The Bay School, San Francisco, CA – February 13, 2023

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, and ranks among the top 20% of private schools in California.  With 374 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 5th visit to The Bay School since April 2017, my first in-person presentation after 88 talks via Zoom since the start of the Covid pandemic, and it was again organized by Humanities teacher Hannah Wagner.  The audience of approximately 200 was comprised of 100 students in 10th-grade Humanities class plus 100 guests from the students’ families and the larger community.  The students will have recently studied the aftermath of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, and will follow my presentation with a two-month study of WWII and the Holocaust, including an in-depth look at how Hitler rose to power, the authoritarianism of the 1930s, and undertake WWII research projects, some of which involve learning about the Holocaust in depth through primary source analysis.   

My talk was arranged by Sadie Simon, Education Program Manager, JFCS Holocaust Center.

Letters from Students

Shortly after this visit to The Bay School, my first in-person presentation after 3 years of Covid and 88 talks via Zoom, I received a large envelope with 77 notes & letters from the students, including two drawings: one “thank you” that was striking in its elegant simplicity of stars and : ), and one sketch of me in the shed (see below after the photos).  However, a busy schedule kept me from reading these notes & letters for over a month till a couple days ago as together with my wife Mimi we read them all and excerpted those statements that truly resonated with us.  These excerpts are listed below.  I thank you, Bay students, for your notes & letters, your thoughts, and your “thank you’s” – they make me feel that I am making a difference.

  • I was reminded to live on my own terms.  In my short life I have had the misfortune of experiencing much pain.  Sometimes it’s difficult not to give up.  However, seeing you go through the worst there is, I feel hope.
  • Your strength and willingness to share about the Holocaust to the younger generation is very inspiring.
  • We all felt inspired by your resilience and perseverance, and see you as a role model for ambition and strength.
  • Your message about being an upstander was especially meaningful to me.
  • Thank you for visiting and for your vulnerability & powerful narrative.
  • I am a second generation immigrant and listening to your story helped me better understand the struggle of having to leave a place and start again.
  • Your words and stories of your first hand experiences painted a very human picture of the war.
  • I found myself very moved by your message of perseverance in the face of oppression.
  • I am gay, and even in San Francisco I have faced much hate.
  • Much like you, airplanes fascinate me and one day I would like to soar across the sky in one.
  • My great-grandparents died in the Holocaust, and my mom chose not to raise my brothers and me Jewish, so I never fully understood the trauma behind it and what they went through.
  • It is so easy to disconnect yourself from these events in the past and just simply view them as ancient history and plots for movies.  But to see someone who could easily have pictured myself to be, just in a different time period, was really amazing.  Thank you.
  • Thank you so much for sharing your journey.
  • In the future, I want to approach life the way you do, and continue living life to the fullest.
  • I struggle to stay positive, and I hope that when I feel down I can think of you and remember the beauty in life.
  •  I hope you continue to change lives.
  • I tend to be stuck in the past or the future, as well as a pessimist by nature, but what you talked about has helped give me a new outlook on how to deal with my own experiences.
  • I was especially touched by how you had to hide in silence away from family, as my great-grandmother had to do a similar thing.
  • The fact that you are willing to share your life’s story with people is incredible, and you have no idea how appreciative people are to hear you.
  • PS: I wish Covid wasn’t a thing so I could have given you a hug.
  • I was so impressed that even though you grew up in those conditions you could still have a good attitude about it, and I am so glad that all the people who said that you could never do anting with your life were so wrong.
  • (Re your baseball story) I know it’s embarrassing to be so sure of something and then to be wrong.  I think it’s funny to look back on moments like that.
  • Your entire story gave me hope for not only for my life but for humanity.
  • Thank you for allowing us to see a different perspective on these events, and for being more personal than a documentary or video.  I really felt connected.
  • I was especially struck by your mention of the sugar cube, and how something so small can have so much meaning.
  • I’ve read a lot and learned a lot about the Holocaust before, but hearing you tell us what it was like for you personally really gave me a better idea of how it was.
  • Your story really gave me a fresh view of the Holocaust, and it felt a lot more powerful and authentic hearing it from someone who was part of it.
  • Your optimism and passion made me feel empowered to continue to pursue my passions like animation and music.
  • I was inspired by how you chased your dreams of studying engineering and piloting.  It taught me to follow my dreams in life even if they seem unreachable.
  • You inspired me to continue working towards my goals and to never doubt myself.
  • Your story is ever so much more human than any Wikipedia article or history book I read.
  • I found your optimistic outlook on life extremely inspiring, and I loved the stories you told.
  • In my life I have touched what happened during the Holocaust though never this close, and I once again thank you for opening my mind to the more personal effects something like the Holocaust can have on a person.
  • It was so interesting and so powerful, and I know I learned so much.  You have so much wisdom and I’m glad we got to hear some of it.
  • I have learned about the Holocaust many times, but your story was the most personal and most memorable.  I also watched the Paperclips film and it was great.
  • I really appreciate that you’ve shared your story about 350 times.  I’m quite surprised you haven’t grown tired of speaking, but I’m glad you haven’t.
  • My entire family who remained in Europe (near Lviv) were killed by the Nazis and we knew very little what happened. It is always fascinating to hear others’ stories, as we can have a better idea of what could have happened to them.
  • I was struck by your mother’s resilience and love.
  • The part of the presentation where you asked the audience if they would theoretically take you in was incredibly thought-provoking and stuck with many people.
  • You taught me to believe in myself and to not take opportunities for granted.
  • I’m writing this on Friday as I am still thinking about your moving testimony.
  • My great-grandfather was in a similar situation as your mother, as he was only kept alive to make Nazi uniforms.
  • I really appreciated the message you gave us, to persevere and adapt through hardship, and to follow your dreams.  I will take your advice with me as I face challenges in my own life.
  • I was taken aback by your bravery and your mother’s determination.
  • I felt so inspired by your perseverance throughout your life and was moved by your mother’s sacrifice in order to keep you safe.  I learned so much in that short amount of time.  Thank you again!
  • I admire your ability to be an optimist, even in the darkest of times, and your ability to focus on today and not tomorrow.
  • I will probably remember your speech for the rest of my life.
  • I am going to try to live in the moment and avoid worrying about yesterdays and tomorrows. 
  • I wish you the best and I hope your wife will let you eat dessert for dinner 😊
  • Being Jewish myself I have ancestry that shares some of the things you experienced, however I never got to hear their stories first hand so I am truly grateful for your testimony.
  • I particularly enjoyed the lesson behind it that you need to focus on being for rather than against, and standing up for what is right.

About gelbaum

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