by George J Elbaum
Fletcher Middle School has a diverse enrollment of 715 students in grades 6-8 and has earned high rankings by NICHE: A+ Overall and in Academics, and 6th place among 2,575 Best Public Middle Schools in California, with student proficiency of 84% in reading and 79% in math. The school is named after Ellen Fletcher, who was an inspirational civic leader in Palo Alto, but also a survivor of the Kindertransport, who at age 10 in 1939 was sent for her safety by her parents from Nazi Germany to a foster home in England. This truly resonated with me, as I was sent at age 8 in 1947 for my safety by my mother from Poland to Palestine (though an accident in France sent me back to Poland).
My talk to 225 7th graders was organized by English teacher Nerissa Wong-VanHaren. The students were well prepared, having read Diary of Anne Frank and studied propaganda, scapegoating, Nazi concentration camps, and current day antisemitism. The students even prepared a stack of questions on 3×5 cards, but unfortunately my talk was delayed by 15+ minutes until the students settled in the auditorium, so even with shortening my talk there was enough time for only one question. This was disappointing, as the Q&A is most important because it allows the students to express what they did or didn’t understand and what interests them. However, several students managed to approach me afterwards with questions (including Rap asking about my most embarrassing baseball story), hand shakes and thank you’s, so I felt that my message was heard.
Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of JFCS Holocaust Center.
Letters from students
Shortly after my very first talk 10 years ago I started receiving packs of letters written by the students at the school where I had spoken recently and sent to me by the teacher who had organized my visit. My wife Mimi and I were so impressed by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of some of these letters that we started reading the letters together, excerpting statements that particularly resonated with us, and adding these statements to the text that I had previously written and posted for that school on my website. Not all teachers organized the discussions that led to letter writing, and if I had not received student letters within several weeks after my talk I would know that none would be forthcoming.
However, a couple of weeks ago I received unexpectedly 187 Thank You! notes from Fletcher 7th graders via JFCS Holocaust Center. I was obviously quite surprised, as all were dated within a few days of my February 20 talk at the school, so 7 months ago! As I was quite busy, only today could I finish reading all 187 notes and excerpting and uploading the statements below. In reading these notes I was surprised by the maturity and sensitivity exhibited in many of them, especially as these were written by 7th graders.
- Thank you for having the courage to dig up such best-forgotten memories for the sake of a bunch of middle schoolers.
- Media tends to diminish our thoughts about deaths, but your first-hand account brought it into perspective for us.
- Your talk compelled me to start working on my dreams.
- Your story really inspired me to care for others, and to pursue my dreams when I am older. I too came from a poor place in the Philippines and was living in a ghetto, but not as bad as your place.
- Your story really touched me because I had family that died during the Holocaust.
- I felt awestruck every time you showed a new picture, and extremely inspired by your mother’s brave actions to keep you safe. To say I appreciate you for being able to speak about a horrible tragedy so well is an understatement. Again, merci et au revoir.
- Before you came to speak the Holocaust seemed unreal – how could someone hate some others so much? But after you spoke it seemed real, the death, the bad conditions, the fight to stay alive. Your story brings the Holocaust to life.
- Words cannot describe how moving and touching it was for me. You showed our school how to remain optimistic in dire situations and how not to dwell on the bad memories.
- While you were speaking I felt how lucky I am not to experience what you did. Thank you for what you’ve done for the children of this school.
- I learned that life isn’t easy and that you should keep trying.
- I liked your speech so much! I could listen to it more. I learned to stand up against bullies, and to help people. I will never forget your speech.
- I felt so guilty knowing that any of those terrible things happened to so many innocent people.
- In class, I notice it’s difficult for people to latch on and truly understand the suffering of the Jewish population. Continue sharing, it can change lives.
- Your story was surprisingly relevant today, with racism, homophobia, and still anti-Semitism. It would often seem as if this is all gone today, but you can still see the remains of this injustice. Too many people in this world still feel that they are above others solely due to race, gender, religion, sexuality, and so many more. I hope your speeches connect to people around the world and help our generation lower the amount of hatred everywhere.
- I felt horrified and embarrassed to be human when I hear about the Holocaust and what the Nazis did to all of the innocent Jews and people.
- Besides talking about the Holocaust you also told us to follow our dreams, and don’t let anyone drag you down. I think you have set a great role model for all of us.
- I think you are doing stuff that empowers others, and it requires great personal strength.
- Knowing that pure luck saved your life on multiple occasions sent chills up my spine. People say that this was a time of the past, but the people who survived it are still alive. I really felt a depth to this situation. Thank you again for coming to visit.
- I felt honored to hear you speak and I thank you with all of my heart.
- I felt so sad for all the children who didn’t get to experience life and see new things.
- I felt nervous during your stories. I appreciate your coming.
- I learned how to be optimistic during tough times. I felt compelled to chase my dreams.
- Your talk was very moving because you had such bright hope at such a dark time of your life.
- I felt very grateful for the life that I live and now look at things differently.
- Your experience reminded me that everyone has a story, but some might have lost the chance to tell it.
- From the moment you started speaking you had us, the audience, riveted. You helped me see what it was like to be there at that time, and I appreciate your being willing to share your story. Thank you.
- I learned how lucky we are not to have to endure that horror.
- I felt at the moment when you were speaking I was nervous. It felt like some kind of metaphor for how Jews were looked down upon.
- I felt very emotional during your presentation because it changed my mindset, and I realized how awful it really was.
- I felt very sad and even afraid. Every word that you said, I imagined what it would be like if I was in these situations as you were.
- The way that you described everything made me feel like I was there experiencing everything you did.