Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – March 10, 2022 via video

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 11th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust.  This year I spoke again via via Zoom, but it was to one class in the morning and a second class in the afternoon, both in their classrooms but wearing masks because of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  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 two virtual sessions were again organized by teacher Jess Vaughn, as she did last year and several of my previous visits.  Making this visit unintentionally memorable was the total silence of Zoom’s audio at the start of the afternoon session.  However, after a few minutes of frustration, Jess Vaughn cleverly (heroically!) saved the day with a cell phone and some connecting cables.  Whew!

Participating now were approximately 30 students in each 10th-grade English class, who recently finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and have been studying background information about Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust in their History class.

The event was again arranged by Penny Savryn, Education & Marketing Manager, and assisted by Zahira Trejo, Pell University Fellow, Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Letters from students

A week after March 10 and my two presentations at Arroyo I received an email from teacher Jess Vaughn with link to 44 letters from her students.  It took another week+ to find time to read all of these letters, but eventually my wife Mimi and I read them after dinners, highlighting statements or phrases that resonated with us.  I will now excerpt these and add them to the Arroyo post on my website

I very much look forward to visiting Arroyo again next year in person rather than via Zoom

  • Your words about not to let anyone discourage me if I truly love something resonated with me. I have been previously told by some friends that my interests were weird to them, and that made me slightly dislike the things I used to enjoy. Eventually I came to find their opinions did not matter, the only thing that mattered was that I was interested in what I loved.
  • Your mom reminds me of mine because of all the things she went through so that you wouldn’t grow up in a terrible neighborhood. My mom would do anything in her power to get us out of that state.
  • Your words touched something in me that changed the way I view life and inspired me to go to college to find a passion in something that I could make my career. Thank You George for sharing your story.
  • I’m sure in the beginning it was very hard to share your experience since it was traumatic for you. You turned it into something positive by sharing, and I can assume that you are still healing.
  • I can’t imagine your entire life, and the lives of your family, depending on something as flimsy as a piece of paper. The fake IDs and dyed hair makes this seem almost like it’s out of a spy movie; you and your mother both are incredible.
  • To see someone else who didn’t really fit in but became successful makes me more hopeful for my future.
  • You said “Be for things, not against things”. I think a lot of people define themselves by what they’re not, proof by contradiction.  However, I’ve heard the sentiment that people need things to live for, not die for, and your quote reminded me of that.
  • To live in the present and to stand up for what you believe in is an important lesson in life, and I’m glad you taught us so.
  • I hope that I can help preserve your legacy by having the courage to stand up to them.
  • Your story impacted me because you inspired me to chase my dreams and do what I want career wise.
  • I have already told some of my family and friends about your story and they were amazed by it.
  • I am so grateful to have my family and their support in my life and I know you were glad you got to see your mom again.
  • I was impressed that you felt embarrassed about your English accent when you were 13 years old. My experience is very similar to yours.  I also came to the United States from another country, and my spoken English is not very good.
  • This aspect of your hard work that fascinates me.  The spirit of hard work is worth learning, and I will work hard to achieve my ideal goals.
  • What strikes me is what you went through when you first came to America because now I’m going through it too. I’m an English learner too, and sometimes I’m embarrassed by my spoken language, it makes me not dare to communicate with people. But you didn’t give up despite this and got good grades.  I also will not give up, study English hard and communicate with people boldly.
  • You said, ”Never let anyone discourage you.  If you really love something work hard and go get it.” This was really inspiring because I want to learn how to play soccer and they’re telling me that they don’t think I’m going to be dedicated but after hearing this I’m going to try hard and prove to them that I could learn how to play soccer.
  • I am inspired by you following your dreams, by those families who put themselves in danger to save you, and what you said about prejudice fading in the light of day. I feel that it is our responsibility to keep these stories alive so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
  • Your story has been very inspiring to me to keep going even during hard patches.
  • I was really happy when my teacher said that we were going to talk to you because I wanted to know how it felt back then. What were you thinking about the most?  I was thinking about when I moved away I missed my family so much and I would only think about when am I going to go back to see them.
  • The thing that stood out was when you showed how many Jews were killed in a month.  You explained that it was like everyone in San Francisco being killed every 8 months, it really showed how that seems almost impossible, but it did happen just to one group of people.
  • I think it is very important to keep your story alive because it is very inspirational.
  • Something that stuck out to me was about your coping mechanism. I was curious about it because I didn’t know if it was like falling asleep or if it was like your brain shutting off to not allow you to feel the pain of the impact.
  • I think a lot of what you said was very inspiring and I feel like it could change a lot of people’s point of view on life.
  • I am also an English Learner. Sometimes I also feel embarrassed by my accent and stutter.
  • I can’t believe what kind of life you have experienced.  Inspirational and very sad at the same time.
  •  I will tell my children in the future that I met a brave man who was alive while terrible things were happening in the world.
  •  It really inspired me when you said, “Never let anyone discourage you. If you really love something, work hard and go get it.”  Thank you for that. I really need to believe in myself more.
  • I just want to say thank you for being brave and inspiring us to stand up and speak up to injustice, to help others and follow our dreams of working hard and not listening to people who discourage us.
  • It was unbelievable how you were so close to death but so far from peace.
  •  Your story really impacted me greatly whether it was to appreciate my life more and be grateful for what I have.
  •  This story made me want to go out and do some good for this world. For example, help my community by donating to families in need in my community and all around the world.
  • Learning about your mom and all that she risked to keep you and herself safe was so inspiring.
  •  “Be for things, not against things.” I really resonated with this.
  •  I appreciated it so much for you to share your story that once was closed deep inside you for over 60 years.
  •  I heard from the eastern world and now I hear from the perspective from you representing the western world.  Your story helps me balance the view of WWII that everyone goes through the same crisis due to the evil fascist empires.
  • When you mentioned how you stayed in several Polish families’ care, it made me realize that there were people who opposed the Nazis and wanted to assist the Jews.
  • I am going to keep your story alive by telling family and friends of your amazing story because of how much it impacted me and hopefully how much it will impact them.
  • You saw the good things of life instead of the bad and because of that it is really inspiring. I just wanted to say thank you.
  • After listening to your story, I took some time to think about how amazing it was to be able to hear about an experience like yours.  I think there is a huge responsibility for me in keeping your story and others like it alive because I believe that everyone should be aware of the Holocaust.
  • Your story impacted me because it made me more appreciative of my parents and I really thought about all the sacrifices my parents made for me and my brothers.
  • What struck me was how intelligent your mother was. She had the great idea of dyeing her hair to blend in and come up with Catholic identities. I love how she continued to stay strong for you and herself.
  • You stated, “Never let anyone discourage you. If you really love something, work hard and go get it.” It encourages me to do the same and keep my grades up in school even if it gets challenging.
  • You came from an amazing mother that escaped with a lot of luck and kept you safe from genocide.
  • It stood out to me that you still were amazed by the plane. I took it as a spark in your future and instead of looking at it with fear, you looked at it in awe. Little did you know that in that very moment of seeing a Nazi plane it shaped your future and when you grow up it would forever be a part of you. That is what amazed me.
  • You were an English learner and embarrassed because you didn’t know how to speak English very well. I had the same experience moving to America when I was 10 years old. I was scared to attend school and was afraid I was gonna get bullied for my culture and my height.  I got bullied for my race/culture and how I say different words.  The more I grew older, I realized not to think too much about what the haters think of me.
  • A quote that I kept thinking about since the day you talked to us was, ‘’Never let anyone discourage you. If you really love something, work hard and go for it.”

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