Gymnazjum No. 11, Warsaw, Poland – May 30, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

During our visit to Warsaw’s Gymnazjum No. 11 it seemed that everything worked so well.  The staff was warm and welcoming, the students were well-prepared and enthusiastic, the library where I spoke was an intimate space with good acoustics, so a microphone was not needed, and we were given beautiful flowers, lovely cards painted by one of the students, plus chocolate-coated plums (my wife Mimi’s favorite) – it all produced a comfortable feeling of a friendly conversation.  After leaving Gymnazjum   No. 11 Mimi and I talked about it being such a gratifying experience.  In short, that’s the best way to describe it!

The event was organized by the school’s Russian teacher Halina Danyluk (with whom I had an enjoyable conversation in Russian) with support from English teacher Marzena Zimnowlodzka, and arranged by teacher Violetta Tarnowska from Gymnazjum No. 3, who attended the whole session.

the audience

starting my talk

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Gimnazjum No. 32, Warsaw, Poland – May 30, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Gimnazjum No. 32 (named after poet Adam Asnyk) is located in Warsaw’s Praga district on the east bank of the Wisla river.  Our first visit to the school was in May 2014, which my wife and I remember very well because of the staff’s warm hospitality and conversation over a delicious family-style Polish lunch. Today’s presentation was organized by the school’s History teacher Slawomir Kaniasty with active support from English teacher Agnieszka Galaszewska.  (Mr. Kaniasty also created a giant GE forming my initials with my books – photo below – that were just published in Polish by the Forum for Dialogue.)

My presentation was attended by Ms. Galaszewska and her students, the school’s Director Renata Wilczynska, and Mr. Kaniasty.  Students and officials from several nearby schools were also invited by Ms. Wilczynska and Mr. Kaniasty, resulting in an audience of approximately 100.

After my presentation and book signing for the students, we were about to leave for the next school and an afternoon presentation but Ms. Wilczynska, a warm and strong-willed person, insisted that we have a quick lunch, and there was no other choice but to agree! (Ms. Wilczynska’s daughter Kasia said that her mother is the same way at home, “a typical Polish mother.” 😊)  We enjoyed all of it and look forward to returning, but next time starting not at 9AM, as today, but at lunchtime.

214

 

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Gimnazjum No. 1, Warsaw, Poland – May 29, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

My presentation at Gimnazjum No. 1 started quite normally, with an audience of approximately 100 students sitting on low benches in their gym, per the photo below.  It also ended quite normally, with many of the students coming to me with vocal thanks and enthusiasm and asking me to autograph my books, also in photos below.  Much of the rest of the talk, however, was a first-time and unexpected experience for me, despite the 130+ talks I’ve given in the preceding 7 years.  Within less than 15 minutes of starting my talk, several small groups of students began using their cell phones, talking audibly and giggling among themselves, girls playing with each other’s hair.  This behavior continued even when I purposely paused, approached the nearest group and continued speaking while looking directly at them.  This show of bad manners and lack of discipline was totally ignored by their teacher, till I finally finished abruptly without asking for any questions.  It was truly a disappointing experience.  However, I do appreciate the students who listened and who talked with me afterwards, and whose photos are below.

 

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Gimnazjum No. 3, Warsaw, Poland – May 29, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Gimnazjum No. 3, named for Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, is located in Mokotow on the southern edge of central Warsaw, only a few blocks from the primary school that I attended before leaving for the U.S. in 1949, so going there for my presentation felt a bit like homecoming.  The event was organized by Violetta Tarnowska, the energetic and idealistic teacher of Polish and English.  Some years ago she noticed that students were becoming less and less aware and interested in Warsaw’s history before and during WWII and she wanted to ensure that they learn and remember it, including that of its pre-war Jewish community (which was 1/3 of Warsaw’s total population) and of the Holocaust.  She therefore welcomed and organized my first talk in her school in May 2014 and invited students from other gimnazjums plus representatives of Warsaw school authorities, resulting in an audience of almost 200.  Because my talk would be in English, I was concerned about the need for translation, but Ms. Tarnowska assured me that most of the students were sufficiently competent in English so only unique words or terms would need translation and she would provide for it.  Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised by the students’ competence in English, and in my brief one-to-one conversations with each student during the book signing I was especially surprised at most students’ comfort in speaking with me.

After her successful organization of my May 2014 presentation Ms. Tarnowska continued her interest in providing a broad and balanced education for her students, so in July 2016 she accepted a month-long internship in Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity to broaden her knowledgeOn her return to Warsaw she launched a project with her students consisting of 1,500 hand-painted stones to commemorate the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, and she personally placed it in the Treblinka Museum in Treblinka.  Then, when I informed her of my interest to return to Warsaw in May 2017 to once again give talks in Warsaw schools, she volunteered to arrange these talks.  The results are the 4 talks that I just concluded in Warsaw: in Gimnazjum No. 3, followed by Gimnazjum No. 1, Gimnazjum No. 32, and Gimnazjum No. 11.  I very much appreciate her excellent efforts, the resulting contacts with so many Warsaw students, and their warm and enthusiastic feedback.

Ms. Tarnowska introduced my presentation in her school, which was also attended by the Gimnazjum’s Headmaster Katarzyna Hampel, English teacher Magdalena Cieslik, Jerzy Iwanski, plus Dr. Sylwia Spurek, Poland’s Deputy Ombudsman, who made an important statement to the audience as part of the introduction.

Introduction by organizing teacher Violetta Tarnowska

Violetta Tarnowska’s introductiion

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Leaders of Dialogue Conference, Bialobrzegi, Poland – May 26, 2017

by George J Elbaum

This post is rather unique for my website because it’s the only one about an event where I didn’t talk but only listened, and I was so impressed by what I learned that I decided to post it.  My wife Mimi and I had just arrived in Warsaw to speak at several schools as arranged by the Forum for Dialogue, and they invited us to the opening dinner of the 5th National Leaders of Dialogue Conference which the Forum organized.  The Leaders of Dialogue was formed by the Forum to connect local activists from across Poland who have been involved in preserving the heritage of Jewish communities that existed in their towns and were annihilated in the Holocaust.  These volunteer activists are Polish, not Jewish, and most of them were unaware of each other, so they welcomed the formation of the Leaders of the Forum and its annual reunion – it made them feel no longer alone in their activism!  I found this very inspiring and accepted the invitation.

The conference’s keynote speaker this year was Marc Skvirsky, an early member of Facing History and Ourselves and now Vice President, and his talk was about Facing History’s activism and educational philosophy.  Marc is from Facing History’s Boston headquarters but I never met him despite my 7 years of connection with Facing History, so I welcomed this opportunity and was very pleased with the personal connection.

A short while before the conference the Forum translated and published my book, turning Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows into Bez wczoraj, bez jutra. The task was led by Jakub Petelewicz and the book’s translator is Anna Brzostowska. The result was excellent, and a copy of the Polish book was given to each of the conference’s 60 attendees, with some after-dinner autographing as usual.  Thank you, Jakub and Anna.

The week-end event was held in Bialobrzegi on Zegrze Lake, an hour’s drive from Warsaw, and immediately prior to the dinner & conference we witnessed a beautiful sunset across the water, which Mimi photographed.

Andrzej Folwarczny, President of the Forum for Dialogue, opens the conference

conference keynote speaker Marc Skvirsky, VP of Facing History

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Downtown Charter Academy, Oakland, CA – May 15, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Downtown Charter Academy (DCA) is a public charter school with 248 students in grades 6 to 8.  Student population is 80% Asian, 15% Hispanic, and 2% each Black and White.

Per its website, “DCA is committed to excellence and academics, demonstrated through its emphasis on structure and student achievement for traditionally underserved urban students. This is accomplished by:

  • Improving the academic achievement of all students
  • Closing the achievement gap of educationally-disadvantaged students
  • Focusing on student attendance
  • Supporting effective educators
  • Providing a structured learning environment
  • Fostering a culture based on honoring hard work”

The proof that this formula works is shown by the students’ academic test scores.  Despite student demographics of 84% low income and 36% Math and 18% English disabilities, GreatSchools.org shows their test scores vs. state averages as:

  • English 75% vs. 48%
  • Math 85% vs. 37%
  • Science 76% vs. 61%

Very, very impressive.

DCA teacher Gabriel Johnson organized the event for the 75 students of his 8th grade class, while Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves arranged it and made the introduction.

Two aspects of this particular presentation stand out in my mind.  First, during the Q&A in the 100+ talks I’ve given to date I’m usually asked to explain my book’s title, Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.   In this case, and for the first time ever, a student (8th grader!) suggested her understanding of the title—that it must be a life philosophy to live in the moment when the past is painful and the future is uncertain…. and she was right!

Next, in response to a question about how my mother succeeded in getting us out of the ghetto, the specifics of which I do not know, Jack Weinstein was able to provide historical context about the role of children in the smuggling of food and other items and the role of adults involved in “black market” smuggling of both goods and people—so that perhaps my mother’s sources were connected to one or the other of these categories of smugglers. He told the students that children of their own age were sometimes able to exit and re-enter the ghetto through small openings under the Ghetto’s walls to retrieve food scraps and bring these back into the Ghetto where people were starving. This was a high risk activity, and children who engaged in smuggling were in great danger. People involved in the illicit activities of the black market were also taking high risks, sometimes for altruistic reasons, and sometimes for personal gain. The moral questions raised by this information, including the “gray areas” about right and wrong, can add an important element to my story. The combination of personal and general history can motivate young people to learn from different perspectives and to honor the complexity of both the personal stories and the larger history.

Jack Weinstein’s introduction

my talk

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Lighthouse Community Charter High School, Oakland, CA – May 12, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Lighthouse Community Charter High School, founded in 2002, is a public charter school in East Oakland and serves 750 students in grades K-12, with 214 students in grades 9-12.  The school is located in a light industrial park near the Oakland airport.  Because of its high population of low-income students of color (83% Hispanic, 9% Black, 3% Asian, 2% White) and 80% participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program, the school’s test scores are rated by Great Schools Ratings in “Test scores for low income students” and receive a 9-out-of-10.  These are compared to state averages as follows: English Proficiency — 81% vs. 44%; Math Proficiency — 48% vs. 33%; Graduation Rate for low-income students — 82% vs. 79%; and graduates completing the necessary requirements to be eligible for UC/CSU — 98% vs. 42%.  Furthermore,  95% of Lighthouse graduates, almost all of whom are first-generation in their families to attend college, are accepted into four-year colleges.  Lighthouse was named the Hart Vision California Charter School of the Year in 2013, and the #1 Bay Area high school for closing the achievement gap for low-income Latino students in 2016 by Innovate Public Schools.   All very impressive!

I first visited Lighthouse on March 21, 2016 and it was a memorable experience for me.  For the previous 6 years of giving talks in schools, all questions during the Q&A dealt with the subject of my talks: my Holocaust childhood and adulthood.  Yet the first question asked by a Lighthouse student on March 21, 2016 (early in the US Presidential campaign) was whether the campaign of Donald Trump had similarities to that of Hitler’s in the 1930s.  I was amazed and impressed that current US politics were of such impact and concern to a high school student as to reach back 80+ years into a shameful period of European history and ask me for a comparison.  Since that visit, I’ve spoken in 40 other schools and the question of the Trump-Hitler comparison has been asked more and more often, including today again at Lighthouse.  However, for me it started at Lighthouse a year ago.

Teacher Catherine Cole organized my presentation for her 11th grade students who have been studying the Holocaust by reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and doing term projects on resistance during the Holocaust, including case studies such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the White Rose, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the Edelweiss Pirates and Bishop Clemens von Galen.  In attendance also were Lighthouse teachers Sherman Moore, Charles Wagner, and Zachary Harrington.

Sarah Altschul of Facing History and Ourselves arranged today’s presentation and made the introduction.  She was accompanied by a new Facing History colleague, Hadiya McCullough.

Letters from students

A couple of weeks after my visit to Lighthouse a pack of notes/cards arrived in my mailbox, all made by the students with fanciful drawings, cut-outs, etc. (see photo below).  However, we had just left for Poland where a series of talks had been arranged for me in 7 schools, and where my book had just been translated & published in Polish.  After returning home, still jet-lagged, my wife Mimi & I read all of them, excerpted those sentences or phrases which really resonated with us because of their sensitivity or empathy, and the results are below.

  • I like that you said “always be for something, not against something.
  • Live the moment. Not the past.
  • The part that stuck with me the most is when you said: “Don’t let anyone discourage you, and keep an open mind.” This one quote especially stuck with me because it has motivated me to follow my dreams and continue to pursue them no matter what anyone else says to me.
  • Thank you for showing me the real sacrifice you and your mother had to go through to survive. This made me appreciate my family and be grateful to have what I have.
  • Your words “Then I realized my story has value” was really powerful. I thought how everyone’s story has value and that life discourages many of us to never get a chance to share them.
  • I hope someday I will be able to tell my story. I am a survivor too like you.  I come from a town in Mexico where many families like mine had to move from town to town to cities to be safe and stay alive.  I lost many family members, like you.  I’m able to connect with you in some parts of your life.  In Mexico I had to change my name too until I came to the U.S.  I started a new life, I learned a new language, a new culture.  I learned so much from you on Friday.
  • Your words “Don’t let anyone discourage you” inspire me & motivate me to work hard.
  • The question about Hitler’s campaign compared to today’s political climate was refreshing because we are not only the events of our past but also the actions and thoughts of today.
  • LUCK is all you need when nothing else works!
  • The thing that I will always remember is the sugar cube scene. It was such a strong scene for me because that sugar cube was the first real taste of freedom.  It actually left a good taste in my mouth.
  • Your story has taught me more than the books have ever taught me about the Holocaust.
  • Thank you for motivating me to push through school to be someone.
  • Thank you for not only sharing your story but also that of your mother, whose strength and wits remind me of my own mother, which made me connect with you that much more.
  • I can connect to your story when you said that your mom worked with fake ID and papers because my family did the same.
  • The ultimate personal question of what type of person I want to be in this world, an upstander, bystander or perpetrator, is something I think about every day.
  • Your story really made me think about my hardships and how they’ve made me the young woman I am today. I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to forget the past, but your story and reflection of your past has made me want to accept my past.
  • I’d like to start opening up more about the events I’ve lived through so the people around me can get to know me better and so I can get to living without any unwanted baggage.
  • You and your wife make a beautiful couple, and the small part of your relationship that I saw is so beautiful. I admire that so much, and I hope to have that type of support from my future soulmate😊

introduction by Facing History’s Sarah Altschul

with the audience

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