by George J Elbaum
Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, CA, is a 9-12 grades public high school with total enrollment of 1601 students, of which 37% are considered minority and 12% economically disadvantaged. Las Lomas is ranked 175th within California by US News Best High Schools.
My presentation to 300 9th grade students was organized by Lynn Schwab, 9th grade World History & Geography teacher. Prior to my visit the students would have prepared by a compact study of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Kristallnacht, Nazi concentration camps and death camps, and the ghettos. Some of the students have read Maus.
My participation was arranged by Penny Savryn, Education & Marketing Manager, and Veronica Siegel, Administrative Program Coordinator, JFCS Holocaust Center.
Several weeks after my visit to Las Lomas I received a large flat envelope from JFCS Holocaust Center which, I assumed, contained student letters from one of the talks they arranged for me. A very quick check confirmed my guess, and as it was a very busy time due to many talks I gave the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 28) and its spill-over, I put it on a stack of several similar so-do envelopes for a few more weeks. Two days ago I finally had time to act on it and was surprised by a small envelope and note from Las Lomas teacher Lynn Schwab which I hadn’t noticed in my previous month’s inspection. Inspired by the note, I immediately read a couple letters at the top of the stack, and that weekend (Memorial Day) my wife Mimi and I read the rest them, with Mimi reading each one aloud while I listened and absorbed, and we excerpted those phrases/sentences that resonated with us.
We were quite impressed by the large percentage of letters that contained thought-provoking excerpts, most probably a result of an in-depth discussion that teacher Schwab held with her students about my presentation. The students were obviously engaged – a sure sign of students responding to a very good teacher! Our excerpts are below.
- When you said that one of the most important lessons is focusing on what we can do today, who can we help today, that really stuck with me. If we focus on one good deed at a time and put our soul and heart into it, like you have done with your book and talks, one day we can look back and realize all the good we spread in the world.
- I want to be like the families you stayed with during the Holocaust and help others whenever I can. I’m going to stand up against the unjust prejudices that I see. Your story has taught me so much, leaving me with a forever impact, and for that I thank you.
- Thank you, George, for helping me become more aware of the world around me.
- I can’t imagine the fear that you and your mother had about you being caught and sent away. I learned not only about the Holocaust but also how it affected people.
- The part of your story that made me feel very emotional was when you said that the best day of your life was when you saw your mother again after 6 months absence.
- I can’t put into the right words how inspiring and rememberable the experience was to listen to your story.
- It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that after both horrifying and traumatizing events, survivors had to go back to living their lives like normal.
- I feel privileged for many things but one being that I got to hear your story.
- I appreciate how you told your story to teenagers who weren’t wise enough to listen before or didn’t have someone to listen to
- It really stuck with me that you had to be someone else to live.
- The most important takeaway from your talk was that we need to stand up for people in life. If we do not stand up for people, we become just as bad as the people contributing to prejudice as we become bystanders.
- Your story proves to me that if I am willing to put in the work, I will be able to reach and possibly exceed my own expectations.
- You not only taught me more about the Holocaust but also how to be a better person.
- You painted this picture of your mother and what she was able to do for you and for herself in a truly wonderful way.
- I wonder if the statement, everything happens for a reason, applies here: what if everything that happened in your life, all the luck, was leading up to you sharing your story and giving others information on your experience with terror and evil. That makes it seem like everything happens for a reason.
- Hearing about it from someone like you really makes us realize how real the holocaust was and how all the horrific things were true.
- Sometimes we need to hear others’ experiences in order to grow/mature and understand all of the hatred and prejudice that STILL goes on in the world today.
- My parents and I immigrated to America when I was 3 years old. A few years later a civil started in our country. Most of my family has immigrated to America but the ones that still live there in a war zone live in horrible conditions. Listening to your story gave me hope that they will, one day, gain a better life. Really I thank you for giving me hope.
- I told my mom all about your story. She was just as fascinated as I was. I mean that honestly. I don’t think my mom has ever been more concentrated on what I’ve said.
- You’ve inspired me to never stand down when I see someone being bullied, which I have done before.
- From your talk I learned how important it is to recognize when someone is being persecuted and stand up to it.
- As you said during your talk, when someone says something that is racist, anti-Semitic, etc, a way to combat this is simply asking them to repeat what they said. I think that this was good advice, as the person will most likely realize what they are saying and will stop.
- After learning and reading about the Holocaust in class, hearing about the childhood of an actual survivor is very humbling.
- After hearing your stories, I understand how important it is to ensure everyone is accepted in society. Genocides come from discrimination or marginalization.
- Thank you so much for sharing your story and thank you for inspiring me to do the right thing.
- Something that really resonated with me was the effect one human can have on another, which is why it is so important to treat each and every person the way you would want to be treated.
- Something I can do to help is to make everyone feel included. Our school is very focused on this.
- Thank you for telling me just what I needed to hear, even if you didn’t realize it. Focusing on the present is much more important than dwelling on the past or worrying for the future.
- The way you told your stories on how you survived makes me feel sadness, sadness for your loss, sadness for the people surrounding you in the same experience. I can only show my support to you through this letter. I’m sorry you had to go through something like that, but also thank you for sharing this experience, because this has changed me.