by George J Elbaum
This was the 4th time I spoke at St. Luke School in the last 8 years, and each time I truly looked forward to returning. My key memories of the previous visits were of an inspirational teacher, Rosemary Conroy, and her 8th grade students who reflected her enthusiasm. My visit today only reinforced those memories, especially of Ms. Conroy’s infectious enthusiasm and her efforts to help her students become good citizens of the world, especially in today’s environment of growing intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia toward the “others.”
St. Luke School teaches more than 300 students in K-8 grades based on the belief that “quality Catholic education teaches the whole child spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially.” The 8th grade Social Studies Curriculum, as organized and taught by Rosemary Conroy, is very intensive as it covers U.S. history, Washington State history, geography, economics, politics, and current events. The curriculum highlights the formative periods of U.S. history: Revolutionary War, development of the Constitution & Bill of Rights, Civil War, WWI and WWII, and it includes an in-depth look at the Holocaust. Where possible, Ms. Conroy invites outside speakers who witnessed first-hand the events being studied, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Nisei relocation program, WWII POW camps and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Rosemary not only teaches but “walks the walk” in her role on the Teacher Advisory Board of the Holocaust Center for Humanity as well as her 3 months of volunteer work in Cambodia. When introducing me to her class this time she said: “I won’t feel too badly if you can’t name the first 10 Amendments when you leave my class in June, but I will be devastated if you can’t accept others and treat them with dignity, respect and kindness.”
The event was attended by 37 8th grade students plus seminarian Alex Nelson, and St Luke teacher Jennifer Fargo, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity. Two days afterwards we attended the Holocaust Center’s annual Voices for Humanity Luncheon and Rosemary was one of the speakers, giving an impassioned yet very personal speech about supporting all efforts for tolerance, fairness and kindness. The world definitely needs more Rosemarys!
Letters from Students
A week after returning home from Seattle I received a large envelope from teacher Rosemary Conroy with some two dozen letters from her students. Because I had East Coast meetings plus another 4 talks in Bay Area schools, it was only yesterday that I had time to open that envelope and sit quietly while my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it. We were touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity and impressed by their relative maturity which was evident in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story. There were many statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.
- You inspired me and gave me the courage to stand up to the suffering of others. In fact, tonight I found out about a man who is falsely accused of murder and is to be executed. The Innocence Project is representing him and there is a petition online to get him a new trial as new evidence has come forward. I sent the petition to my friends to sign. A few of them criticize me for doing so and others were indifferent. At first I felt bad, like maybe I should have been quiet, but then I thought of you and I knew I was doing the right thing. I feel good about what I have done and will do it in the future, and it is because of you.
- I learned from your lecture that we cannot depend on a Democratic society to keep us safe and to uphold our values and morals, unless we appreciate it and protect it by being critical thinkers and voting.
- Your lecture made me think about the divide in the country we have today, the abuse of power, group-targeted hate and violence, and how we should look for and vote for leaders who speak out against prejudice, discrimination, antisemitism and dehumanization.
- This letter is my promise to you to never turn a blind eye to injustice and to always stand up for those in need. I hope these words give you hope for the future and express how much I care as every person who I stand up for for the rest of my life will be because of you.
- You inspired me to stick up for what is right and make a difference. Hearing that you go and tell your story all over the world makes me want to speak up more.
- One thing that really stuck out to me from your story was that so many people had put their lives on the line to help you. When you asked us if we would do the same I realized how hard of a choice that is, because I would never even considered such a big risk.
- I also loved to hear about how the experience is so different in the eyes of a young child. That your youthful innocence had protected you made me realize how lucky you had to be.
- Hearing your story really opened my eyes to the tragedy that the Holocaust was. I want to thank you one last time, because I will never forget your lessons.
- You deepened my understanding of the Holocaust and put into perspective the horrible loss of life. This visit changed my understanding.
- This visit will live in my heart forever. Thank you.
- I don’t really feel empathy a ton, but when you compared the amount killed in the Holocaust to ten times the population of Seattle. This is coming from someone who had to force themselves to cry at a funeral. I don’t often feel sad, but this shook me to my core.
- I could never grasp the amount of killing that the Nazis had done of the Jews and the way you explained it made it so much more clear. Over six months the population of Seattle was killed, and each of these people were individuals with hopes, dreams, fears, and family. What seemed so terrible suddenly came into focus, and the picture is so much worse than I thought.
- I would think of the Holocaust as a bad which should never have happened, but when you told us on a personal level what happened, it changed my vision of the Holocaust for the worse.
- Your presentation was the most eye-opening thing I have ever experienced. It gave me this almost window to look into the past and see what happened. When you explained the death toll as everyone living in Seattle dead every six months, that made it easier to understand how horrific the Holocaust really was.
- I think the most important thing I learned and will take away from your presentation is to always be for something, and not “anti” and hateful.
- The experience you related is a gift yet a curse in some ways. You opened my eyes a little more to see what is incomprehensible for me to understand.
- My impression is that you wanted us to be thankful for the lives we live, learn and gain a new insight on the past, and if ever we’re faced with a similar problem such as the Holocaust, to help those in need.
- Thank you for being lucky, for if you hadn’t been I wouldn’t have been lucky to hear your story.
- Your story has moved me that our world has a lot of prejudice and many other things that separate us from one another.
- I am so sorry that you had to experience such hatred. At least God helped to balance the equation with so many generous Polish people who were willing to risk their own life for yours.
- I hope that you find some healing and forgiveness by telling your story to people like me, who learn from you and empathize with you.
- I am somewhat of a history geek, but until you spoke the Holocaust was just a list of facts and numbers.
- You inspire me, personally, to be a better human being through your heartfelt kindness and willingness to share something so personal and tragic.
- I don’t think it was luck that allowed you to live. I personally think it was God, guiding you to safety because he knew of the great things you would one day say and do.
- You have shown me the worst a person can do and how others could inspire from that tragedy. The most important thing I loved about your talk is how you turned genocide into a lesson to do the right thing.
- Thanks for coming to our school and teaching me to be an upstander. I hope I can make a difference in the world.
- Although we are different physically, I feel like we have the same mindset. To succeed and make our families proud. Therefore I take it that you are the perfect role model for me and hope you will always remember St. Luke and I will never forget you.
- I walked out of my classroom with a new awareness of how hate can manifest into the largest scales imaginable. That shocked me into really believing that tolerance and acceptance can sometimes be the difference between life or death – I will never forget that lesson.
- The youth of this era and eras to come must be aware that there was a time when hatred triumphed tolerance and gargantuan number of lives were lost. If they know this, they will be aware that they can never let that happen again and they must practice tolerance and acceptance to avoid another catastrophe such as the Holocaust.
- After listening to you, I have such hope for a brighter future for further generations, and for that, Mr. Elbaum, I thank you.