by George J Elbaum
Founded in 2004, The Bay School (Bay) is an independent, coeducational college preparatory high school in the Presidio of San Francisco. With almost 400 students in grades 9 through 12, Bay balances challenging academics and innovative thinking with a mindful approach to learning and life – its goal is to see students unlock their individual and collective potential so they begin to realize their roles in a dynamic world. Bay believes that a broad range of perspectives and experiences play a crucial role in achieving its educational mission, thus it intentionally recruits students and teachers from diverse cultural, racial, economic and geographic backgrounds.
Emphasizing depth of content, Bay’s curriculum focuses on problem solving, promotes critical thinking and encourages students to connect academic study with their extracurricular lives. Bay’s 9th and 10th grade courses build a broad foundation of basic skills, focusing on the relationships among traditional academic disciplines. Students’ interests and talents increasingly drive the academic program in 11th and 12th grade.
This was my 4th visit (albeit virtual due to Covid-19) to The Bay School, and it was again organized by Humanities teacher Hannah Wagner. The online audience was approximately 90-100 students in 10th-grade Humanities class who have recently studied the aftermath of WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, and Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. Shortly after my talk all 10th graders will read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Finally, all students will undertake a WWII research project, some of which will involve learning about the Holocaust in depth through primary source analysis.
My talk was arranged by Penny Savryn, Education & Marketing Manager, JFCS Holocaust Center.
Letters from Students
A month after my virtual visit to The Bay School I received a large envelope with over four dozen short notes and long letters from the students, one even decorated with many small hearts and one with a very cute drawing (see below). However, a very busy schedule kept me from reading these for another month, 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” – they make me feel that perhaps I’m making a difference.
- I found your idea of having faith in people, but a lack of faith in humanity itself fascinating. I often find it difficult to see the world in those shades of gray, rather than in black-and-white we’re so often taught by parents and administrations alike, and I strongly admire your ability to do so.
- While I recognize that antisemitism and racism toward others are still hideously present and persistent in our society, I believe hearing and sharing stories like yours is one step towards genuine progress. Thank you for your time, words, and courage.
- I can’t imagine how much courage it takes to talk about your experience in a time like that.
- Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us and inspiring us to lead better, kinder lives.
- Your experience with the airplane and getting into MIT, as well as well as your advice about not being affected by other people’s doubts in you, was my favorite part and I’m still thinking about it.
- When you told the story about the Polish kid who didn’t want to come to your talk because of antisemitic beliefs and later not only came but also brought your book and how that kid was able to change his thoughts of hatred genuinely brought a tear to my eye. I wish you the best because you truly are doing god’s work.
- Your story and how you believe that the world should be led with love and compassion, and not hate and judgment really stood out to me. I will live my life with that ideology in mind.
- I really enjoyed the inspiring story you gave us because it goes to show there is hope even in darkness.
- My family is originally from Germany and left during the war. I know my great grandfather had similar experience to yours, but never talked about it. Hearing your story made me feel very connected to my family and grateful they are still here today.
- Your story made me think a lot about the way the world works and how history likes to repeat itself.
- My grandfather is also a Holocaust survivor, and his story is similar to yours in the regard that it is only by luck that he is still alive.
- It’s change-makers like you who pave the way for other survivors of traumatizing events to tell their stories and speak up against what’s wrong.
- By telling your story you are helping us to understand how important it is to stand up against hatred and thus prevent as much racism and genocide as possible.
- To be able to go through something so traumatizing and catastrophic and still be willing to use your story as a way to teach is truly admirable
- I find it very inspiring how you continue to educate people on why hatred should be avoided. You gave me the rare perspective of someone who has been in life-threatening danger because of hate.
- 4 years ago in October 2018 you visited my middle school and I still have the notes from that day stored in my computer. I sat at the back of the classroom, tired after staying up that night. After you told your story I immediately sat up in my chair and started to think about how different I would be in the 1940s. As soon as I saw the cover of your book last Thursday I excitedly texted my friend. Thank you so much for inspiring me.
- Your talk was mesmerizing to hear of your bravery & hardships throughout the Holocaust & the years following. I specifically enjoyed getting to hear your mother’s story. You speak of her with such love & admiration; the world was lucky to have her.
- Your story was really inspiring, especially when you talked about living with love and kindness and not hatred.
- I am astonished that such an atrocity ever happened and extremely grateful to have heard your story.
- I am so glad I got to hear you speak again. In middle school I heard you speak in person in 2018. I remember a lot of your speech the first time but not every detail, and I am so glad I got to hear it a second time. Your story is incredible and I am so thankful that you are willing to share it with people.
- Thank you for inspiring my class and me. I won’t forget your story.
- I am at a loss for words when it comes to describing your story. It was inspiring, saddening, and truly made me thing about my own life.
- I am so glad that you have made the decision to share your experience with not only us but with so many others. Thank you again.
- It is important to know what happened, because without an understanding of what the Holocaust was, people won’t be able to see similar things happen before they are fully in effect.
- To get up after falling and keep going is one of the hardest things anyone can do. The fact that you have done this so many times throughout your life is truly inspiring.
- You taught me to never give up even if the struggle is hard, and that standing up for what you believe in is the most important thing that you can do to make a difference.
- It seems unbelievable to me that something so horrible could have happened and yet you still had the courage to move on from your trauma and start afresh.
- During your talk you asked us if we would take in a persecuted minority out of the kindness of our hearts and hide them from the authorities, much like the families who took Jewish people into their care during the Holocaust. At the time I was unsure what my answer was. After listening to your story more I came to the conclusion that I would help people even if it put my own life in danger. Hearing how grateful you were and seeing what person you grew up to be you inspired me and made me choose to help people if given the chance.
- We’ve never walked in your shoes so we don’t know exactly what you may feel retelling your story but thank you for being so willing to tell us.
- I’ve researched the Holocaust before (I attended a Jewish day school) but hearing about it in so much depth from a survivor was so much different.
- I thank you for without your talk I would not have had a very important conversation with my family about our history.
- Your story was very inspiring and allowed me to recognize the privilege I have today.
- Your story gave me hope and taught me to believe in myself even if no one else does.
- For the first time in a very long time I felt completely engaged with something, which was a really fantastic feeling. It really put into perspective the things that I care about and spend time on.
- I read about the Holocaust, first-hand accounts and primary sources even, but none were as vivid and striking to hear as yours. You are an engaging storyteller, and your talk left me with a lot to think about as a non-Jewish person.
- My mother and younger brother listened too, and were stunned by the detail and story itself.
- I wish I could write more eloquently, but I hope you know (I’m actually sure you do) how many people you have educated and made to rethink their place in life.
- I am so thankful for your talk along with the fact that you got to survive.
- Hearing how much luck you had means that you were meant to still be here today to educate schools around the world about the Holocaust.
- I now perceive the world so differently. Thank you for not letting your voice be silenced.
- I know that I’m just one of the high schoolers you got to talk to, but I am so proud of you. Thank you for rising above everything terrible and helping others understand. Forever grateful