Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA (again) – May 13, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,800 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 9th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust.  This year, however, it was unfortunately not face-to-face but via the internet and Zoom, with each student at their computer at home, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restricted all of us to our homes.  Looking at my web posts of previous visits to Arroyo, with dozens & dozens of photos of students and remembering the brief but memorable chats with students & teachers, I look forward to a real rather than virtual visit to Arroyo next year.

This year’s virtual “visit” was organized by teacher Jorja Santillan, who organized my actual (non-virtual) visits to Arroyo since 2012, so this was the 12th annual “visit” in a row.  Although this “virtual” class was much smaller than her classes to which I spoke directly in past years, I still observed how Jorja’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the history and ramifications of the Holocaust.   In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories, and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive.  I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”

Letters from students

A week or so after the virtual session I received a dozen++ letters from the students who attended it  (and several who didn’t), read the letters, excerpted statements which resonated with me, and these excerpts are shown below.

  • I was not in the virtual meeting and it’s such a shame. I wish I had the chance to hear your story but reading some of your memoir, I can kind of get a preview to who you are. Your story is remarkably inspirational.  Was the feeling of escaping and coming to the United states too good to be true?
  • Getting insight and details from someone who was actually there is so different from reading in books.  You feel like you were actually there and it terrifies you how horrific it truly was. You find yourself treating life better because it’s something not to be taken for granted.
  • It’s good to see that instead of hiding what you went through and keeping it to yourself you are teaching people about the Holocaust and bringing awareness to it so that something like that never happens again. That is very inspiring and it makes me reflect on my life.
  • Your story inspired me in many ways, it showed me to never give up.The title of your book has such great meaning to me now. It has shown me to not think about what will happen tomorrow or in a couple of weeks but about today and what I will do today to make  it a good day with the people I love the most.
  • Life is something to be celebrated and I find it very good that you are using yours to share your experience and story with the world.
  • You were able to turn the bad memory to inspire other people.
  • I now have a different perspective on my freedom – in our generation right now we tend to take that for granted.
  • Your experience made me realize how lucky I am.
  • I notice that when it comes to obstacles in life people never forget them but when everything is going smoothly and we try to remember a specific day it seems almost impossible.
  • You made me realize that I have a lot to be thankful for and appreciate. I take things such as food for granted when many people are dying from starvation.
  • Thank you for sharing your experiences with us as it opens many minds and hearts. I never expected to feel the crush in my chest while reading what you had gone through.
  • I couldn’t have imagined the trauma and sadness you have much had buried beneath all your strength.
  • I love how you look at the positive side of things even after all the negative things that happened. Thank you for telling your story.
  • It was so inspirational to me how you used a dark time in your life to inspire others.
  • Your story inspired me because even though you went through hell, you were able to fight and not give up.

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College Park High School, Pleasant Hill, CA – May 1, 2020

by George J Elbaum

College Park High School has a current enrollment of 2022 students of which 50% are minority and 22% are economically disadvantaged.  Despite these demographics, it is far above California state average of college and career readiness, such as student test scores (English 74% vs. 51% CA average and Math 48% vs. CA average) and 97% graduation rate.  It is therefore rated 9/10 by GreatSchools.org and USNews.com.

This presentation to College Park 10th-12th grade students was organized by World History teacher Lauren Weaver, who also organized last year’s presentation.  Her students have studied WWII and the Holocaust, and were therefore aware of governmental persecution in Germany in the 1930s, including targeted boycotts, the Nuremberg Laws, planned stages of identification and separation in Ghettos, acts of violence such as Kiristallnacht, and eventual removal of Jews to concentration and death camps.  The main difference in my presentation this year was that starting in March, all classes were held online rather than on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so I spoke to 70+ students via Zoom vs. several hundred last year.  The main contact with the students was via the typed-in chats that Zoom allows, but unfortunately no real-time feedback from the students, and obviously no photographs.  I missed that feedback and look forward to returning to College Park and Lauren Weaver’s class next year.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator at the Holocaust Center of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Emails from students

Following the Zoom session several students responded with short messages, and I’ve excerpted the comments which most strongly resonated with me and listed these below.

  • I am really happy that you turned an awful memory into a turning point to inspire others.
  • Your story about a high school counselor telling you that you were not smart enough to pursue your dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer really resonated with me, because I have been told something similar.
  • What I learned from your story is that you should never feel sorry for yourself because you never know what someone else is going through, which could be worse.
  • It is such a blessing that you are still here today to share your story.
  • (from an immigrant) Even though I survived, I would not be able to be as calm as you and share with others. It’s a grey memory that I don’t want to remember.  Thank you very much for sharing.  Hope you stay safe.
  • It was inspiring to hear how you were able to survive as a young child and still stay optimistic after seeing the horrors you have been through. I hope life brings you many joys to come, and you continue to share and bring awareness to your story.  Again, thank you for sharing something that this generation will hopefully never have to face themselves.
  • I don’t think I realized how families were affected by the end of the war and the return of the soldiers after the Holocaust, and just the state of cities and towns they returned to.
  • It’s truly incredible the amount you’ve seen and been through and to come out and speak of your experiences. I want to let you know that it opens my eyes to a perspective of life and death that makes me so appreciative.  Thank you.
  • I feel very grateful that I was able to listen to you. It really helped me to hear what you personally went through and made it easier to connect what I had learned in our readings.  I feel more educated about the Holocaust now than by just reading and watching the films.
  • It opened my eyes and said ” wow this man made it through the worst thing in human history”.
  • I really liked how you put us in your shoes, even though you were very young and don’t remember much. It must be hard to talk about it
  • Your presentation opened my eyes about how living in secrecy and fear changed your views on life. I admire how you look at the positive side of all the negative that had happened and stayed true to yourself.
  • My Polish great, great grandfather was sent to Auschwitz, and then transferred to Mauthausen. Eventually, he was liberated by Americans, and he thanked an American in a tanker. The crazy thing was my mother actually worked with a relative of that American.

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – April 28, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,800 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 9th consecutive year that I have spoken to its 10th grade students studying the Holocaust.  This year, however, it was unfortunately not face-to-face but via the internet and Zoom, with each student at their computer at home, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restricted all of us to our homes.  Looking at my web posts of previous visits to Arroyo, with dozens & dozens of photos of students and remembering the brief but memorable chats with students & teachers, I look forward to a real rather than virtual visit to Arroyo next year.

This year’s virtual “visit” was organized by teacher Jess Vaughn, who had participated in several of my previous visits to Arroyo, and I was truly impressed by the quality of the students’ questions: they were perceptive, sensitive, and mature.  I view students’ questions as a reflection not only of the students themselves but also of the teaching, so it was obvious that Jess Vaughn prepared her class very well.  (In Student Questions, most of the dozen from #3 thru #14 were asked at this session.)

The event was arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

Students’ post-talk comments & questions 

If Mr. Elbaum could give advice to the world about how to deal with hate and prejudice, what would he say?  I don’t think that hate and prejudice can be eliminated totally as these are part of human nature, despite 6000+ years of civilization, but each of us can do our share to decrease them by following the Golden Rule, which is treating others as we would want to be treated, and by raising our children to do the same. 

I honestly thought that the ghettos were more comfortable and habitable than what George explained, but when he told us there were starving people and people dying then it definitely changed my mind.

Hearing his story being told by himself was a very fulfilling experience and I think what he does is great. 

It definitely helps me have more empathy for survivors of the Holocaust. They experienced years of pain and suffering that no human being should ever have to go through. I’m very appreciative of Mr. Elbaum for taking time out of his life to share his experiences with us.

How hard was it to start a new life?  Since I was moved as a child from one family of strangers to another, starting a “new life” was traumatic the first few times, and then it became almost a “normal” part of my life.  That pattern continued until I came to America in 1949. 

Terrible moments in history like the Holocaust, should never, ever be repeated again in the future.  (Unfortunately, “should” has little meaning in history of mankind.)

How does his experience with the Holocaust affect his everyday life?  The title of my book, “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows”, answers this question: as a child I learned instinctively to forget the pains of Yesterdays and not to look to Tomorrows because I never knew when or whether I would see my mother again.  I therefore focus on the today, knowing from experience that I will address tomorrow when it arrives.

His mother dyed her hair blond so she wouldn’t be suspected of being Jewish.  I wonder if that was painful for her to see part of her identity leave?  Did she feel empty?  Whereas I had never asked her about this specifically, I suspect that she focused on its necessity for survival rather than a feeling of “identity”.  I’ve been asked a similar question about having to change my last name several times, and I apparently learned for emotional survival that my identity was not in my last name but what’s inside of me.  

Learning about Mr Elbaum’s story shows me that the strength resides in your ability to be resilient and strive for change.

This helps me understand that thing was not a joke and people died for nothing.  (I presume “that thing” means the Holocaust, and I am stunned!) 

 Learning his story affects the way I see the world because it shows how demonic the world can really be.  I know that the Holocaust was a long time ago, but glimpses of it are still present in the world today, such as discrimination, racism, hatred. 

It makes me wonder how people can be so cruel, and how people can be so dehumanizing with no everlasting effect on how they are to society or how their ideas aren’t rejected.  (Apparently one can find kindred spirits in kindness & charity, but also in cruelty & prejudice.)

By learning Mr. Elbaum’s story, I am able to see the great lengths that a guardian may go for the well-being of their child as well as the strength one must obtain under such challenging times. (These words would have pleased my mother very, very much!) 

Humans can be easily corrupted under the sense of false superiority; the lust for power can drive a person to forgo their morals and undertake inhumane actions.  There are times where anyone can lose sight of their path, blinded by the aspirations of others. 

The meeting was very meaningful.  As a person, I see that there is more to life and only so much time.  I plan to make the most out of life, even if there are others that do not wish the same for me.  The world can be cruel, yet kindness and care prevail. 

How many people escaped the camps?  Very few people escaped, but the importance is in how many millions were killed!

I would have liked to have more time and listen to more of George’s story.

I am grateful that our English class got to hear him speak about his very heartfelt experience.  Telling a story about a traumatic event in history must be hard, so I appreciate him for that. 

It helps me to understand that prejudice towards a certain race, religion, or community is not acceptable. 

After learning his story, it changed the way I saw children in different societies.  I understood that most families have different luxuries and lifestyles, but seeing what other children had to go through without choice, makes me feel spoiled and very lucky to be in my position.

How long did it take Mr. Elbaum and other survivors to finally speak on this very hard topic and what made them want to do it?  It took me 65 years from the end of the war till I could write my book and start speaking about the Holocaust, and it was a documentary film, “Paper Clips,” that made me realize that my story has value.  I was then surprised to learn that most survivors who do it, do so only when old.

 I was moved by your story and I admire your resolve and your golden rule to treat others with respect like you would like to be treated.

Thinking that my generation may be the last to hear from a Holocaust survivor such as yourself make me want to hold on to your story.  History repeats itself when old events are forgotten, and I do not want the atrocities spoken of to happen in the future.  Keep doing what you do, I appreciate you and I think you inspire everyone you share your story with.

Thank you for speaking to our class about your experience during the Holocaust and how it affected you.  People like you are what inspire change in the world.

You’ve been through a lot of hardship, yet you use those experiences to grow and to teach others.  Some people who have been through difficult situations may not learn from them, they just stew or take their pain out on others and that’s the exact opposite of what you have done.

Many people try to deny that racism and oppression still exists, but it does.  We need to constantly have conversations about it so that we can move forward.  People like you inspire my generation to stand up for what we know is right.

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Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – April 21, 2020

by George J Elbaum

My very first talk was on Yom Hashoah ten years ago, April 10, 2010, organized by MIT Hillel at the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  It was a painful experience, but immediately afterwards I was encouraged by the audience to “Keep doing this!”, and today, 10 years later, this is my 260th talk.  It was organized by Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity as part of its Yom Hashoah commemoration.  Of necessity it, was presented online via video Zoom because of the currently ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  On the other hand, being online made it much easier to attend than a physical event, and the Zoom tally showed an audience of 500+.

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3gSF Jewish Family and Children’s Services, San Francisco, CA – April 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

3gSF is a group formed by the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and my talk was organized by Penny Savryn, the Center’s Program Coordinator.  Of necessity, it was not presented in person but online via video Zoom because of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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American Technion Society, NY, NY – March 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

This talk was not presented in person but online via Zoom video for the staff of the American Technion Society, all working from their homes as necessitated by the current COVID-19 pandemic requiring “sheltering in place.”

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Beacon Academy, Boston, MA – February 27, 2020 PM

by George J Elbaum

Beacon Academy (Beacon) is a 14-month school between 8th and 9th grades designed to close the achievement gap for a cadre of Boston’s bright and determined students and prepare them for high school.  It was founded in 2005 to address under-education in Boston by creating a “jump year” between 8th and 9th grades for a small group of bright, motivated Boston area 8th graders eager to escape the downward spiral of education failures, economic dependence, and social challenges that low-income students face.  It’s founding vision was to give these students the academic, social, and emotional tools they would need to earn scholarships at competitive independent high schools around New England and achieve success in high school, college, and into their first careers.  With its slogan, “Opportunity Earned”, Beacon is the only school of its kind in the country.

How well has Beacon performed this mission in the 15 years since its founding is shown in the following impressive statistics:

  • $62 Million in Scholarships: Its 269 graduates have earned over $62 million in scholarship funding from independent high schools and colleges. ($4 million scholarship funding earned collectively by class of 2019.)
  • 99% Graduation Rate: 99% of the students in Beacon’s first ten classes have graduated from high school.  (2-4 years gained in academic proficiency and 21 percental points average SAT score increase.)
  • 80% are School Leaders: More than 80% of its graduates hold leadership positions in high school in athletics, student government, clubs, and more. Several have been class presidents. Many win academic and/or leadership awards.
  • 75% College Matriculation: Of its 138 graduates of college age or older, 75% are currently enrolled in or have graduated from college, 10% plan to return to complete their degree thanks to the work of our College Completion Project, and the 15% who do not plan to receive a 4-year degree are working full-time or pursuing alternate paths such as military careers.
  • 95% Stay Connected: Almost all of Beacon’s students stay connected to Beacon and to each other through participation at alumni events or direct contact with Beacon staff and peers.

My talk to the current class of 20 students was organized by Dreme Flynt, Facing History & Ourselves Teacher and Beacon’s Recruitment & Co-Curricular Manager, and supported by Marsha Feinberg, Beacon’s Co-Founder and also a member of Facing History’s New England Advisory Board.  Arrangements for this talk were made by Facing History’s Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith, who have been arranging my talks in the Boston area for many years.

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Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School, South Easton, MA – February 27, 2020 AM

by George J Elbaum

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School  (Southeastern) is a public high school with a high diversity enrollment of 1,416 students in grades 9-12 offering a diverse range of educational, vocational and technical programs.  The school’s multi-pronged education takes a hands-on approach to learning, integrating academic course work with vocational and technical education.  This approach  has  proven to be successful in educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s challenges in an environment that teaches through example.

Southeastern’s offerings are divided into Academic and Vocational/Technical Programs.  The academic program offers a full and rigorous series of academic classes which are kept small to foster critical thinking and exposure to honors-level content.  Academics in a 21st century vocational school are developed to ensure that students have equal opportunities for college and career success. Such offerings include AP courses, honors level courses, dual enrollment courses and virtual high school courses.

The vocational/technical program offers a choice of 22 specialized vocational courses to prepare its students in a wide variety of professions, ranging from Advanced Manufacturing & Welding to Video & Performing Arts; from Automotive Technology to Dental and Medical and Nurse Assisting; from Computer & Electronic Engineering to Natural & Life Sciences; and from Cosmetology and Culinary Arts to Marketing & Entrepreneurship – a truly wide choice for students.

My talk was to 12th graders taking a year-long class of Facing History – Holocaust and Human Behavior taught by Social Studies teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch, who expertly organized my presentation (including pre-talk details and post-talk photos).  The students have been learning about the Holocaust since September and therefore have quite of bit of background based on Facing History pedagogy plus material from Echoes & Reflections, Yad Vashem, USHMM and many other resources.  While Amy’s credentials in Holocaust education are quite impressive (Recipient of Facing History MSS and TOLI Grants, Yad Vashem Int’l and Upstander Academy Educator, Jan Karski Institute and USHMM Scholar, etc ), I was most impressed by her firm yet gentle manner with her students.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves, whose presence and pre-and-post-talk conversation always add much to my gratification.

Distance Learning

Within three weeks after my talk at Southeastern the spreading coronavirus has caused Massachusetts schools to close, and along with other schools Southeastern transferred its teaching from classrooms to online.  As an example of this, teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch sent me her March 26, 2020 assignment for her students, which she based on my talk at the school.  Starting with the link to my web post about the school, she instructed the students to “read about Southeastern, check out the photos and the excerpts from your thank you letters.”  Then she laid out a very imaginative assignment that would bring out the students’ creativity.  I was so impressed by this assignment that I asked and received her permission to add it to my web post, below.

“Your Assignment – 

  • Write a response to one of your classmates’ excerpts.
  • Write a thank you note to one of your classmates for their insights.
  • Write a thank you note to George, especially if you did not write a first one.
  • Write a thank you note to one of your teachers.
  • Write a thank you to one of your family members. 
  • Write a note to George about what is happening to you now and connections to his story. 

Your writing must be a minimum of 300 words, but feel free to write as much as you want.“

Student Letters

A couple weeks after my visit to Southeastern I received a large envelope with 56 letters from the students.  As usual, my wife Mimi and I read all of them, with my Mimi reading each one aloud while I listened and absorbed, and we would excerpt those phrases or sentences that resonated with us.  From reading these it was obvious that teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch organized an excellent in-depth discussion with her students about my presentation, because the letters were thoughtful and personal and empathetic, and the students were obviously engaged – signs of students responding to an excellent teacher!  Our excerpts are below.

  • Even at such a young age you were so brave when you spoke about repressing sad memories. It made me think about how optimistic you are, how you only focus on the good.  You inspire me!
  • I know you have spoken tons of times to share your story, but I could hear the sadness in your voice, and once again thought back to what you really went through, and I want to say I’m sorry.
  • Even with such a traumatic experience at such a young age, you flourished and made the best out of your life, and that makes me happy.
  • The world can be cruel and people can be thoughtless, but there are people out there who are willing to do anything just to make the world a better place.
  • I really enjoyed your presentation and how you made your experiences come to life.
  • The photos that corresponded with your story were just as heart wrenching as the story itself.
  • I thank you for answering my questions and how you answered them. I learned so much from you.  You are a true role model.
  • The part that put things in perspective is when you said don’t ever let someone ruin your dream. If you want something in life you have to work hard for it.  I will always keep that statement in my life because everything in life doesn’t come for free and you have to work for what you want.
  • Being able to see you and hear your story affected me on a whole different level. Because I was able to see you, being tangible, I felt as if I was there with you when the Germans invaded.
  • I thank you for what you do. I hope you continue to touch the hearts of everyone you speak to and help them experience life from your shoes through your powerful story.
  • Going through and making your dreams come true is inspiring.
  • You taught a great lesson to not give up and to follow your dreams no matter the time or what others say.
  • Your question was would you take in a child or someone that was Jewish during the Holocaust. For a second I thought: would someone do it for me?  To be honest, who knows!
  • I wish things went differently with your family members, wish they could see how much of a success story you became.
  • Even through you are from a completely different era, I was still able to connect with you and them as if you are our age.
  • It felt like I was able to take a journey in your shoes.
  • It doesn’t matter what skin color I or people are, or what religion everyone is, at the end of the day we all pee and bleed the same.
  • I would risk my life to save a Jew, because if it ever came down to it, I would want someone to do the same for me.
  • Empathy is something everyone should practice – that was my favorite take away from everything you said.
  • I have had moments where I just felt like giving up and that there is no life at the end of the tunnel, but you were in a horrific situation but you stayed strong, and in the end you survived. So thank you for that.
  • Your story makes me think about how lucky I am that I have everything I have now.
  • You spoke very little about your father. I’m so sorry that you didn’t have the chance to get to know him and have him teach you the things a dad would.
  • I’ve always wanted to go hang gliding, but after what happened to you I’m terrified to go now because I’m extremely clumsy.
  • I’m so happy with what you do. Speaking out from school to school, people to people, sharing your personal moments.  That’s a big deal.  You change people’s lives, your story opens their eyes.
  • We owe a lot to the people of the past.
  • You touch people’s hearts and change people’s mindsets and ways of thinking.
  • Your book was very emotional to me, but extremely motivational because it helps me not to take things for granted. I’ll gladly say that you’ve inspired me to do all it takes to be the best man I can be.
  • Thank you for opening my eyes about myself and how you can save a life.
  • People tell me to never let what people say put me down, and it never really meant anything to me. But when you said it, it had weight to it.  Thank you.
  • You are one of the few people who faced a horrible thing and turned it into a dream, such as seeing the Nazi plane. You wanted to be free and fly and you made it happen.
  • My great-grandmother served in the war as a nurse. I remember hearing stories about the way that soldiers and civilians were treated and vowing to myself to never treat another human the way they were treated.  It is something I have lived by.
  • I encourage you to keep sharing our stories to other people. This helps the world to think about their life choices and how to not repeat history.
  • I loved how personal and one to one you wanted to get with all the students, how you kind of instantly became everyone’s friend.
  • P.S. If you ever go hang gliding again don’t hit the mountain, and remember that there are 3 strikes in baseball 🙂

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Fletcher Middle School, Palo Alto, CA – February 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Fletcher Middle School has a diverse enrollment of 715 students in grades 6-8 and has earned high rankings by NICHE:  A+ Overall and in Academics, and 6th place among 2,575 Best Public Middle Schools in California, with student proficiency of 84% in reading and 79% in math.  The school is named after Ellen Fletcher, who was an inspirational civic leader in Palo Alto, but also a survivor of the Kindertransport, who at age 10 in 1939 was sent for her safety by her parents from Nazi Germany to a foster home in England.  This truly resonated with me, as I was sent at age 8 in 1947 for my safety by my mother from Poland to Palestine (though an accident in France sent me back to Poland).

My talk to 225 7th graders was organized by English teacher Nerissa Wong-VanHaren.  The students were well prepared, having read Diary of Anne Frank and studied propaganda, scapegoating, Nazi concentration camps, and current day antisemitism.  The students even prepared a stack of questions on 3×5 cards, but unfortunately my talk was delayed by 15+ minutes until the students settled in the auditorium, so even with shortening my talk there was enough time for only one question.  This was disappointing, as the Q&A is most important because it allows the students to express what they did or didn’t understand and what interests them.  However, several students managed to approach me afterwards with questions (including Rap asking about my most embarrassing baseball story), hand shakes and thank you’s, so I felt that my message was heard.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of JFCS Holocaust Center.

Letters from students

Shortly after my very first talk 10 years ago I started receiving packs of letters written by the students at the school where I had spoken recently and sent to me by the teacher who had organized my visit.  My wife Mimi and I were so impressed by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of some of these letters that we started reading the letters together, excerpting statements that particularly resonated with us, and adding these statements to the text that I had previously written and posted for that school on my website.  Not all teachers organized the discussions that led to letter writing, and if I had not received student letters within several weeks after my talk I would know that none would be forthcoming.

However, a couple of weeks ago I received unexpectedly 187 Thank You! notes from Fletcher 7th graders via JFCS Holocaust Center.  I was obviously quite surprised, as all were dated within a few days of my February 20 talk at the school, so 7 months ago!  As I was quite busy, only today could I finish reading all 187 notes and excerpting and uploading the statements below.  In reading these notes I was surprised by the maturity and sensitivity exhibited in many of them, especially as these were written by 7th graders.

  • Thank you for having the courage to dig up such best-forgotten memories for the sake of a bunch of middle schoolers.
  • Media tends to diminish our thoughts about deaths, but your first-hand account brought it into perspective for us.
  • Your talk compelled me to start working on my dreams.
  • Your story really inspired me to care for others, and to pursue my dreams when I am older. I too came from a poor place in the Philippines and was living in a ghetto, but not as bad as your place.
  • Your story really touched me because I had family that died during the Holocaust.
  • I felt awestruck every time you showed a new picture, and extremely inspired by your mother’s brave actions to keep you safe. To say I appreciate you for being able to speak about a horrible tragedy so well is an understatement.  Again, merci et au revoir.
  • Before you came to speak the Holocaust seemed unreal – how could someone hate some others so much? But after you spoke it seemed real, the death, the bad conditions, the fight to stay alive.  Your story brings the Holocaust to life.
  • Words cannot describe how moving and touching it was for me. You showed our school how to remain optimistic in dire situations and how not to dwell on the bad memories.
  • While you were speaking I felt how lucky I am not to experience what you did. Thank you for what you’ve done for the children of this school.
  • I learned that life isn’t easy and that you should keep trying.
  • I liked your speech so much! I could listen to it more.  I learned to stand up against bullies, and to help people.  I will never forget your speech.
  • I felt so guilty knowing that any of those terrible things happened to so many innocent people.
  • In class, I notice it’s difficult for people to latch on and truly understand the suffering of the Jewish population. Continue sharing, it can change lives.
  • Your story was surprisingly relevant today, with racism, homophobia, and still anti-Semitism. It would often seem as if this is all gone today, but you can still see the remains of this injustice.  Too many people in this world still feel that they are above others solely due to race, gender, religion, sexuality, and so many more.  I hope your speeches connect to people around the world and help our generation lower the amount of hatred everywhere.
  • I felt horrified and embarrassed to be human when I hear about the Holocaust and what the Nazis did to all of the innocent Jews and people.
  • Besides talking about the Holocaust you also told us to follow our dreams, and don’t let anyone drag you down. I think you have set a great role model for all of us.
  • I think you are doing stuff that empowers others, and it requires great personal strength.
  • Knowing that pure luck saved your life on multiple occasions sent chills up my spine. People say that this was a time of the past, but the people who survived it are still alive.  I really felt a depth to this situation.  Thank you again for coming to visit.
  • I felt honored to hear you speak and I thank you with all of my heart.
  • I felt so sad for all the children who didn’t get to experience life and see new things.
  • I felt nervous during your stories. I appreciate your coming.
  • I learned how to be optimistic during tough times. I felt compelled to chase my dreams.
  • Your talk was very moving because you had such bright hope at such a dark time of your life.
  • I felt very grateful for the life that I live and now look at things differently.
  • Your experience reminded me that everyone has a story, but some might have lost the chance to tell it.
  • From the moment you started speaking you had us, the audience, riveted. You helped me see what it was like to be there at that time, and I appreciate your being willing to share your story.  Thank you.
  • I learned how lucky we are not to have to endure that horror.
  • I felt at the moment when you were speaking I was nervous. It felt like some kind of metaphor for how Jews were looked down upon.
  • I felt very emotional during your presentation because it changed my mindset, and I realized how awful it really was.
  • I felt very sad and even afraid. Every word that you said, I imagined what it would be like if I was in these situations as you were.
  • The way that you described everything made me feel like I was there experiencing everything you did.

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Thornton High School, Daly City, CA – February 11, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Thornton High School is a public, alternative school with current attendance of 124 students, primarily in grades 11-12, and its continuation program is designed to provide the opportunity for students to earn academic credits and meet the requirements for a high school diploma.  In a broader sense, Thornton’s mission is to build an educational community which would reintegrate at-promise students into educational, social and community activities and to develop feelings of self-worth, tolerance and community awareness, thus becoming productive and responsible citizens.  To foster community involvement, for example, students must complete at least 75 hours of community service and earn elective credits.  Students are referred to Thornton for a variety of reasons; each has his or her own story on what obstacle(s) got in the way of staying on credit track to graduate on time. With collaboration between the students themselves, families, staff, and community, the majority thrive at Thornton and earn enough credits to graduate on time. Several even end up graduating early, helped by smaller class sizes, increased teacher-student-family contact, individualized instruction, and the ability to earn credit in a variety of ways.

This was my second visit to Thornton, and it was arranged and organized by English teacher Fernanda Morales for 11th and 12thgrade students.  As last year, she preceded my talk by leading the students in reciting the Daily Affirmation (see photos below).

Letters from students

Within 3+ weeks from my visit to Thornton on February 11, our world changed from the “normal” that we knew to the Covid-19 pandemic world, with shelter-in-pace, lockdowns, face masks, and daily statistics on growing rates of infection and death.  It is now 5 months later, and our world is still changing as the deadly Covid-19 pandemic is still with us, and a new “normal” is still ahead of us, perhaps months, perhaps years away.

It is in this changed world that I received yesterday a pack of letters from Thornton teacher, Fernanda Morales, and her students, reflecting on my February talk and their subsequent class discussion about it.  My wife Mimi and I read these letters together after last night’s dinner, highlighted statements or phrases that resonated with us, and I will now excerpt these and add them to the webpost which I added to my website http://www.neitheryesterdays.com some 5 months ago.  I hope to visit Thornton again next year, and I can only wonder how different will our world be then from what we remember about February 11, 2020.

  • Your story made me feel like I could accomplish anything. It was important to me because you inspired me by facing all those odds and still managing to come out on top.
  • I remember the word “luck” coming from you and that sparked a change in my critical thinking of life. Maybe luck is real but we don’t know yet, maybe there is a whole other meaning in “luck.”  Maybe it doesn’t come out of nowhere, maybe it is there with you for a reason.
  • Your story was riveting but so is your message of tolerance and acceptance.
  • A way I can improve my life with your story is to appreciate what is currently happening around me and not to hold on to hate from the past.
  • When I heard you talk about real traumatic experiences, it made me think twice and appreciate my little problems and have a more positive outlook for my life and future. Thank you for giving us a deeper look than books into the Holocaust and your story and life.
  • I focus on the future and not the past, and it helps me to achieve what I am aiming for.
  • Thank you, George, for opening my mind to your stories throughout this tragic event in history. Your time is very much appreciated.
  • Thank you for sharing your story with us. It was very interesting and inspiring, but also very sad.
  • Something that I took away from meeting you and learning about your experience is a different perspective on life. The way that life can change instantly and how fragile it is, is so overlooked.  After you shared your story, I’ve noticed the little things in my life and now cherish things more than before.

Letter from teacher

  • I have to tell you that this time, your story resonated with me differently than the first time. It touched me on another level – as a mother.  I began to think of my son and what in the world I would do if I had to leave him in the hands of another to be cared for.  I can not even begin to think of how devastated and afraid I would be if I found myself in that situation.  I know I have not met your mother, but I truly admire her for her bravery, intelligence and drive.
  • I also definitely needed the reminder to cherish the gift of today.  Life is too short to dwell on the negativity of the past and to focus so much on planning life that we forget to live life.
  • I remembered the realization that I don’t expect to reach every single one of my students. I simply plant the seeds.  However, those of which I receive the gift of seeing them blossom, I am extremely thankful and once again reminded of why I teach.  I absolutely love my job and for that I am also thankful!

most of the class

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