St. Peter’s School, San Francisco, CA – January 11, 2018

by George J Elbaum

St. Peter’s Elementary School, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1878, is an elementary and middle school with approximately 300 students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade.  The school is one of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Catholic Schools and a vital part of the parish, a predominantly Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Since its foundation, St. Peter’s has served all economic levels of the community by providing a well-rounded academic and Catholic education in a partnership with parents, who are recognized as the primary educators of their children.  The school recognizes its important role in the growth and development of students and their families, and it thus promotes Gospel values and fosters peace, justice, integrity, honesty and love for learning.

As part of that effort, St. Peter’s has a month-long study of the Holocaust for its 8th grade students taught by Nina Martinez Fuaau, Language Arts Teacher, who organized today’s event and took photos during it.  This was my third visit to St. Peter’s, and in preparation the students read Elie Wiesel’s Night and are currently viewing Schindler’s List, so their questions during Q&A reflected their knowledge plus natural curiosity, which I always admire.  Upon my arrival I was greeted at the school’s parking lot by two helpful and enthusiastic students, Anderson and Emilio, with whom I had a nice chat while they guided me to the room for my presentation and afterwards escorted me back to my car.

My presentation was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center.

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Proof School at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – December 12, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) is a San Francisco Bay Area social services organization whose mission statement is “Serving individuals and families of all faiths and backgrounds, guided by the Jewish value of caring for those in our community most in need.” As such, JFCS carries a special responsibility within the Jewish community for reaching out to children, the aged, those with special needs, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.

Among its many services, the JFCS provides the facilities and arranges presentations on the Holocaust to visiting student groups.  Such day-long visits to the Holocaust Center normally start with a lesson from Holocaust Center staff to provide historical context that ties into and is followed by a presentation from a Holocaust survivor.  My talk today was to the 9th grade students from Proof School, a math-oriented (grades 6-12) school in San Francisco, who are engaged in a 6-weeks study unit on the Holocaust as part of their World History curriculum. (“Our students come to Proof School as math kids. Where they go, and who they become, is discovered each year, in secondary school and beyond.….We aim for our graduates to lead in the world as analytical, literate, compassionate citizens.”)  This was their second consecutive year for Proof School students to visit the JFCS, guided by history teacher Eve Simister and science teacher Kaushik Basu.

My talk, preparation, parking, etc., was ably arranged by Nikki Bambauer, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator, while JFCS Holocaust Center’s Associate Director Alexis Herr led a workshop with the students on the history of Jewish ghettos, introduced me to the audience and attended the talk.

Students’ Letters

Several weeks (Christmas vacation, etc) after my talk to a dozen Proof School students visiting JFCS I received an envelope with letters from the 9th grade students plus a very thoughtful letter from their history teacher Eve Simister.  As usual, my wife Mimi and I read the letters, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally.   Considering these were 9th grade students, we were amazed by the maturity, perceptiveness and sensitivity shown in the letters, which is evident by the so many great statements from their 12 letters that particularly resonated with us and are excerpted below.  Also evident was a very good class discussion facilitated by the teacher after my talk.  We were thus very gratified by the students’ responses to my story, and a special “thank you” to the ingenuous student who attached an excellent full-page drawing of my book’s cover image, but with two visually minor but conceptually major changes: his airplane does not have the Nazi insignia, and it is towing a large advertising-type banner saying “THANK YOU!”

  • Thank you so much for sharing with us not only your incredible, miraculous story, but also some of the most meaningful pieces of wisdom I have ever received. From you, I learned much more than the history of the Holocaust – I gained a new perspective on it too.
  • The Holocaust had never felt as real to me as it did when I heard your experiences. For so long, in fact, it had been something impossibly distant from me, something I couldn’t even begin to imagine.  Hearing you speak of your inspiring and wild personal experiences, the Holocaust suddenly felt not as something affecting “the masses” but as an atrocity that impacted people like me.
  • I appreciate people like you who strive to tell us what we can learn from the Holocaust. It must take immense bravery and will power to place yourself into those horrors again to teach another generation, and I thank you for that.
  • By telling the individual stories of the Holocaust, we do not lose sight of individuals, and therefore humanity.
  • Courage is often thought of as going into a difficult situation without hesitation the first time, but your courage is the ability to go back many times into a genocide to help prevent another one.
  • I appreciate your heart to heart conversation with us. You left us with sincere thoughts about what we will do with our lives & what values we will treasure.
  • I truly admire your passion & desire to continue spreading your message & story to others.
  • Thank you so much for coming and talking with such compassion. I especially think the Holocaust seems real only when talking with a survivor.  When I was told that I would meet a survivor, I knew that it would be special.  However, I didn’t realize until during the talk the true uniqueness.
  • It was such a mind-boggling experience to hear from a Holocaust survivor and be able to see the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who was inside of it and survived it, and I loved how you somehow slipped in some humor into your stories.
  • Your narration was so compelling and gripping that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I especially loved how you connected the narration to the events going on in the world right now, and what we should do about them
  • The day after your talk we brainstormed in class some questions that we would want to ask you if we could meet you again. I’ll check your website to see if you have answered them already.
  • Your experience was vivid and real, and the Holocaust began to feel real to me. I was no longer distanced from it.
  • As I grow up, I will think harder about whether my actions display peace and tolerance or anger and intolerance.
  • I want to thank your wife, Mimi, for encouraging you to do these talks and write your book. Because of her, you have inspired countless people.
  • I realize now that, when studying the Holocaust before, I thought of it in an abstract way. It was a distant event, completely separated from the present.  However, hearing you talk about it completely changed this image.  You helped me understand the impact of the Holocaust in a way that reading about it never could.
  • I admire your striving to spread your story because you see it as a duty to educate younger generations, and I hope you reach your goal of 50 lessons this year.
  • In times like these, when there is fake news and false information spreading everywhere, it is so important to have trusted sources of knowledge, so thank you for sharing your truth with us and so many other students.
  • In all my studies of the Holocaust, none of them have been as personal and moving as your story. 

Teacher’s letter

  • Hearing about your experience was the most powerful part of our study of the Holocaust.  I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust on a more personal level, as the vast numbers can feel incomprehensible.  I also found your comparison to the population of San Francisco incredibly helpful, and I hope to share a similar comparison with future students.
  • I was particularly inspired by your goal of doubling the number of talks you give in 2017 as your response to the current political climate.

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Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, CA – December 11, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Amador Valley High School (AVHS) has set a challenging question for its 2640 students to explore: “How will you A.I.D. your world?” wherein A stands for Academic Achievement, I for Innovative Thinking, and D for Demonstration of Civic Responsibility.  The school success in academic achievement is shown by being deemed a three-time California Distinguished School, a National School of Character, and a two-time National Blue Ribbon School.  The Daily Beast/Newsweek ranked Amador Valley High School 238th in its list of the 1,000 Best High Schools in America.  This success in academics is paralleled in AVHS’s extracurricular activities such as music, theater, and athletics, as well as the development of civic awareness and responsibility in its students.  In national competitions such as We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, the Amador Valley team has ranked in the top four places 10 times in recent years, including 2006-2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014.

In developing the students’ civic responsibility, the study of the Holocaust and reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night is included as part of teacher Stacey Sklar’s Honors Sophomore English course.  To augment their Holocaust study, Ms. Sklar and Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves organized my visit to AVHS.  The students were well prepared, and while the schedule was for the usual 90 minutes of presentation and Q&A, student interest and enthusiasm were such that we continued an impromptu discussion and Q&A while standing in a small group for almost another hour.  The visit to AVHS was for me very gratifying!

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Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – December 8, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Milpitas High School (MHS) has a large and highly diverse student body – 3300 students, 37% Asian, 21% Filipino, 19% Hispanic, 19% White, and 4% African-American – and was the very first school in northern California to develop a Facing History course.  Jack Weinstein, Facing History and Ourselves’s Senior Program Advisor (formerly Director), taught at MHS from 1978 to 1997 and integrated Facing History’s resources early on within many of the school’s English courses. Then, in 1990, he developed a full-semester Facing History course focused on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. That course was an inter-disciplinary English and Social Studies course for 3 years, and then it evolved into a Social Studies elective focused not only on the Holocaust but on multiple case studies of genocide, human rights, and issues of race in American history.  When Weinstein left MHS in 1996 to establish the Bay Area office of Facing History, it was continued by other teachers so the course is among the longest-running electives in the school’s history.  In addition, nearly all freshman English courses now include a multi-week unit on the Holocaust with the study of Elie Wiesel’s Night as its centerpiece.

This was my 4th visit to MHS, and the students attending this talk were again well-prepared and we had a good, engaging Q&A session.  The students were from the multiple Social Studies courses taught by Jennifer Loomis and Caitlin Bellotti, who organized this event and who pass their own enthusiasm to their students.  Also attending the talk were Francis Rojas, MHS Principal, and Ruben Mata, MHS’s at-risk intervention specialist.   Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were again made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

Letters from students

A couple of weeks after visiting MHS I received a large envelope with a dozen letters from the students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each one aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by the thoughtful responses and the empathy with which they related to my story.  The statements in these letters that resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • You inspired me to work hard and to be successful in whatever I do.
  • When I got home the first thing I did was tell my mom how I met you and how much you and your mother inspire me. You made me work harder in school, football and everything I do now.
  • I am so sorry that something as intense and grotesque as the Holocaust happened and affected you and millions of other people too.
  • I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to live your life in constant fear and anxiety every day.
  • I wish I could write more than this letter but my English has a limit.
  • Dear George, we appreciate the time and effort you gave.                                                          In exchange we will take your story and change how we behave.                                                  (The entire letter was written in rhyming couplets, as above.)
  • You inspire me to help other people who are in need of getting back into society due to their bad habits.
  • Your story helps me to fit into society because I came to America as an immigrant and I didn’t know what to do as a kid.
  • I wish people like you would live on forever and tell your stories so that we can learn what you guys went through as a kid.
  • Just thinking about sacrificing my pet in order to save my own life makes me feel beyond sad.
  • Reading in a book or a video just doesn’t fully explain how hard it was to be a Jewish little kid doing no wrong.
  • Joining this Facing History class I thought it was just going to be a regular history class, but I was wrong. This is now one of my favorite classes.
  • Hearing your story was a good learning opportunity to never take life for granted. Also to pay it forward at any opportunity to the less fortunate or people in need.

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Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, Walnut Creek, CA – December 4, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Contra Costa School of Performing Arts (SPA) was quite a surprise for me.  Before speaking at a school for the first time I try to learn a bit about it – is it new or old, its enrollment, its “flavor”, etc –  by visiting its website.  However, except for the “Performing Arts” in its name and in its mission statement (“The mission of Contra Costa School of Performing Arts is to provide a distinguished, pre-professional experience in performing arts within a college and career preparatory setting. We believe in fostering a culture of excellence with the core values of rigor, relevance, resilience and relationships.”) its website did not give me many facts or feeling about the school, and many of the positive descriptives were similar to those of many other schools. (Yes, I also learned that, in addition to standard academic fare, “SPA offers pre-conservatory style training in 5 Arts Majors: Dance, Instrumental Music, Production and Design, Theatre and Vocal Music.”)    I therefore made a list of questions, even asked a few of these* when met at the entrance by Stacey Wickware, the school’s Instructional Coach (*Answers: school opened last year, so the 2017-2018 school year is only its 2nd year; current enrollment is 404), and we agreed to continue this discussion after my talk to the 10th graders.

This follow-on discussion was, for me, a fascinating eye-opener about the birth pangs of starting a charter school, for which we were joined by SPA’s founder and Exec. Director, Neil McChesney.    After several applications to the local and the county school boards, the fledging school held its first classes (6th through 10th grades) in a sub-divided gymnasium, moving into its current quarters this year, and will have its first graduating class of 23 students in June 2019.

The purpose in founding the SPA was to provide a quality educational environment aimed at students with interest & inclination in creative arts to prepare them for college and for the competitive arts world.  Because many students of performing arts have not only a personal passion but also enhanced sensitivity (which is both positive & negative), they benefit from personal mentoring to prepare them for the culture and behavior in the adult world.  This led to SPA’s focus on SHINE: Show responsibility, Have Respect, Invest in Yourself, Notice Others, Encourage Excellence.  All students get a mentor and a Chromebook to allow learning at their own pace, and each day starts with a one-hour “Spotlight” class of students/mentor interactions as needed, plus a weekly one-on-one session with the mentor.

My talk was introduced by Social Science teacher Karen Montgomery who also managed the Q&A, which I particularly appreciated because the questions were focused on my experiences and on our current society, such as “What can we as individuals do to fight indifference, hatred and racism today?” and “How can we help people with PTSD?” and “What one thing would you like us to get out of your visit today?”  Also, two small but very personal touches: immediately after the Q&A a student gave me a little card with “Thank You” and a lovely flower she drew on it, and another student asked if I like butterscotch, and when I answered “Of course” she gave me a butterscotch popsicle.  Very, very nice!

The event was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves and organized by Stacey Wickware and Lisa Kingsbury, SPA’s Director of Curriculum and Integration, along with Karen Montgomery and English teacher, Veronica Woods.  Attending it also were SPA dance instructor, Katherine Orloff, instructional assistant, Christopher Totah, and Peg Borbely Covert, Campus Security Volunteer.

Student Letters 

A week or so after visiting SPA I received a large envelope with 48 letters from the students.  As has been our habit for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ unique sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by the thoughtful responses and the empathy with which they related to my story.  There were many statements in the letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • To be able to help and teach others would be my dream, and that is exactly what you are doing. Thank you.
  • The world is a pendulum that constantly rocks between cruelty and the closest thing we can call peace. People like you make a difference and allow it to swing closer to harmony.
  • Check out the “Chain reaction of kind kindness” by Rachel Scott, the first victim of Columbine shooting. (Yes!)
  • I felt like I couldn’t say anything after you talked because it was so emotionally intense.
  • I sometimes judge people for small things and what you have taught me has made me think about my actions.
  • I know that wherever you go, you will inspire others to maybe share their own story.
  • When you spoke to the class you were pulling my hear strings so much. S. You ROCK!
  • It’s me! The kid from the School of Performing Arts who gave you the butterscotch lollipop!  Keep inspiring the people around you, OK?   (signed) Butterscotch Kid
  • Thank you for being a beacon of hope for many.
  • You inspired me to stand for what I believe in and have faith. Have faith in myself, my family, friends, teachers.  You are encouraging love and hope.
  • I really thought I would choke up during your story, but as moving as it was, afterwards when you were meeting and hugging some of the students, that really got to me and made me have a lil’ cry, I have to admit. Thank you for heavily inspiring me to be better.
  • I’m a lot of things that one can possibly get killed for. It makes me scared/proud of myself.  Like you said, be true to yourself is something I hold dearly to my heard.  Thank you for telling your story.
  • You’re making the world a better place.
  • I have always been fascinated with learning and educating myself on the Holocaust, not only because I am a history buff, but also so I can educate people and help then notice signs of prejudice and put an end to it as well.
  • My family is largely Eastern European Jewish, and hearing your story inspired me to learn more about my own past.
  • Your story made me feel so many things, sad ones, happiness, fear, relief. Just thank you.  We are truly lucky to have you.
  • You told me to choose the path of love & forgiveness. You told me to chase my dreams.  I will chase my dreams for the people like you who support me.  Thank you.
  • In your story I found so much hope, especially hope in humanity. I found hope because of the families that helped you and the people who fought back.
  • I never really understood what happened and how it affected people. I wish I could go back in time and help people.
  • When things get rough for me, sometimes I question if I’m capable of doing anything good with my life. But you, sir, have shown me that with determination, you can do anything.
  • I know how hard it can be to keep everything to yourself because being vulnerable and open is a frightening thing, but with it comes cries for you, hugs, just deep compassion.
  • Have you thought that your life was more built on destiny than luck? I think you were put on this earth for a reason, Mr. Elbaum, and something/someone wanted you to live past the shed, the grenade, the Polish houses that helped to keep you here.
  • What you say is right. People who have been discouraged, discourage others, so if I want something I got to work my ass off to get it!  That’s what I connected to.  I thank you so much for coming.  Please keep doing what you are doing, sir, it makes a difference.
  • Your story impacted me in a way that all I could feel was love for you, knowing what you had been through, how you dealt with it, how you overcame it.
  • The two rules you wanted us to live by will definitely be a part of my life now. Your presentation meant the world to me.  Truly, thank you.
  • I was too shy to go up to you and say anything, but I just want you to know that your talk moved me. You talked about how it is never wrong to say something when you see a bully bullying someone.  We get told that every day, but hearing it from someone who has been through so much made it way more powerful.
  • I particularly liked when you told us to stand up to bullies. I myself have been bullied a lot through my life, but when I started to hit the weights the bullying stoped and I started to stop bullies.  My friend who is really short for his age was picked on after school and I saw it.  I pushed the bully away, grabbed my friend and walked home with him.  Thank you very much for inspiring people to do good.  (Bravo!)
  • Your talk was so inspiring. My dream is to go to Yale, and so many people say: “You can’t do it” and “give up,” but you showed me I could.
  • Your story makes me appreciate my mother a lot more for all that she has done for me, and all that she would do for me.
  • Thank you so much for inspiring me to be the change in the world that I want to see.
  • It’s so amazing how even through all of the darkness you’ve been through, you still believe in the beauty and power of sharing your story. I promise I’ll continue to follow my dreams.

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Dougherty Valley High School, San Ramon, CA – November 30, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Dougherty Valley High School (DVHS) was established in 2007, which explains its very apropos slogan “The Tradition Starts Now!”  In these 9 years its enrollment has grown rapidly from 570 students to approximately 3200 now.  Despite this rapid growth, it scored the highest Academic Performance Index in the San Ramon school district and the 27th highest in California, and was awarded a gold medal and ranked in the top 500 schools in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report – an impressive growth in both enrollment and ratings.

Today was the 3rd time I’ve spoken at DVHS to a class of 11th and 12th graders in the elective course Facing History: Holocaust and Human Behavior, and once again I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the students and their teacher, Dana Pattison.  As before, the students were very well prepared and thoughtful, and this time during the Q&A I was even asked several very meaningful and personal questions that have never been asked in my 150+ talks in the last 7 years.  I very much welcome it when it happens, as it makes me think deeply about the issue being asked.  In fact, after the Q&A I was moved to tell the students that they are lucky to have Dana Pattison for their teacher.  It was a very gratifying experience for me, arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.

Letters from students

A week after visiting DVHS I received a large envelope with 25 festive Thank You notes from the students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each one aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by the thoughtful responses and the empathy with which they related to my story.  There were many statements in the notes that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • I went home after your visit and told my mom, sisters, and friends about your incredible story, and it really moved us all to tears.
  • I know it takes a large amount of courage within you to open up about the loss and tragedies you have gone through, but I also admire your amazing positive and uplifting spirit and character.
  • You have been through events that are unimaginable for me and others, yet you still spread love and positivity.
  • You told my class a very powerful quote which will stick with me for the rest of my life: “be for things rather than against them.” I hope to follow that saying and be more like you by having hope, faith, and courage, not only in myself but also in others.
  • I really liked what you said about being for things rather than being against a cause, especially in the current social & political environment. I was inspired by what you said and how you have spent time touching students about compassion and trying to overcome ignorance.  Everything you have spoken about is very important for young generations to hear.
  • You showed me how despite your harsh past your mindset is key to success. No matter luck or fate, you are still alive today to send this message to everyone that meets you in hope of a better future.
  • You said that a large reason why you survived was because of luck, but I think that a large part of it was because you were resilient & didn’t let the bad situations conquer you.
  • Thank you for providing inspiration and hope with your beautiful story.
  • Your story was very powerful, and I aspire to be a better and more understanding person everyday.
  • In the future, I will make a conscious effort to be as accepting as I can. It is important to stand up for others.
  • What struck with me the most out of all you said was the power of choices. How we as children have and are constantly making choices, and it is up to us whether we make the right ones.  It really made me think about the choices I’ve made and whether I could have made different ones.  It definitely made me think about my own life.
  • I went home and told my whole family about everything you told us. It gave me a different perspective on what it means to be alive, and on the choices we make.
  • I appreciated all the honesty and vulnerability you brought to our class, because you didn’t have to.
  • As corny as it may sound, you have completely changed my view on the world. It is people like you who show me that there are good people in the world.
  • When hearing you constantly say “it was luck” I disagreed in my head. Luck is finding $5 on the ground.  You are truly blessed.  I’m not sure of your religious affiliation, but in my eyes you are blessed.  You have some kick ass guardian angels up in heaven.
  • Thank you for being so strong.
  • Although it may conjure up disturbing feelings of trauma and unpleasantness, you still talked about these as your moral obligation to do so.
  • As a young man, it opened up my obligation and responsibility to prevent history from repeating again through my actions and intentions.  The seeds of hope have been sown, and thank you for that.

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Social Studies Teachers Workshop at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – November 16, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) is a San Francisco Bay Area social services organization whose mission statement is “Serving individuals and families of all faiths and backgrounds, guided by the Jewish value of caring for those in our community most in need.”  JFCS’s Holocaust Center also conducts teacher training seminars focused on teaching moral courage and social responsibility.  As part of that effort, the Center held a pre-conference clinic for a group of teachers from throughout the U.S. and South America who were participating in the annual educator conference of the National Council for the Social Studies, and who chose the JFCS seminar on Holocaust education as their area of interest. My talk was a part of this seminar, and I much enjoyed fielding their questions and the one-on-one conversations with several of them afterwards.

The event was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and was attended by Morgan Blum Schneider, its Director of Education, plus JFCS’s new Associate Director Alexis Herr.  Whereas the Q&A at the end of each talk is always my favorite as then I learn and can address the interests of the audience, this time it came with an added and very pleasant surprise: presumably in response to my sweet tooth that I describe in my talks, Morgan brought out a plateful of chocolate chip cookies for all of us, and I found myself answering questions while munching on a delicious cookie.  Thank you, Morgan!


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