by George J Elbaum
College Park High School is a highly rated public school with a current enrollment of 2050 students of which 60% are minority, 23% are economically disadvantaged, 10% are first-generation college students, and 6.1% are English Language learners. Despite these demographics, College Park is far above California state averages of college and career readiness, such as student test scores (reading 74% vs. 51% CA average and Math 48% vs. 40% CA average) and has 97% graduation rate. It is therefore rated by Niche.com as A for diversity and A- overall, also for college preparedness.
This presentation to College Park, my 5th since 2019, was to the entire sophomore class (350 to 400 students) and was again organized by World History teacher Lauren Weaver, as she had done each year since 2019. Her students have studied WWII and the Holocaust, so were therefore aware of governmental persecution in Germany in the 1930s, including anti-Sematic policies and hate crimes, targeted boycotts, the Nuremberg laws, book burnings, Kristallnacht, forced relocations to the ghettos, deportations, and death camps under the “final solution”.
My presentation once again was via Zoom because of my continuing medical restrictions, so unfortunately there was little real-time feedback which I’ve missed for the last 3 years. However I fully expect that next year I will be able to return to College Park and Lauren Weaver’s class in person.
Arrangements for this talk at College Park were made by Sadie Simon, Education Program Manager of JFCS Holocaust Center.
Notes from Students
Two days after this visit to College Park High School the teacher Lauren Weaver emailed me 10 pages of “Thank you” notes from her students. Scanning the notes on the first page I was instantly impressed by the students’ personal thoughts and feelings expressed there, so the next day my wife Mimi and I read these together and excerpted the statements that most resonated with us. The list is long, and the excerpts below are impressive – they speak to me of excellent students and excellent teacher.
- In this time of heightened political tensions regarding race, religion, and other minority identities, it is extremely important to listen to the first hand stories of those who have survived tragedies centered around their identity, like the Holocaust.
- As both a racial and a romantic minority, it truly meant a lot to hear you talk about what you’d been through as sometimes I fear that that’s where America is heading, but when people are reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust I feel as though they’re more likely to be open-minded.
- I especially liked when you mentioned seeing the plane through the hole in the shed, as the concept of finding beauty in a terrible situation is something that I can relate to very well. There was a moment in my life where I witnessed something truly awe-inspiring during a very traumatic event, and I’ve been fascinated with that object since. So hearing that you had a similar story really made me feel a connection.
- Thank you for answering my question about antisemitism being on the rise, as I do agree that we have fostered an environment where people feel more comfortable to voice their prejudices and therefore feel like it’s their right to spew hate against groups they view as lesser. Once again, thank you so much for speaking with our class. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life.
- I would like to sincerely thank you for sharing your story and your experience in one of the most difficult situations to live through in human history. I identify with your viewpoints heavily and admire your general attitude and resilience to antisemitism and other forms of hate
- In a way you remind me of myself and as a Jewish American who grew up not knowing his roots that well I felt empowered hearing your speech. I sometimes feel ostracized or like having to choose between being perceived as Jewish and risking hate from others or being perceived as Protestant and assimilating into being a “white American”.
- I’d like to say, in the most sincere way possible, thank you. People like us will learn from this experience of pure survival and instinct, meaning that everyday could be your last. You are a teacher, a model, and a person of luck.
- I find it very inspiring that you overcame your fear of telling your story publicly, and I’m grateful that we got the chance to hear about your experiences. With deep respect…
- I found it interesting to hear how the younger you thought that because you broke your leg you would need it cut off because you saw soldiers with lost limbs and assumed it was the same. I too would’ve thought the same thing if I was in the same situation as you.
- Your presentation made me realize that you can’t give up.
- Thank you for taking the time to tell us your life story. I will never have a way to make up the favor, but I can however continue telling others of your story.
- It is nice to know that you no longer feel belittled by your past and continue to pass on your life story, because if people like you stayed quiet, then history would be forgotten and be doomed to be repeated.
- Being able to go through something so big as a child must be terrifying. When you said that you saw your mother after six months, it made me realize how lost you must’ve felt at that time. I appreciate your time, and you’re so strong for going through this unfortunate event.
- I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve learned extensively about the Holocaust throughout my life but I’ve never heard someone’s first hand account in person.
- Thank you for teaching us about tolerance and compassion towards others.
- I never really wanted to think that little kids went through it, but they did. And hearing you talk about it made me really realize it
- When you asked if we’d take in a child even if it put our own lives at risk, without a hesitation I answered yes. I answered yes because there is the chance to save a small child, an innocent life.
- When it came to segregation in America, when you talked about what happened when you went to the back of the bus, it was very eye opening and I really appreciated it.
- Thank you for making a difference by letting your story be known
- The most memorable details that I took from your story is the first plane you saw in the dark shed. It was almost like the light at the end of the tunnel that made your story come full circle after choosing to study Aerospace Engineering. It also inspired me how to prove your high school counselor wrong by getting into MIT and studying there. I strive to be as brave and courageous as you when I’m older.
- Thank you for being able to share such terrifying and traumatizing times with us.
- Sometimes I forget to stop and think about how fortunate I am to not have to worry about war occurring or being hunted or searched for in the middle of the night.
- I’m very grateful that I got to temporarily experience a day of life in the Holocaust through your eyes.
- That part of your story (about luck) really moved me in a way I’m not certain how to express, but it helped me to understand more about the Holocaust and how so much of survival really was based around pure luck.
- Before your presentation I had never really thought about how people survived outside of concentration camps.
- Thank you for your bravery, to speak up about what you experienced is not an easy task. The way you keep doing this throughout your life, you keep going and never give up, inspires me to work harder.
- The information you shared with us made me realize how cruel a human can be to one another just because they dislike their religion. So glad you made it out alive!
- Thank you for being able to talk to us and allowing us to properly visualize the atrocities that occurred.
- Thank you very much for sharing your story. I really found it interesting and it actually touched me in a way that makes me feel kind of guilty for all the times that I thought my life was terrible because I didn’t like something that happened or because of someone that did something that I didn’t like, because there are always more people around the world like you that suffered through horrific times.