The Athenian School, Danville, CA – October 19, 2017

by George J Elbaum

The Athenian School is an experiential college preparatory private middle and high school with 524 students in grades 6-12 situated on a beautiful 75 acres of rolling, oak-covered hills.  The students come from a dozen different countries (including 60 students who board on campus) and nearly 50% are people of color.  When school opened in 1965, its founder planned for both integration and coeducation, a radical concept at the time when very few private schools were recruiting students of color or were coeducational.

Athenian’s unofficial motto is “Life is an adventure of intellectual exploration and meaningful contribution,” and every day its students from the East Bay and around the world practice leadership, teamwork, empathy, and global citizenship, while mastering academic subjects by experiencing their application firsthand.  The school’s academic performance is very impressive, per 2017 test averages:

The school’s diversity, racial as well religious and cultural, is shown by the diversity of student activity clubs: Asian Club, Outdoor Adventure Club, Interweave (Gay-Straight Alliance), Jew Crew, Black Student Union, Christian Club, Interfaith Dialogue Club, Philanthropy Club, Hip Hop Club, Tea Club, Entrepreneurship, Round Square Club, and more.

Also impressive is the school’s environmental stewardship, which has been a core value since it opened.  Campus initiatives in solar energy, water conservation, waste diversion by recycling have resulted in environmental awards from the US Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, CalRecycle and others, and its efforts also teach students to steward the environment.  Students are also taught to appreciate the environment though the Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE), whereby   small groups of classmates explore the beauty of the High Sierra mountains or the Death Valley desert.  While navigating off-trail terrain, cooking group meals, rock climbing, and setting up camp, they learn how to collaborate, problem-solve, empathize, and believe in oneself and others.

My talk at The Athenian School was a part of the Holocaust Seminar, a history elective for 11th & 12th grade students, and was also attended by a 10th grade French class.  The talk was organized by Lea Hartog, humanities teacher, and arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also attending were the school’s librarian Jim Sternberg, biology teacher Elizabeth Wright, as well as relatives and parents of students.

Letters from Students

Several days after visiting Athenian we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with 11 letters from the students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity and insightfulness as reflected in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There was an unusually large number of statements in these letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • Learning about the innocence that you kept and that you lost was particularly interesting to me.
  • Having to live without your mother, but not understanding exactly how much danger you were in, was a complex and fascinating juxtaposition to me.
  • One can only imagine how repressing memories of the Holocaust and then choosing to deal with them so much later in life took a toll on you, and I thank you for wanting to tell it to the world.
  • Putting human faces and emotions to what I only see as pictures was very impactful and adds another layer to my understanding of the Holocaust.
  • I thought it was really poignant that the family with the dachshund had to kill it in the night to keep it from barking and alerting the Nazis. As I have a pet dog myself, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do something like that, so it really clearly illustrated to me the desperate times of war, and the need to survive at any cost that the Jews possessed.
  • Honestly, the idea of hearing someone speak about something so gruesome was rather intimidating for me, and I was nervous to listen to someone with firsthand experience rather than simply reading from a textbook.
  • I realized that simply discussing Jewish victims as numbers of people that were killed has no benefit to my learning and emotional connection, and your words truly transformed my idea of what the Holocaust was.
  • The public often focuses most on the hopelessness and desperation of the Jewish community at the time, and, while these feelings are completely valid, your description of your mother’s work and the other uprisings proved to me that people were doing more than sitting back and waiting to be killed.
  • Even though fear was one of the largest driving factors of the Holocaust, you gave me the ability to understand that there were incredibly intelligent and strong-willed people that attempted to fight back against the hatred, even if times may have seemed to be without any hope.
  • I thank you so much for helping me understand the process of struggle, luck, and perseverance, and I cannot express how important it is that others get the opportunity to hear your story as well.
  • The main point that I was intrigued about was how you were only seconds away from destruction multiple times. Your mom showing the paper just seconds before it was too late and Leon calling you just seconds before the explosion of the hand grenade are incredible.  You, and we as well, were very fortunate to be on the right side of time when it came down to the wire.
  • Trying to educate young people about not being “anti” and instead standing up for what is right is a very powerful and meaningful message.
  • Simply finding a grenade on the side of the road isn’t something we are used to today, and it speaks to the brutality and cruelty of the war.
  • The story you shared about the dog being choked to death was impactful to me. I have a dog that is like a part of my family and I am sure this was the same with the dog-owners who were with you in the shed.
  • Your story brought me to tears but hearing about the choking death of the dog got me bawling.
  • I really appreciated hearing your religious beliefs and your opinion on what we should be doing about prejudice in this country.
  • You really are touching lives and you certainly touched mine by telling your story, and I know you will touch many more.
  • The beginning of your story, where you set the scene of how the entire Jewish population of Warsaw was living in a miniscule portion of the city, surrounded by wall and barbed wire, gave me a much more realistic, vivid understanding of the Holocaust.
  • Thank you for expanding my perspective of the emotional damage that the Holocaust created. I often struggle to find hope when in a dark moment of my life, but your story has inspired me to try and find the hope that lies in the future.

with audience

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Seabury Middle School, Tacoma, WA – October 16, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Seabury Middle School opened in September 2009, founded on the belief that intellectually advanced students learn and grow most deeply when engaged in projects that are relevant, challenging and meaningful.  Working in collaboration not only with other students but with community organizations and local experts, students can develop leadership, participate in community service, and engage in rigorous studies that truly make a difference in their own lives and in their community.  The school’s program features a unique integrated curriculum in which students make the city their classroom: they take physical education classes at the downtown Tacoma YMCA, do research at the Tacoma Public Library, visit the Tacoma Farmers Market and eat lunch at local cafés.  Their art experiences include museum visits and hands-on learning such as creating their own piece at a local glass artist’s studio.

The program for 6th, 7th and 8th graders is based on 3 overall concepts and 3 major trips:

Year One – Concept: Home

Students learn about Washington State and Tacoma history as they explore how our community’s past helps shape its present and future.  In science, they study genetics and travel to Mount Rainier and local waterways to discover local geology and environment.  Projects include constructing earthquake-safe building models, a Washington virtual road trip and a family oral history project.  A study of Shakespeare culminates in a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Year Two – Concept: The Unknown

Students become deeper thinkers as they tackle the unknowns of the ever-changing global world, discussing international relations, trade, human rights, world religions, philosophy and ethics.  Language arts focuses on science fiction and fantasy, and science includes astronomy, quantum physics, psychology and neurology.  The year culminates in a trip to New York City and participation in a Model United Nations conference.

Year Three – Concept: Modernity

Students explore the historical events that shaped the modern world through struggle, innovation, and the desire to make it a better place.  They move incrementally through time, finding connections between the World Wars and the Holocaust, the development of jazz and changes in American culture, the civil rights movement, and the space race.  A partnership with a local senior citizen community provides opportunities for students to meet with those who have lived through some of the events they are studying.  Science study looks at advances from the 20th century, particularly the dramatic gains in  microbiology and DNA. The year will culminate with a trip to France where students visit important landmarks from their study of WWII, such as the beaches of Normandy and various Holocaust memorials.  The 8th graders also complete a Capstone Project, which requires them to pick a subject of interest, research it in depth, and complete a community service project around that subject.

My visit was organized by Jenna Greenfield, the Middle School’s Social Studies teacher, and arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.  The event was attended by Sandi Wollum, Seabury’s Head of School, teachers Jared Mackenzie and Tiffany Price, administrator Jenn Parker, and parents of several students.

Letters from Students

Some weeks after visiting Seabury I received a large envelope with letters and notes from the students and a beautiful, peacock-theme-decorated note from the teacher.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ heartfelt honesty and felt gratified by their responses to my story.  The statements in these letters that resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • I was too shy to tell you this in person, but your presentation meant a lot to me.
  • Thank you for spending your time to tell us these stories. Have a rose: (drawing of a beautiful rose was included)
  • Your story inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage, and my ability to freely practice my religion.
  • Things like the soup story, little things like that are almost comical if they weren’t so grave.
  • I am beginning to think that you are immortal. Seriously, a hang gliding crash, a plane crash, and… the Holocaust couldn’t stop you.  The classroom is probably a much safer environment.

with students

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St. Luke School, Shoreline, WA – October 16, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

This was the 3rd time I spoke at St. Luke School in the last 6 years, and I truly looked forward to returning.  My key memories of both previous visits were of an inspirational teacher, Rosemary Conroy, and her 8th grade students who reflected her enthusiasm.  My visit today only reinforced those memories, especially of Ms. Conroy’s infectious enthusiasm and her efforts to help her students become good citizens of the world, especially in today’s environment of growing intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia toward the “others.”

St. Luke School teaches more than 300 students in K-8 grades based on the belief that “quality Catholic education teaches the whole child spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially.”  The 8th grade Social Studies Curriculum, as organized and taught by Rosemary Conroy, is very intensive as it covers U.S. history, Washington State history, geography, economics, politics, and current events.  The curriculum highlights the formative periods of U.S. history: Revolutionary War, development of the Constitution & Bill of Rights, Civil War, WWI and WWII, and it includes an in-depth look at the Holocaust.  Where possible, Ms. Conroy invites outside speakers who witnessed first-hand the events being studied, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Nisei relocation program, WWII POW camps and the Tuskegee Airmen.

Rosemary not only teaches but “walks the walk” in her role on the Teacher Advisory Board of the Holocaust Center for Humanity as well as her 3 months of volunteer work in Cambodia.  In her thank-you note to me she wrote: “I won’t feel too badly if my students can’t name the first 10 Amendments when they leave my class in June, but I will be devastated if they can’t accept others and treat them with dignity, respect and kindness.”  The world needs more Rosemarys!

The event was attended by 41 eighth graders and numerous teachers and parents of St. Luke School, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Letters from Students

Several days after returning from Seattle we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with a wonderful note from teacher Rosemary Conroy and letters from her students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There were very many statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • After you hugged a friend of mine and were laughing over it you told us something very important: that if people hugged more they would fight less and the world would be a better place. With all the current events going on in the world this advice is important to my friend and me.  I hope I get to see you again, maybe one day I will bump into you at a gigantic dessert buffet.
  • You said a phrase during your presentation that stuck with me. “Be for things, not against things.”  To me this is a life lesson that you have taught me.  You can either be the bully or the commendable person, and I never want to be the bully.
  • Watching you tell your story in person opened all of us to a new view on the reality of this disaster. The biggest knowledge I took away from your presentation was: Be For Things, Not Against Them.  It truly resonated with me and has given me a new and more positive view on life in general.
  • One statistic that struck me was how many Jews were killed each month. The image of the entire Seattle population being wiped out every 6 months made me sick.
  • I also really enjoyed how much detail you spoke in. It gave me the ability to actually picture what situations you were in.
  • You made me feel like I was there with you… and I could see the color of the plane and could sense the fear that everyone had.
  • You were able to paint a clear picture in my head and heart of what happened to you during and after the war.
  • Not too long ago I lost my mother, and you taught me that even in times of despair there is room to grow. Thank you for speaking to my class and opening my eyes to a new way of thinking.
  • I will carry your message of being for, not against, with me forever, along with your story as proof that hope can be found in even the bleakest of places.
  • One takeaway I have is that you need to stand up for people who are being bullied.
  • You have inspired me to live life everyday to its fullest, because you don’t know if or when your life will take a dramatic turn.
  • I was very inspired by your ability to remain grateful to everyone who helped you even when they weren’t entirely nice to you. Thank you so much, and I hope I can hear you speak again sometime.
  • I know some people would never be able to smile if they have gone through what you have, but you were able to make a joke and not only laugh at yourself but make others laugh also. It shows that not only you have overcome your past but also came to terms with it.
  • After hearing your story I now realize how lucky I am by getting to live peacefully with almost no threat. You have survived what many don’t want to know.
  • I think you really showed all of us how the best version of us can be.
  • We are in an IB school at St. Luke, meaning we have attributes we hold our entire community and student body to. These attributes include Risk-Taker, Communicator, Thinker, Reflective, Principled, etc.  I think you exhibited all of these in your life.
  • I really hope you come back to our school to share your incredible story with the younger graders when they are in 8th I want you to inspire others in St. Luke like you did me.
  • After hearing you speak I discovered how truly oblivious I really was to this awful tragedy. What I took away from hearing your story was that we should “be for things, not against.”  Hearing this really did make me reflect on my life and how I could apply these words to it.  I now have a new perspective on life.
  • Life can be hard to explain, especially for me. My takeaway from your childhood is that I should be thankful for what life is for me today.
  • Even though it was a sad story you still managed to find the humor and happiness. Instead of simply focusing on the bad you chose to remember things like the sugar cube miracle.  You chose to focus on the good and not let the bad dominate your memories of your childhood.
  • You posed a hypothetical question about whether we would help someone else at the risk of ourselves. Teachers have posed questions similar to this but I never truly thought about my answer until you asked it.  Seeing how Leon and his family affected you makes me want to say yes, to be able to have that same affect on someone else.
  • Even with the horrors you went through you still chose to be grateful, happy, and enjoy life. This helps me understand that I shouldn’t dwell on the past but instead look to a better future.  This inspires me to pay more attention to what is happening around me to try and make a difference, however small, in the lives around me.
  • I deeply reflected on how you said that everyone chooses a path in life, whether good or bad. You helped me realize that life can be good, bad, happy, or sad, but in the end it’s us who decide if we will be changed by these outside forces.
  • Your story helped me to connect because you were so young when it all started, whereas reading about the story of an adult didn’t help me fully comprehend what happened.
  • Your story taught me a valuable lesson: to appreciate my life and not complain about what I don’t have, and focus and appreciate what I do have, which is my family, a beautiful home, and a great school.
  • You inspired me to read your book but I never read books. You made me want to read your book.  Not many people can do that.
  • I will forever remember when you said “I hope you choose fairness and wellness over conflict” and also “Do onto others as you want them to do onto you.” I have been told that my entire life and I thought it meant include others and be nice (and it does) but you gave it an entirely new purpose.
  • Your speech inspired me to do good things to other people and not to hurt them.
  • My biggest takeaway is when you talked about people only believing what they want to believe, and your luck. Thank you for the hugs at the end!

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Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma, WA – September 25, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Charles Wright Academy (CWA) was the second of the 2 schools where, on 2 consecutive days in October 2010, I spoke for the first time.  Now it was the 8th consecutive year that I spoke at CWA annual Global Summit which this year consisted of the 75 students of the CWA freshman class plus 23 high school students and 6 teachers from China, Colombia, and Poland.  Missing, unfortunately, was the delegation from Morocco, which cancelled their participation in the Global Summit 2 weeks before their expected arrival.  The reason: the students’ parents did not feel certain that their children would be safe in our country due to the increasing racial, ethnic, and political divisiveness in the United States today.  Considering that there’s active Islamic terrorism in Morocco today, it is sad for us that they (and presumably others) view the situation in our country as being more dangerous.

The Global Summit is a 10-day program designed to promote peace and social justice by exposing the visiting students to and developing their understanding of the concepts of universal human rights, justice, fair trade and sustainable life styles, and by demonstrating how the choices that each of us makes every day can impact the world. The core of the Summit is a series of speakers whose personal experiences reflect directly on these subjects, and their presentations are followed by group discussions on these very concepts. My presentation was the first time that most of these students heard directly from a Holocaust survivor, and their subsequent questions were very deep, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, some asked of me for the first time in more than 140 talks I have given in the last 7 years.

This year’s Global Summit was organized and managed by Ann Vogel, CWA’s International Student Coordinator and Global Summit Coordinator.  She also is one of six Global Ambassadors for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Her son graduated from CWA and her daughter is currently a CWA student.  Ann was assisted by teachers Catalina Lopez and Juan Carlos Mora from Colombia; Karen Yanfang He and Lisa Juan Li from China; Global Summit co-founder Marcin Pasnikowski and Agnieszka Czerwińska from Poland; and CWA teachers Christine Telal, Rafe Wadleigh, and Christina Bertucchi.  CWA teachers and students hosted the visiting delegations.

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Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – August 14, 2017

by George J Elbaum

The Holocaust Center for Humanity (HCH) arranged my very first two talks to students in October 2010, and has continued to arrange many more for my subsequent visits to Seattle.  The Holocaust Center teaches the lessons of the Holocaust, inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity, and take action. The Center reaches 40,000 students a year in schools and communities around the Pacific Northwest with educational resources and programs, and provides immersive learning experiences to thousands of additional students at their museum and education center.

The Holocaust Center’s impressive facility provides not only space for offices but also for the museum and, most importantly, for exhibitions and educational seminars.  One wonderful example of the former is last year’s exhibit Anne Frank – A History for Today which drew audiences of up to 500 per day, while educational seminars are exemplified by the talks I’ve given at HCH in past years and again today.

In addition, by the end of 2017 the Holocaust Center (partnering with the ADL and USHMM) will have trained the entire Seattle Police Department in a program called Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.  This program draws on universal and timely lessons learned from the Holocaust to challenge law enforcement officials to examine their relationship with the public they serve, and to explore issues related to the personal responsibility of officers to administer their authority ethically.

Today’s talk was attended by adults and entire families who have participated in related HCH events, such as HCH’s trip to Poland and its Student Leadership Board, and it also included small groups from the Northwest Communities of Burma and from the King County heritage group, 4Culture.  Several hours after the talk I received an email from one of the attendees with photos that he took during the session and the following wonderful comment: “It was a pleasure meeting you and listening to your story. I think I am speaking for all of us when I say we walked away as more thoughtful human beings.”  Thank you!

The talk was organized by Julia Thompson, HCH’s Education Associate who introduced me to the audience, and attended by Karen Chachkes, Director of External Affairs; Richard Greene, Museum Experience and Technology Director; and Dee Simon, Baral Family Executive Director of the HCH, who opened the event and welcomed the audience.

 

 

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JFCS YouthFirst Internship Program at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – July 10, 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, the alienated and the dependent, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.  Through its YouthFirst Internship Program, JFCS offers internships for high school and college students by placing them in Bay Area firms and allowing them to learn important on-the-job skills.  Supporting these internships are YouthFirst workshops focusing on topics such as office etiquette, responsible work behavior, researching job opportunities, résumé writing, and interviewing skills.

My talk was attended by three dozen students in JFCS YouthFirst Summer Internship Program.  This year the students came from 16 schools in 10 Bay Area cities, and the internship placements included law offices, real estate firms, restaurants, a bakery, an engineering firm, Exploratorium, office of an Assembly Member, the Bar Association, a summer camp, and JFCS itself – obviously a wide range of employments and diverse learning experiences.  The event was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and was attended by Morgan Blum Schneider, Director of Education, JFCS Holocaust Center, Linda Karlin, Director JFCS YouthFirst Program and Leah Shapiro, Program Coordinator JFCS YouthFirst Program.

Notes from YouthFirst Interns

Two weeks after my talk at JFCS with YouthFirst interns I received a large home-made Thank You card with words of appreciation and their signatures, plus individual Thank You notes from the interns.  After reading these notes I excerpted the statements and phrases that particularly resonated with me and these are listed below.

  • Your story was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability in sharing this difficult part of your life.  While many topics you explored are unfathomable to outsiders, the theme of Luck seems universal to me.  Luck is something I grapple with in my own life and it was very interesting to see the way it has affected others.  Again, thank you so much.
  • I know that it must have been difficult for you to open up to complete strangers about the things you endured at such a young age.
  • A lot of us take our lives for granted, which is so wrong because we are so lucky to be where we are. I hope you continue sharing your experiences with people for many, many years to come.
  • Your speech was so inspirational. I almost started to tear up from your story when you started to talk about your luck.
  • I will forever take the memory of your words and pass them on to my children for them to remember.
  • Thank you for sharing your incredible story with us. I am so thankful that I am from a generation that still has an opportunity to hear stories first-hand from survivors like you, and I truly feel that I learned a lot.  Thank you for being so open with us.
  • Thank you for sharing your fascinating and diverse story of your survival, because it is crucial that people hear a more personalized part of the Shoah and can grasp it.
  • You really taught me to believe in luck and that things will work out for the better.
  • By sharing your story, you are not only doing a great mitzvah for the Jewish people, but you also possess the ability to teach and inspire others to promote tolerance and peace, something that no classroom textbook can teach us. I will treasure the moments of meeting people like you forever.

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Facing History and Ourselves, Redwood City, CA – June 29, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Facing History and Ourselves presented this 5-day seminar Democracy at Risk: Holocaust and Human Behavior for teachers of 6-12th grades of U.S. history, world history, humanities, and English language arts, because in today’s world, questions of how to best build and maintain democratic societies that are pluralistic, open, and resilient to violence are more relevant than ever. Studying the Holocaust using Facing History’s approach allows students to wrestle with profound moral questions raised by this history and fosters their skills in ethical reasoning, critical thinking, empathy, and civic engagement—all of which are critical for sustaining democracy.

This seminar features the fully revised, printed edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior which was given to each of the attending teachers.  It was co-facilitated by Facing History’s Jack Weinstein and Sarah Altschul, with support from Brian Fong and Emily Ocon, and was also attended by Facing History’s Board of Directors member, Joyce Reynolds-Sinclair.

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