XXX Liceum Ogolnoksztalcace im. Jana Sniadeckiego, Warsaw, Poland – June 3, 2019 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

XXX Liceum Ogolnoksztalcace im. Jana Sniadeckiego is a public high school with attendance of 400 in 3 grades (Polish high schools start the grade count at 1, so ages 15/16 for 1st grade and 18/19 for 3rd grade).  The school has an impressive website showing current activities and academic competitions in which its students participate, including competition in English fluency.  Approximately 100 students volunteered to attend my talk as they felt that their English was good enough and would not need any translation.  (Indeed, they seemed quite comfortable not just understanding but also speaking English, per my subsequent chats with several of them.)

The school’s students also volunteer and take part in Forum for Dialogue programs dealing with Jewish history in pre-WWII Poland, and a wonderful example of this is an email I received from one of the students a few days after speaking there:

“Good evening, Sir!                                                                                                                                I am a student of XXX High School named after Jan Śniadecki in Warsaw.  As You asked, I send You link for Facebook website of our school project.  „Wiem Na Czym Stoję” (“I know what I stand for”) is about Jewish history in Warsaw, we find places that are connected to Jewish people and post photos on our site. https://www.facebook.com/pg/wiemnaczymstoje1/posts/                                                   Once again I want to thank You for Your visit to our school. It is so important and so brave for You to tell Your story.  It was a big honour to meet You.  Thank You for everything.    Martyna Banat”

My talk at the school was organized by teacher Anna Jeleszuk (History and Social Studies) and I was introduced by the school’s Director, Marcin Konrad Jaroszewski.  It was organized by Violetta Tarnowska, who had organized my very first talk in Warsaw at her school in 2014 and my talks in Warsaw since then.

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Warsaw Montessori Middle School, Warsaw, Poland – June 3, 2019 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Warsaw Montessori Middle School (WMMS) is structured on Maria Montessori’s belief that “The chief symptom of adolescence is a state of expectation, a tendency toward creative work, and a need for the strengthening of self-confidence.”  As such, the school sees its two-fold role of informing its students (ages 12-18) and strengthening them.  “Informing” includes not only academics but also daily living skills and experiences in a society of adults, and “strengthening” their moral development in personal responsibility and leadership, honesty, fairness, compassion and integrity.  WMMS also understands the adolescents’ needs of emotional protection during their transformation to adulthood and of understanding the adult society which they will enter, all the while having a heightened sensitivity to any criticism.   WMMS seeks to accomplish all this not only in classrooms but also through field trips into nature, real and meaningful business projects such as running a kitchen and its microeconomics, and by providing self-expression through music, poetry and arts.  As a strong sign of its quality, WMMS is followed academically by the Warsaw Montessori High School, which is currently a Candidate for the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program.

The current enrollment of WMMS is 58 students in grades 5-8, of which approximately 80% are Polish students and 20% foreigners.  My talk at WMMS was organized by Ewa Stawecka, the Director of Warsaw Montessori High School and its IB Program.  After introducing me, she started our event by screening a short documentary film showing Jewish life in pre-WWII Warsaw, whose  population of 1,300,000 in 1939 was 30% Jewish.  That entire world and almost all those lives were tragically erased by the Nazis within 5 years.  My talk was arranged by Violetta Tarnowska, who arranged my first talk in Warsaw at her school in 2014 and my subsequent talks in Warsaw.

introduction by Ewa Stawecka, Director of Warsaw Montessori High School (WMHS)

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Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA – May 17, 2019

by George J Elbaum

This is the third year of The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) program of student tours organized around a current exhibit and paired with talks by Holocaust survivors, which are arranged by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS).  These talks offer the students a unique opportunity to connect art, architecture, and history, to humanize historical events and cultivate empathy and to strengthen links between past and present, and it is the 6th time that I have spoken as part of this program.

The CJM current tour and talk, Resilience, Holocaust, and the Architecture of Life, asks the question: “How do we move forward from the past while vowing to never forget?”  The architecture of The CJM is a testament to history and resilience: it is a celebration of life and strength designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, a child of Holocaust survivors, with deeply embedded Jewish symbolism and meaning.  A first-hand testimony by a Holocaust survivor (me on this day) is at the heart of this 2 ½ hour Museum experience, which includes an exploration of the symbolism of The CJM’s architecture through the lens of resilience and artistic reflection as well as a gallery experience and an art workshop.

Today’s participants were 10th grade students from Arroyo High School  in San Lorenzo, CA, led by teacher Jorja Santillan.   This talk was actually a fortuitous and very welcome event for me: in each of the previous 7 years I had spoken to her students at Arroyo but later in the school year, and when she asked me to return for the 8th time, I could not as I had already made arrangements to be speaking in Poland that week.  Thus, when Penny Savryn of the JFCS Holocaust Center asked me if I could speak to Arroyo students at the CJM, I jumped at the chance and immediately asked if the teacher guiding this group would be Jorja Santillan.  The reply was “Yes” and rest was today’s unexpected and wonderful reunion at the CJM.

This year the audience was 65 10th grade students studying the Holocaust-based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who accompanied the students to the CJM together with teacher Rangel Hernandez and security guard Laura Noddin.  Based on my previous visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and once again I 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.”

Today’s event was organized by Cara Buchalter, CJM School Programs Manager, who, prior to introducing me, engaged the students in an excellent dialogue on the meaning of social resistance and encouraged them to speak up and resist when faced with prejudice and injustice in our society.  Luz Brown, CJM Technician, managed the audio-visuals of my presentation and took all the photos (below).  Also attending the talk were the CJM staff personnel Emily Breault, Ron Glait, and Isobel Aveston.

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Carlmont High School, Belmont, CA – May 14, 2019

by George J Elbaum

Carlmont High School (its campus straddles the adjacent towns of San Carlos and Belmont) has an enrollment of approximately 2200 students of high diversity – 50% White, 22% Asian, 18% Hispanic, 6% two or more races.  Its Great Schools Rating is 9 (out of 10) overall and 10 for academic performance – its College Readiness score is 69% above state average, and its SAT test scores in English and Math are respectively 68% and 82% above state average.

The audience for my presentation was mostly 10th graders taking the Modern European History class taught by teacher David Braunstein, who organized the event and invited other teachers and their classes such that over 150 students participated in it.  His students read about Auschwitz, Treblinka, forced labor, Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments on prisoners, and they discussed the importance of learning about the Holocaust “so that no other people have to go through a similar experience.”  My talk was a part of that learning, and David invited his son and his parents, Jacob and Pauline Braunstein, to hear it.  Other faculty participating in the presentation were David’s student teacher Steve Lucchesi, teachers Stephen Lucia and Marcello Dicicco, and instructional associate John Parker Campbell.

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

introduction by teacher David Braunstein

starting….

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San Francisco Hillel, San Francisco, CA – May 3, 2019

by George J Elbaum

San Francisco Hillel supports the community of Jewish students in several San Francisco colleges, including SFSU, USF, UCSF, Golden Gate, UC Hastings and others.  Its efforts are focused on community building, organizing events for Shabbat and other holidays, arranging participation in Birthright-Israel, and participating in area-wide and national social justice programs such as “Repair the World Now,” Food Banks, etc.  My talk was part of a unit that SF Hillel hosted for Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, focused on stories and prayers for the Shoah and an on-campus event about anti-Semitism.  It was attended by 2 dozen SF Hillel current members and alumni, organized by Sasha Joseph, Director of Student Life, with support from staff members Emily Simons, Naomi Zipursky and Jason Steckler.  My participation was arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

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Northwest Yeshiva High School, Mercer Island, WA – April 30, 2019

by George J Elbaum

Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS) was established in 1974 as a co-ed, dual curriculum (college preparatory academics and Judaic studies) Jewish high school.  The school’s Mercer Island campus includes a sanctuary for prayer, multifunctional classrooms, STEM Lab, science and computer labs, a lunchroom and an outdoor sports court.  NYHS high academic performance is shown by having the 3rd highest SAT scores of all private high schools in Washington, and it is accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission.  Its current enrollment is 70 students, all of whom attended my talk except for the 12th graders who were currently in Poland for the Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Teachers Adam and Naama Josephs organized the event at NYHS.

My talk at NYHS was arranged by Carlos Kassner, now a student at the school, who also arranged my talk last year at his previous high school and whom I first met 4 years ago when his summer camp group came to hear my talk at Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity.  At that time he and I were of the same height and now he is a full head taller!

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King County Youth Services Center, Seattle, WA – April 29, 2019 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Youth Services Center (YSC) is a part of King County Juvenile Court and Detention Center, and since photos were not allowed within the facility, a brief description is in order.  First, all visitors (including us) require a pre-visit background check.  Tight security at the entrance was evident when we were required to leave our ID at front office and put all personal items in lockers.  We then went to the YSC Library which serves students currently incarcerated and attending school.  While the library appeared typical for a small school, the students wearing jail garb were escorted in by guards.  Students at YSC are typically of high school age and their incarceration can be from a few months to a much longer term, depending on the sentence they received.

My presentation to two separate groups of students was organized by the librarian, Megan Sobchuk, and teacher Elaine Simons, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson of Holocaust Center for Humanity, who accompanied us to YSC.  While we expected groups of 6-8 students, we were told that the actual number can vary widely due to specific situations that day.  In fact, after arriving at the library, one or more students from each group were taken back for various reasons, leaving 5 students for the first talk and only 2 for the second.  In these two groups, all but one student were minorities.  While we were warned that there might be disruptions and boisterous behavior from some students, they were actually quite attentive during my talk – Megan even commented how surprised she was that “one could hear a pin drop.”

My presentation was part of a Holocaust study unit designed by Megan and Elaine to give the students an understanding of how history plays a role in social justice and the issues they are facing today.  In my talk I emphasized that after coming to America I had several strikes against succeeding: I was an immigrant, didn’t speak English at first, then had a heavy accent, didn’t understand American culture, and stuttered badly.  I was also discouraged by school counselors.  However, I believed that in America one can succeed with hard work, regardless of one’s background.  I worked hard, succeeded, and encouraged the students at YSC to do the same.

From students’ comments after my talk as well as their previously prepared questions, it was obvious that some knew nothing about the Holocaust while some were surprisingly knowledgeable.  For example, of the 2 students in the second group, one showed no knowledge or interest in the Holocaust whatsoever while the other quietly mentioned the Jedwabne massacre and left with teary eyes.  I was especially moved by the care and warmth shown by Megan toward the students, probably fueled by her own family member’s history.  We learned during our visit that the plight of many of these students is at least partly a result of the crack epidemic that swept through their parents’ generation.  My hope is that at least one of the students might take my story to heart and succeed against the strikes currently against him.

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