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 10th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust. This year was again via the internet and Zoom, with each student at their computer at home, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has still prevented in-school classes. Looking at my web posts of pre-pandemic visits to Arroyo, with dozens & dozens of photos of students and remembering the brief but memorable chats with students & teachers, I look forward to a real rather than virtual visit to Arroyo next year.
This year’s virtual “visit” was again organized by teacher Jess Vaughn, as it was last April and several of my previous visits. Participating now were approximately 80 students in 10th-grade English, who were reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and have studied background information about Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. They’ve also viewed a video about Jewish partisan resistance fighters.
As last year, I was again impressed by the quality of the students’ questions: they were perceptive, sensitive, and mature. I view students’ questions as a reflection not only of the students themselves but also of the teaching, so it was obvious that Jess Vaughn prepared her class very well.
The event was arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center. Penny’s familiarity with my talk allowed her to “steer me back on track” seamlessly when I inattentively skipped over a couple parts of my usual talk. Thank you, Penny!
Letters from Students
Ten days ago I received an email from teacher Jess Vaughn with letters from her students written after our March 16th presentation. However, a very busy schedule kept me from reading these until yesterday, when together with my wife Mimi we read them all and excerpted those statements that truly resonated with us. These excerpts are listed below. Thank you very much for your letters, your thoughts, and your “thank you’s”.
- Hearing your story really impacted me in a healing way, oddly. Hearing your story made me feel less alone because I know what it’s like to be moved from home to home. I am a foster child, and having to move and be relocated throughout childhood is a really hard thing to adapt to. And in a way, I was moved from each home for my safety, too. And hopefully, me being able to relate on a small scale, will help you to feel a sense of healing, too. Your story is truly inspiring and motivates me to carry strength just like you!
- I feel lucky that I was born in the time that war had ended and not go through the darkest time in life like you and your community.
- Your story was very meaningful to me when you talked about the question if I would have taken a kid into my home just like how you were taken in, and I thought about it for a bit. It was amazing how kind those families were to take you in even though they knew having you in their household was risking their lives.
- Another part of your story that really impacted me was when you talked about only applying to MIT and getting in. You showed me that if I really worked hard for something that I wanted, it could be achieved.
- What your mom did was really brave and smart. She was really courageous and smart and that really stood out to me.
- Everything you said was truly inspiring and heartfelt. I’m really grateful for what you shared and hearing it firsthand.
- My responsibility now to keep your story alive is to tell others who were not able to join the meeting what I learned from it and how things were back then. They will then realize how fortunate we are now.
- When you were talking about your mother and your bond with her, it really touched me. It makes me think about all the mothers that were separated from their children. It changed my view on life, I am incredibly lucky to be where I am. Thank you so much for sharing your story, I will never forget it.
- Now, when I meet different people, I want to use your story as a guide to talk to people about what happened in the past. I think that it is important to keep this story because it is a part of our history and it is what made us who we are today.
- The most inspiring phrase that I learned from you today was to stand with the people/things, not against them.
- It’s people like you that inspire and motivate me to do something with my life. I get discouraged so easily over the small things, but listening to your story helped me realize that there are certain things I shouldn’t take for granted.
- Unfortunately I have a sweet tooth, but that’s something we have in common.
- Your story about your high school experience inspired me to raise my grades up and be able to do whatever I want, whether to be a mechanic or a real estate agent. I also learned that I can be doing badly in school and still do better if I study more.
- I have faced many traumas in my life, my childhood, and I want to thank you for sharing your story because it showed the most important thing in the world is respect. Your story will forever stay with me and show what respect and kindness really are.
- Your story has impacted me in so many ways. You often talked about luck and that is something you and I both can connect to because if it wasn’t for luck I wouldn’t be here either. We all have stories to tell and yours will forever be told through generations because it represents how kindness and respect can save lives.
- One of the best things I have heard in my lifetime was by you: “The golden rule is a part of every religion.” I will pass this down forever as I remember the stories that you have passed on to me.
- I like to learn about new things like your story. I also like to paint, write about my life, and cook. I love them so much because my problems disappear and I only focus on these things.
- Even through everything that happened, you moved on and that was inspiring to me. Now I know whatever I’m going through, I can move past it. Thank you for sharing your personal life.
- You taught me that I should never let a bad event affect the way I am today and how I should never dwell in the past.
- Your stories had a major impact on me because I can visualize how other people would feel who were tortured or suffered during Holocaust.
- Something that really stuck out to me while listening to your story was the fact that this was all happening without your consciousness. Seeing it from your perspective like growing up thinking you’re just another Polish child and just being moved from house to house with no particular reason was so fascinating to me.
- I love that you strive for positivity which is definitely something I will keep in mind for my present and my future.
- When hearing your story all I could really think about is how hard it must have been to be a little boy and have everything taken from you almost in an instant and it is truly wonderful that you made it through that difficult time with no true aftereffects.
- Thank you for allowing all of us to have this experience first-hand. The danger is never represented accurately through the textbooks we are given. Hearing the story of your family gave me courage.
- Hearing how close you were to death as a kid, hearing of the suffering you were too young to understand was saddening, but as someone who grew up sheltered, it gives me inspiration to think that even so young you were so strong.
- Something that stuck out to me was the many Polish families that decided to help you. Although they knew how much trouble it would get them into, they still cared for you as they knew it was the right thing to do. It shows that even during terrible times, there are still people who stick to their morals and are there to help.
- It is very inspiring how you still have a great attitude towards the world despite everything you went through. I have viewed life in a more positive way and am motivated to never give up.