by George J Elbaum
Lowell High School is a public magnet school which opened in 1856 and is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. With enrollment of approximately 2,600 students (57% Asian, 15% White, 10% Hispanic, 8% Filipino, and 10% all other) it is one of only two public schools in San Francisco that is permitted to admit only students who meet special admission requirements. The Lowell admission process is competitive and based on a combination of standardized test scores, GPA, a writing sample, and extracurricular activities. As a result, its students’ test scores have historically ranked among the Top 10 Public Schools in California. (Recent SAT scores: Critical Reading 595 vs. 495 CA average; Writing 594 vs. 484 CA avg., Math 636 vs. 500 CA avg.) Lowell was therefore named a California Distinguished School 7 times, National Blue Ribbon School 4 times, and is currently ranked 96th by U.S. News & World Report in its “Best High Schools in America” for 2018, making it the 2nd highest ranking school in California with over 2,000 students. Lowell was also ranked 49th by Newsweek‘s America’s Best High Schools 2012 list and 66th by Newsweek’s 2013 list.
In addition to its stellar academic performance, Lowell has one of the most active student bodies in San Francisco, with over 84 academic organizations, athletic teams and student interest clubs. In athletics, Lowell has competitive teams in 17 sports plus cheerleading, and these teams claim more city championships than any other public high school in San Francisco.
My talk was part of the World War II unit of the Modern World History Class taken by mostly freshman, and occasionally sophomore students. For a couple of the teachers, the talk also served as a kick-off for a class project where students went home and interviewed their own family members about the family history related to conflicts which have occurred in the 20th century. For the majority of the Modern World History students the talk served as a potent illustration that history is about the lives of real people and that the choices which individuals make have long repercussions in the lives of others.
My talk was organized by Modern World History teacher Erin Hanlon, with an introduction by Modern World History teacher Lauretta Komlos. Attending it also were teachers Amanda Klein, Jason Tuason, Ana Rosa Maldonado-Silva, and Kay Crisman-Petrini. and it was arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves.
Letters from Students
Several days after my March 18 talk at Lowell High School, teacher Erin Hanlon, who organized the event, gathered together 240 letters and hand-made thank-you notes from the attending students and mailed these to me in 4 large manila envelopes. However, by the time these arrived in our mailbox we had already left for 2+ weeks in New York and Boston. Since I gave 9 talks in Boston, then a couple in the Bay Area and visited Seattle where I gave 3 more talks, I was totally occupied in posting these 15 talks. Thus it was only a few days ago that I finally had the time to open the first of the 4 large envelopes and, with my wife Mimi, launched into the task of reading the students’ letters and notes it contained. Since then, we’ve opened one large envelope at a time, and as has been our habit over the years, Mimi would read each note or letter aloud while I would listen and absorb each student’s words, and we would highlight those phrases and sentences that most resonated with us, eventually adding these highlighted excerpts (below) to this post. Since many students drew or painted fanciful, funny, and imaginative drawings on their notes, we photographed some of these and added the photos following the event photos below.
- Yesterday you came to speak to us about a life you were forced to live in times you and millions more were forced to witness. I cannot pretend to understand the trauma and tremendous loss you and thousands of other survivors carry on your backs every day, but I can realize the strength it takes to carry such a heavy burden.
- I offer you my thanks at having the bravery and resilience o speak to us about your harrowing and dangerous youth as a Jewish boy living in Europe during World War II. I hope you know that your words do not go unheard and your story will never go untold.
- I thank you truly for opening my eyes to history’s realness.
- It is horrifying what you had to go through, and it is very brave and selfless to share your experiences with others. You are truly inspiring.
- The increasing hatred toward immigrants in this country is concerning, and I hope that your story and your lessons teach those filled with hate a message of love and acceptance.
- I wanted to thank your mother personally for keeping you alive in the worst times imaginable to man, because by doing that your memories of the Holocaust can live on and be shared by younger people to teach them what really happened.
- I could really connect with some things you said as I immigrated to San Francisco a few years ago, feeling scared and without a word of English. Leaving everything behind was difficult, but you showed me more in your presentation. THANK YOU!
- But most important, thank you for surviving and being alive.
- We knew that a lot of people died, but I don’t think we understood how many families wee torn apart and how many millions of lives were thrown away like they were nothing.
- You said you survived only on luck, but however you were able to survive, our school is really glad that you were able to survive to help bring the magnitude of people’s suffering to light.
- Learning about the Holocaust sparked an interest in me, and I wanted to learn more. It surprised me that people are capable of doing something like this – they are so fixed in their mindset they won’t admit anything else.
- Your talk about our generation having the power to prevent another catastrophe like the Holocaust and keeping the memory alive really hit me.
- Your presentation really spoke to me, especially for the fact that you added many personal details of the event. Because of that, I was able to create vivid pictures of the scenes you described in my head.
- I feel inspired to look into the events of the Holocaust in my Modern World History class. I feel that learning about this event will let me learn more about the world and how prejudice affects those without power.
- I am deeply sorry that you had to go through the Holocaust. I wish I could have prevented it for you and for everyone. I know this whole letter is all over the place but I wanted to say the few things off the top of my head.
- Many people won’t even talk to their grandchildren or anybody because they don’t want to relive that moment.
- Ever since your presentation I’ve been researching more and more of the Holocaust.
- The way you told your story made me see the Holocaust in a new way because I feel like I’m part of it when you tell us the story.
- Your perseverance after losing everything you knew inspires me to work harder. I admire your courage returning to the home you lost so many years ago. Your story reminds me of how grateful I am that I had a stable, healthy, safe life.
- It must be really hard to relive those painful childhood memories, and I thank you for sharing it with us.
- If you never came to tell your story, I would still be living in a world where the significance of such event would be non-existent.
- Words spoken from your heart deserve the attention of many more!
- I hope that you continue to share your story and that by doing so, the memories and tragedies of the 6 million can stay alive.
- You gave me a glimpse of how life really was, different from the normal “Jews were killed.”
- I hope that you live the rest of your life with happiness instead of the shadows of the Holocaust. Keep inspiring!
- I wish that you have a longer more prosperous life than you already have, and that you will touch even more hearts than you already have.
- You taught us a lot and got us so much more interested in what happened. Before listening to you, I didn’t have much knowledge about the Holocaust, but now I do. So thank you.
- I hope you continue doing what you’re doing, because you inspire many people out there (with little red hearts at each corner of the page).
- I sincerely hope the world never forgets the great sacrifices made by families just like yours.
- I feel very sorry for your losses. You lived a tragic life at an early age. You woke up into an evil world and I’m sorry you had to live through it.
- Your story is a lesson for all of us, an eye opener. We may not be able to control others, but we surely can control ourselves.
- I’m glad there are people like you who can understand the magnitude of the Holocaust and how horrible it must have been to live through it so that it will not be forgotten.
- Your presentation inspires everyone to live life to the fullest because you never know what’s to come
- Please continue speaking to other students about how each of us can do our part in diminishing prejudice.
- Thanks for sharing your story of luck and hope, so that others can understand it.
- I learned a lot about myself from your story.
- Your story was not only moving, but it was profoundly real.
- It’s inspiring and uplifting to hear that despite your hardships, you still worked hard and persevered through life.
- There were actually many questions I had that I did not ask and I regret that.
- I hope the whole world can hear your stories!
- Having enough food to eat is something I’ve taken for granted. Never again will I complain about my mom’s cooking.
- My Grandpa went through the same thing but didn’t have the chance to tell me about it, so it was cool to hear about it from you.
- You have inspired me to go out in the world and do the best that I can because that is what you did but with a lot more hardships.
- The words that will stick in my mind are those about discouragement. Thank you for speaking to us and giving me motivation!!
- I’m of Jewish descent and my great grandparents and grandparents survived the Holocaust as well. I was really interesting and special for me to hear a personal account of what their lives may have been like.
- I don’t know if you’ll ever read this but I wanted to thank you for sharing your story. (Riley, my wife Mimi and I read every letter from students!)
- Before you came to speak I really did not know much about the Holocaust. Now I’m very curious about it and want to learn more. You’re a very lucky person, but I had the luck to meet you and learn about your story.
- Throughout the whole assembly you had my full attention. In fact, that’s the quietest a room of high schoolers has ever been.
- Thank you for sharing your experiences – it opened all of our eyes
- I learned how much of an impact helping someone in need could make, even at one’s own risk.
- The knowledge your stories share is amazing, and these experiences alone help our young minds think and question what we know.
- In a world that seems all too dark, you a survivor remind us that there is light.
- The most fascinating thing to me was how you lived your life at arms length from the Holocaust until you decided to write your book Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows. Thank you again for allowing me to have this amazing experience.
- What you said truly impacted me as a Jew. I have family members who live in Israel, and what you said makes me feel more connected to them. I really appreciate what you do.
- I learned from your presentation that being educated had a huge advantage as a Jew during the Holocaust
- I really admire your courage and commitment to tell people about your experiences with the Holocaust. That’s so admirable because of the wright and pressure of the Holocaust on your mind. Heck, sometimes I even crack under the pressure from school.
- Although it was probably a very horrifying experience, knowing that your five-year-old self pulled the pin on a grenade and lobbed it unknowingly of the repercussions with its explosion, I did enjoy hearing about it, and I am sorry if that was very inconsiderate of me.
- What I found most interesting about your presentation was the story about the German hand grenade. It’s an example of just how dangerous it was, no matter where you were and also an example of how lucky you were.
- I would love to eat dessert for every meal too!
- I wish you the best of luck in your future talks (you’ll probably need it if you don’t start planning your future😊).
- The story that really stuck with me was when you hid in that shed and saw that airplane. I think it really symbolized everything that happened.
- You saying that the Holocaust murder rate was like killing everyone in the city of San Francisco every 8 months really puts it into perspective what a terrible act it was.
- Imaginary script/dialogue on a thank-you note from a creative Lowell student:
— a student: Definitely a good read if you want to understand struggles.
–-creative student: A wonderful understanding of conflict within everything in life.
–person who loves desserts: It made me want to experience the enjoyment of a cube of sugar.
–creative student again: George Elbaum is an inspiring model of a person who experiences the adventure of danger within history itself (end of script).
- Your visit has motivated me to speak out against what is wrong.
- I will always remember your story about staying with different families and wondering if you will ever see your mother again. This specific story impacted me to not take for granted having both of my parents and being able to see them every day.
- The fact that you were still able to achieve great things gives me great encouragement to work hard.
- I can’t imagine how hard it is to remember those dark memories and emotions that you felt.
- I really enjoyed how you were able to talk the happy moments, like the sugar cube, despite the harsh war raging.
- Because of the magnitude of the horrors during that time, and how hard you work to educate young people, I truly believe that you and all the other Holocaust survivors are heroes.
- You delivered a speech at Francisco Middle School last year. I was so stunned back then, and yet again now. Your story is fascinating and thrilling. I truly wish more and more people get to know about you.
- S. I am sorry if this card is a bit plain. I am not that creative and do not really know how to decorate this card for you. Thank you for understanding and I am sorry once again.
- It was interesting to hear how Russia didn’t liberate certain countries too soon because it was waiting for anti-Communists to be exterminated by the Nazis.
- Something that impacted me was how some Polish families were willing to put their lives at risk just to save a little boy.
- You were so down to earth while talking and that’s super cool.
- I also liked how we could interact with you and ask questions.
- Your story should be heard by everyone.
- I really felt emotional throughout your re-telling because you made it connect.
- I wish that never happened to any of you, it is not right, it is also very heartbreaking to hear, to know that this happened to people – that this is real life.
- Your story inspired me to not only fight against prejudice but to search info my own family’s past.
- You inspired me to speak out about things I believe in and to make sure things like this don’t happen again.
- Your story has inspired me deeply to take action and stand up to anti-Semitism and injustice.
- I am very thankful for your existence.
- Your words have left impressions on an uncountable number of people.
- What you said will stick with me for a lifetime.
- I actually had no idea that Nazi Germany was that brutal, as I’m used to playing video games that glorify the war.
- I realize how now, more than ever, we must make a world based on peace and acceptance
- If you were given a chance to forgive the Nazis for what they had done, would you? Definitely not, neither the planners of the Holocaust nor its administrators and executioners.
- People, in the past, have called me a Nazi because I am of German descent. Thank you for not demeaning me because of something my ancestors did. (Insulting a person because of their ancestry is pure, low-down prejudice, same as racial, ethnic, religious, or anything else over which the person had zero influence. People who call you a Nazi are actually insulting themselves, because it shows how narrow-minded and uninformed they are.)