to better understand what it was like to live through the war, and better appreciate what everyone went through.
- Your generation is the last that witnessed what happened, and without your knowledge we lose a huge part of history.
- After hearing your story and learning how lucky you were, I spent the rest of the day thinking about how fortunate I am to have heard it. I hope your story will have the same effect on other students as it had on me.
- Your stories were deep and impactful, and they inspired me. I aspire to have a fraction of the strength your mother showed in my day to day life.
- I believe it is necessary and good to hear how the Holocaust affected people so that it is not forgotten. What you learned from it is how hate leads to evil and that we should practice kindness – it is very important.
- Reading textbooks gives one a general idea of the Holocaust, but your presentation brings it down to a personal scale better than any textbook or article can.
- It is extremely important that every generation remembers these atrocities in order to never again to commit them, especially in this time when hate crimes are sadly still rampart.
- I could never imagine the fear that you and your family must have felt on a day to day basis. You did such a fantastic job telling your story. I will never forget this experience.
- It is a truly once in a lifetime experience to learn about something that seemed so long ago, from someone who lived through it. I feel as if I learned more from your story than I have from my years at this school.
- I appreciate you taking the time to educate new generations, like mine, on what it was like to live in Poland during the second World War.