Mercer Island High School, Mercer Island, WA – March 3, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Mercer Island High School (MIHS) has a total enrollment of 1521 students including Crest Learning Center, an alternative program largely focused on community-based learning in smaller classes.  US News Best Schools ranks MIHS as #8 in Washington and #527 in its National Rankings based on its students’ impressive performance: Mathematics Proficiency 86% vs. 40% state average, Reading Proficiency 95% vs. 70% state average, and College Readiness Index Rank #11 in WA.  MIHS enrollment’s demographics are: White 70%Asian 20%Hispanic 4%, all other 6%; and 3% of students are economically disadvantaged.

Today’s MIHS program follows last week’s (2-24-2021), which involved student-organized presentations by Holocaust speakers, most of them Holocaust survivors, for small groups of its 9th and 10th graders.  Both last week and today, these presentations were held during the school’s supplemental morning “Islander Hour” outside of standard class time.  While many of the students had some background education in the Holocaust, the school’s overarching goal was to give the underclassmen an experience that will help them understand why the Holocaust is important to teach, and why it is not a topic for jokes.  By tasking students to organize the events, MIHS gave the students valuable experience that will undoubtedly be useful in their adult careers, and that included resolving the technical difficulties that were encountered in starting the events.  I want to commend students Bella Hartman, supported by Samantha Wampold, in managing the difficulties unflappably and relying on teachers John Stafford, Ed Puchalla, and Creighton Laughary for support when it became necessary.   

My presentation to approximately 25 10th grade students was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Program Manager of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Leave a comment

Mercer Island High School, Mercer Island, WA – February 24, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Mercer Island High School (MIHS) has a total enrollment of 1521 students including Crest Learning Center, an alternative program largely focused on community-based learning in smaller classes.  US News Best Schools ranks MIHS as #8 in Washington and #527 in its National Rankings based on its students’ impressive performance: Mathematics Proficiency 86% vs. 40% state average, Reading Proficiency 95% vs. 70% state average, and College Readiness Index Rank #11 in WA.  MIHS enrollment’s demographics are: White 70%, Asian 20%, Hispanic 4%, all other 6%; and 3% of students are economically disadvantaged.

Today MIHS hosted a student-organized series of Holocaust speakers, most of them Holocaust survivors, for small groups of its 9th and 10th graders, and their presentations were held during the school’s supplemental morning “Islander Hour” outside of standard class time.  While many of the students had some background education in the Holocaust, the school’s overarching goal was to give the underclassmen an experience that will help them understand why the Holocaust is important to teach, and why it is not a topic for jokes.  My presentation to approximately 30 10th grade students was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Program Manager of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Leave a comment

Irvington High School, Fremont, CA – February 19, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Irvington High School has an enrollment of 2294 students and Great School overall rating of 8/10 and 10/10 in Academics based on its students’ test scores: Math proficiency of 73% vs. CA State average of 40% and English proficiency of 75% vs. CA State avg of 51%.  College readiness rating is therefore 84% vs CA avg of 64%.  Irvington’s demographics are 71% Asian, 11% White, 9% Hispanic, 5% Filipino and 4% all others.  Its students learning English are 6% and 17% are from low-income families.  Because Irvington is a Service-Learning school, embedded in its coursework is the mandate that students apply what they have learned in the form of service to the community.  The school thus requires its students a minimum of 40 hours of service learning and community service to graduate.

Irvington has an admirable emphasis on social issues and how to advocate for change built into its curriculum in that all students must complete 3 special benchmark projects: one at the 9th grade level called Change Project, one at the 10th grade level called World Issues Project, and one at the 12th grade level called QUEST.  The benchmarks are long-term projects that allow students to demonstrate progress toward or mastery of the four School-Wide Outcomes: Communication, Critical Thinking, Personal Responsibility, and Social Responsibility.  Benchmarks are intended to be consistently evaluated, real life assessment projects which provide students, parents, and teachers information about student achievement across a range of important lifelong learning skills.

9th graders complete a Change project in which they work in teams of three to four to make a positive change regarding an environmental problem that they identify in the local community. During this 6-month service project they volunteer at a local organization, write 3 drafts of a research report, and create a PowerPoint presentation to present near the end of the school year to their peers and teachers.

10th graders undertake a World Issues project in which student teams of four are assigned a global issue. After covering an issue’s background as a team, students complete the rest of the project individually. The first half of the year is devoted to understanding and describing the issue, and the second half is proposing ways to fix the problem. Each student must research the issue, write two papers on their topic, and participate in two discussions on the assigned topic. These topics can be lack of access to clean water, refugee crises, terrorism, child labor, climate change, infectious diseases, and inequality for women.

12th graders undertake QUEST, a five-component project designed and completed by all Irvington seniors to graduate.  The student starts with a “Question” associated with “providing benefits to the community.” Through “Understanding,” an answer to the Question develops through research, reading, writing, and hands-on activities. Students must then find a professional to act as their consultant and guide them through their experience.  Each student and his or her consultant then create an “Experience” plan addressing the Question. Through “Service,” the student designs and implements an activity to share his or her new knowledge with the greater community such that it serves a real need.  Students document their findings throughout the year, presenting their Question with background information, research, and hands-on experience on their QUEST. Finally, at the “Testimony,” the student presents his or her entire QUEST experience to a panel consisting of staff, parents and experienced community members.

My presentation was to 50+ 10th grade students who reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and will next study the history of the Holocaust in their world history classes.  Today’s session was arranged and organized by Cheryl Cook-Kallio and supported by Nicole Marsella-Jensen, both long time teachers at Irvington.  Cheryl and I were recently connected by a mutual friend, Jack Weinstein, who had introduced me to many schools in the East Bay before retiring as the director of Bay Area’s chapter of Facing History and Ourselves.

Notes from students

The week after my Zoom talk at Irvington High School I received from teacher Cheryl Cook-Kallio containing notes from a couple dozen students who attended my talk.  As has been our custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each of the notes and we highlighted the thoughtful and sensitive  statements that resonated with us, which are shown below.   Thank you!

  • What I find inspirational is how after going through the darkest of days, you survived and valued your life to the fullest
  • Your story helps me see what people in hiding had to go through and how lucky you must have been to live. Overall thanks to you I can understand the holocaust much better. This is one for the books.
  • When you talked about your admission into MIT it was very inspirational. MIT has always been one of my dream schools and hearing your story gave me reassurance that hard work truly does pay off.
  • I was very moved by how you were able to overcome the experiences during the time and live to be able to tell your story even now, as some people wouldn’t be able to share their story for their whole lifetime.
  • It also caught my attention when you talked about your goal and the career you wanted to take because it’s very inspirational how you worked hard on your grades and was able to go to the school you wanted to go to.
  • I think it was so important for you to speak with our generation because hopefully knowledge like this will stop history from repeating itself.
  • Another thing that surprised me was the fact that you were silent for over 65 years. If you had continued to stay silent, we would have never been able to hear your story. For that, I thank you, as without your story we wouldn’t know what people (like your mother) did just to keep their loved ones safe and away from the Holocaust’s concentration camps. 
  • Your story motivated me to not take anything for granted, whether it is a bowl of soup or a roof upon my head.
  • I found it interesting when you described how your mother, an attorney, was clever and changed her appearance, changed your and her names, and found safe refuge for you during the Holocaust. This is what my family would call “street smart”. 
  • I especially enjoyed how just a smile at a ss guard set you free and how you could have had a much different experience just from a few small actions.
  • You said there were a lot of families you went into and I really liked this part because it let me know that even if there is a lot of bad, there will always be good. I liked this also because it lets me know that sometimes ignorance is bliss, because of the time you were just eating and did not know who was coming or what was going on, so you did not feel too much pressure. 
  • It made me get a new perspective on life that I should be more grateful for the things I have and my own life, because people like you Mr. Elbaum had a harsh time growing up, and I’m blessed I don’t have to go through the same things.
  • I understand that it can be hard to share personal stories, but your words will stick with every single person you tell it to.
  • I learned a different perspective than usual, and it made me really happy because it had a happy ending. Usually when we hear stories around the holocaust we tend to think of travesty and things the mind cannot even imagine. It was really nice to hear a different story and I am very glad that you slowly opened up to letting the world know about your journey!

Leave a comment

JFCS Holocaust Center, San Francisco, CA, The Next Chapter – February 16, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

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

Among its many services, the JFCS provides the facilities and educational programs on the Holocaust for visiting teachers, adults, and student groups.  My presentation today was to students participating in JFCS’s Next Chapter program, as I’ve done in past years.  The Next Chapter is an introduction to the history of the Holocaust for 9th through 12th graders, in which they can develop a connection with Holocaust survivors.  Because of the current pandemic, students meet via Zoom every 1 – 2 weeks from December through May and hear from different speakers through the course of the program.  By learning to recognize the value in others’ stories and experiences, students learn to appreciate their own story and identity, as well as gain moral courage and a sense of social responsibility.   Students thus build a special community of social responsibility and genocide awareness, and may be awarded up to 20 – 30 hours of community service.

My talk was arranged by Penny Savryn, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator, and managed by Yedida Kanfer, Director of Community Education, who introduced me to the audience and conducted the Q&A session. To add some visual interest to the text, I had asked Yedida to take a screen shot of the audience as shown on Zoom in a matrix of thumbnail photos as I’ve done in my Zoom presentations.  However, Yedida had a surprise for me: after thanking me for the talk and telling the audience that she would be taking their photo while they applauded, she asked them to unmute their microphones so I could actually hear the applause!   First-time ever by Zoom – thank you, Yedida!

Notes from students

After my Zoom talk with the JFCS Next Chapter students I received from Yedida Kanfer the “thank you” notes from the couple dozen students who attended it.  As has been a custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each note, and we highlighted the thoughtful statements that particularly resonated with us, and these are shown below.  

  • I encourage you to continue telling your story so others can be inspired by your story and learn to never give up if you work hard and have a goal.
  • Your story reminded me how important it is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves
  • Your standing up to that anti-Semitic boy back in Poland shows how principled you were (and still are) at such a young age.
  • It really stuck with me how you repeated the message of being for things, and not against things. This is a beautiful way in which we can view the world in a positive light. Also it is something I really needed to hear.
  • It brings me an immense amount of hope to meet people so committed to educating the next generation about the past. May we take your life and your words as a guiding example.
  • Your words further exhibited to me how important it is to be resilient and stand up what is right.
  • You reminded me that even when facing hardships, it is important to push through and continue with one’s goal, as it will pay off in the end. It was a reminder that I needed.
  • I really liked how you talked about the story with your counselor, and how you weren’t affected by his discouragement, but instead you worked even harder to chase your dreams. Thank you so much!
  • You told us to “be for things, not against things,” which is great advice, especially for teenagers like me. Please continue to teach others.
  • I appreciated the fact that you answered questions with a lot of depth. I learned so much from hearing you speak.
  • It was incredible to hear about all the details you remember, and your strength and perseverance are inspiring
  • It was very moving hearing you recount the pieces and details of your life and how you were so eager to share with us.
  • I really appreciate your thoughts and the questions you asked us. It made me really reflect on the way I view things.
  • I want to especially thank you for the advice and inspiration that you gave me.
  • I deeply admire you as a person and as a testament to human resilience and character.
  • Your harrowing account made me appreciate the comfortable life I have and reflect on brutality of the Holocaust.
  • Thank you for choosing to spend your time on an increasingly important mission, informing the younger generation of the extent to which systematic persecution and separation can reach.
  • Your words of wisdom remind me to never be a bystander in situations of oppression.
  • I’m very grateful that you are sharing your story with everyone because there is so much anti-Semitism and people are starting to forget about the Holocaust.
  • You are the prime example of perseverance and hope during an extremely difficult time.
  • I am grateful to you for sharing your wisdom with us and reminding me to never stand by when people are being hurt and oppressed.

Leave a comment

Burlingame High School, Burlingame, CA – February 8 (2 classes) + February 9 (1 class), 2021 – via video

by George J Elbaum

Burlingame High School has an enrollment of 1529 students of high diversity: 61% White, 23% Asian, 8% Latino, 5% Filipino and 3% all other.  Per its website, the school’s mission is “to develop in all students the skills, knowledge, and mindset that will prepare them to meet the challenges of college, the demands of career, and the responsibilities of citizenship.”  The school strives to teach its students to “Think critically and solve problems creatively.”  The following statement from its website caught my eye because it goes beyond only teaching and involves citizenship: “Perhaps the best thing about Burlingame High School is the connection and positive relationship we have with our community: we encourage parent volunteerism and support, and have established internship and volunteer opportunities across the county for our students.”

Per the US News Best High Schools rankings, Burlingame ranks #146 of California high schools and #1050 in national ranking, and its student proficiency is a very good 61% vs 30% CA average in mathematics and in reading it’s 81% vs 50% CA average.

I made 3 presentations (2 on February 8th, 1 on the 9th), each to a class of approximately 30 students in 10th grade Modern World History classes taught by teacher Michael Zozos of the Social Science Department.  The curriculum has included the Armenian Genocide during WWI, the rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, successes and failures of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis’ steps to genocide (including pogroms, Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht, etc.), the Holocaust itself and world reaction. In past years the students viewed Schindler’s List and analyzed primary sources, such as resistance stories from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation.

My 3 presentations were organized by Carrie Hermann, Burlingame’s Career Coordinator supporting the teachers, and arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center.

Notes from students

A week after my Zoom talks at Burlingame High School I received from Carrie Hermann, the event’s organizer, an email entitled “Thank you Mr. Elbaum!” containing notes from several dozen students who attended my talk.  As has been our custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each of the notes and we highlighted the statements that resonated with us, which are shown below.  In turn, I thank you all for your thoughtful and sensitive statements.

  • I learned how sad and horrible it was for the survivors: to have lost most of their family and to have almost died themselves must have been very depressing.
  • I learned a lot more about the ghettos and the horrible living conditions within them that led to the death of many. I had always thought the concentration camps were most Jews were killed and that the ghettos were just a way to get them together in one place and to the camps. I now know the ghettos were also a terrible place
  • I feel like I understand more that loss was simply something that happened to everyone all the time during the Holocaust, and you’re considered lucky to have surviving members of your family.
  • I learned from you that a person can endure unimaginable tragedy and still create a beautiful life for themselves.
  • I really appreciate hearing the story of your life, and those multiple struggles, that unfortunately our humanity made you and other millions of people go through.
  • The fact that you never gave up and kept willing to have a greater future is very inspiring.
  • I’m also an immigrant, so when you talked about your experiences in the USA, I literally cried. You gave me hope to believe in my dreams regardless of my accent, academic struggles or cultural background.
  • From now on, I am willing to help those who need me.
  • I will always remember how you talked about the significance of the picture on the cover of your book – the actual correlation between the German aircraft and the little boy below, looking up.
  • I will always remember what you shared and which reminds me of the quote from Tom Lantos: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin.  We are its guardians and we can never rest.”
  • I learned that you should not listen to those who only want to take you down, but to listen to those who encourage and support you and your dreams.  I hope you continue to share your story and inspire others.
  • Thank you for sharing your private, traumatic memories for our education.
  • I learned that when times are rough you should try to have a positive attitude and push through the bad situation.
  • What I picked up from your speech was that the only person that will stop you from doing what is best is you.
  • We have to learn to listen to the people around us, to listen to their stories because we tend to ignore them.
  • I learned that even if we are embarrassed by something or someone is bringing us down, we should not let that stand in the way of what we want to do in life.
  • I will always remember that your mother arranged to hide your grandmother where she thought it would be safe but that spot was not a safe place.  I will always remember this because it shows that nowhere during the Holocaust was safe for anyone.
  • Thank you for your honesty.  The stories you’ve shared have been at times heartwarming, heartbreaking, inspiring, unsettling, and even shocking.  We appreciate that you’ve trusted us enough to share the truth.
  • My mom sat in on your visit and you were so inspirational that she purchased your books!
  • What you did was very bold, and I deeply appreciate you coming in to share a piece of your life with us.
  • It was interesting to hear your story, to be able to walk in your shoes for a little bit, and to think about what you have witnessed back then.
  •  You were able to bring the past to the present and help influence younger minds.
  • Please continue to share your stories so that more minds can be inspired for generations to come.

The matrix of photos of Zoom participants has been withdrawn pending the parental approval of some of the students, or the deletion of their photos.  We apologize for this misunderstanding and look forward to its speedy resolution and restoration of appropriate photos.   February 23, 2021

Leave a comment

Twin Falls Middle School, North Bend, WA – January 28, 2021

by George J Elbaum

Twin Falls Middle School, located in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains with an enrollment of 820 students in grades 6-8, considers its mission as being based on “Relationships, Rigor and Relevance” as a “professional learning community which provides instruction for all levels of learners.”  Twin Falls MS has a high academic record, with student proficiency in English of 76% vs. state average of 61%, and in Math 77% vs. 50% state average.  This is reflected in its Great Schools’ overall rating of 7 out of 10.  School events which encourage learning include Distinguished Honor Recognition evening for parents and students, and participation in curricular fairs showcasing art, science, and social studies.  The Science Fair involved 100% of Twin Falls students.

Twin Falls MS is using materials and speakers from the Holocaust Center for Humanity to introduce its 8th grade students to the topic of the Holocaust, including reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank.  This week all 8th grade students participated in one of 5 sessions, each with a different speaker from the Holocaust Center, and I was one of these speakers.  The whole program was organized by Karen Waters and Rachel Labrasca, 8th grade Language Arts Teachers. After these presentations Karen wrote that “the students were shocked and moved by what they read, heard and saw” and that “Our focus is to make sure that we never become bystanders, and that we are alert to bullying. In addition, the Holocaust became a reality to the students by interacting with people who had survived the reign of terror, or are a family member of a Holocaust survivor. The students were intrigued with George’s story of what he called “luck”, and they emotionally connected with his story of being a child during the Holocaust.” Twin Falls Middle School will make the Holocaust Center Program of Speakers a yearly event.

The Holocaust Center’s support was provided by Julia Thompson, Education Program Manager, and Morgan Romero, Education and Museum Assistant.  

Post-presentation questionnaire

After my presentation the teachers asked the students to complete a “Padlet” online questionnaire with some half-dozen items, such as: what did I learn? how did the speaker’s story made me feel? about what would I like to know more? what will I most remember? and personal note to the speaker.  I’ve excerpted the students’ replies that most resonated with me and listed these below.

  • I learned how sad and horrible it was for the survivors: to have lost most of their family and to have almost died themselves must have been very depressing.
  • I learned a lot more about the ghettos and the horrible living conditions within them that led to the death of many. I had always thought the concentration camps were most Jews were killed and that the ghettos were just a way to get them together in one place and to the camps. I now know the ghettos were also a terrible place
  • I feel like I understand more that loss was simply something that happened to everyone all the time during the Holocaust, and you’re considered lucky to have surviving members of your family.
  • George Elbaum’s story made me feel angry, but mostly sad. I can’t imagine how it would be to know that all of your siblings died, except you. I also felt really lucky to have heard it from him
  • 6 million is incomprehensible.
  • Elbaum’s story made me feel sad, but also made me realize how lucky I am to be able to spend every day with my family and the people I care about.
  • Almost the entirety of the story made me feel of course sad, but I also felt disgusted. It’s so vile that one group of people could do this to another.
  • Elbaum’s story brought sadness to my heart, along with terror, and bitter disgust. I cannot believe the things that went on during this time. It was absolutely horric.
  • Elbaum’s story made me feel very sad and angry but also very spoiled because of how little they had.
  • Something that stood out to me was his story from when he was hiding in the shed and the dog was killed in order not to reveal their hiding place. I can’t imagine the trauma of having to do that to your own dog.
  • I would like to know more about what kept him motivated.
  • Being completely honest, I don’t know what I would do if standing against injustice could cost me and others our lives.
  • I will try to break free of the safety of being a bystander and help to the best of my abilities.
  • I really liked the life lesson he portrayed through the title of his book, to not focus on the past, to not look forward to the future, but focus on the present and the time you are in.
  • I also find his mother’s smart decisions after escaping the ghetto to be quite memorable. To have a smart and skillful parent as a child in a horrible event such as the Holocaust is a great thing and if it was me despite all the bad things happening I would be grateful for that.
  • In the very beginning, Mr. Elbaum gave us advice, that we should be for things rather than against That stood out for me because people tend to spend a lot of time pointing out the negatives and the hate, when you could be supporting something positive instead.
  • The Holocaust is something we need to know about, and your story helped us gain knowledge at a much deeper level. Hearing a personal story gives us empathy and compassion for those who have experienced a horrible thing like the Holocaust.

 

Leave a comment

Atrium School, Watertown, MA – January 26, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Atrium School is a progressive, independent co-ed day school, grades pre-K through 8, with 121 students.  At Atrium, an emphasis on collaborative, balanced, hands-on curriculum enables students to gain and exercise critical thinking and problem-solving skills across multiple curricular areas.  Students develop strategies that nourish their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical self-confidence and growth.  In all of their interactions and studies, Atrium students are given time to question, explore, experiment, and reflect both independently and cooperatively.  I particularly liked the following two statements from its excellent website:

“Founded on the principle of respect, Atrium School is an innovative and collaborative place where children can listen, question, challenge, probe, and thereby make sense of their world.  When children graduate from our independent school, we hope they will carry with them a strong sense of their identity, a willingness to see the common threads which run through all our lives, and a high regard for the value and breadth of differences.”

“A ‘social curriculum’ doesn’t come in a binder. By noticing details, moments, and effort we cultivate a culture of caring. Our community is dedicated to this effort, and it is the daily work of our teachers to be agents of “noticing” and to support and guide children’s interactions.”

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, my presentation to 18 8th grade students was via Zoom rather than in person, so I could not witness and feel the school’s atmosphere.  However, I was definitely impressed by the few interactions I did see online between Social Studies teacher Paul Capobianco, who organized the event, and his students, and especially by the extent of their knowledge and interest as evidenced by their questions: the Q&A extended long after the expected ending time.

The event was also attended by several other Atrium faculty and staff, and it was arranged by Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves.  Judi Bohn of Facing History also attended.

Letters/emails from students

In the pre-Covid days and pre-Zoom talks I would often receive by mail a few weeks after a talk a packet of letters from students.  Whereas I much prefer those days and talks directly to live audiences with direct, face-to-face Q&A’s, there’s a silver lining, even a small one, in all storms.  Thus only 2 days after my Zoom talk at the Atrium School I received an email from the organizing teacher, Paul Capobianco, entitled “Words of Gratitude” and containing a note from each of his students attending my talk.  As has been our custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each of the notes and highlighted the statements or phrases that resonated with us, and these are shown below.  Thank you all for your thoughtful and sensitive statements.                     

  • Thanks for helping us face history, and through that ourselves.
  • This was my favorite quote of yours from yesterday: “There are no very fine people on the side of hate.” I can’t wait to read your book!
  • I feel so lucky to have heard you speak in person….. You have overcome so much, and I will never forget yesterday.
  • I can’t imagine the surreal living conditions you were in throughout those extremely terrible years. It made me a bit emotional.  I’m glad you’re living a much better life and being so brave to share your experience with others.
  • Your story was incredibly inspiring and had a great impact on my outlook on the Holocaust. Please continue to do this
  • I’ve heard a few other survivors speak, and each time I hear a new story it changes my perspective on Judaism and the Holocaust. Hearing stories like yours encourages me to continue pursuing Tikkun Olam (repair the world) and social justice.
  • Your story greatly changed my perspective when learning about the Holocaust and it is an experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
  • I admire how, even with everything that happened, you were still able to see good in people, that you think optimistically when it comes to human beings.
  • Personally, I believe that without empathy people can’t evolve as a whole. Without understanding why something happened you can’t prevent something like it from happening again in the future.  When I put these two beliefs together I saw a connection: without optimism, empathy, and belief in change, humanity won’t evolve, or at least it won’t evolve to its true potential.
  • Maybe one day humanity will run more in that direction; we’ll just have to wait and see.
  • One thing that baffled me during your story was how some people don’t believe in the Holocaust.
  • I loved hearing about how amazing you mom was. She sounds like she was the most incredible and smart woman.  Thank you for openly answering our questions and talking to us.
  • I learned a lot not just about facts of the holocaust, but how it felt for you to experience part of it.
  • One thing that you said which lingered was that to do good in the world “you must be for things and not against things.
  • Thank you so much for telling us your story. It was incredibly inspirational, and I will never forget it.            
Leave a comment

Oceana High School, Pacifica, CA – January 13, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Oceana High School is a small public high school in Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 622 students, of which 79% are minority and 34% are economically disadvantaged.  Nevertheless, it has a 4-year graduating rate of 94% and academic scores significantly above state averages: English proficiency 70% vs. CA average 50%, Math proficiency 48% vs. CA 39%, and UC/CSU entrance requirements 75% vs. CA 50%.  Oceana has accomplished this impressive educational performance by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students. 

This was my 4th visit to Oceana since 2015, except this “visit” was unfortunately by Zoom rather than in person because of the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic.  It was organized by Stephanie Sotomayor, Chris Korp, Leigh Poehler and Alyssa Ravenwood, the Humanities 10 team, with the support of Bjorn Wickstrom, the Vice Principal.

The audience was approximately 150 10th grade students who have been learning social history and concepts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universe of Obligation, the stages of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, Eugenics, and the Nazis’ rise to power. Their year-long study is based on Facing History and Ourselves’ focus on oppression and resistance, causes and consequences.  Also attending the presentation via Zoom were staff members including Erin Peters, Humanities 12 teacher and Nico Storrow, Wellness Counselor.  (Stephanie’s German shepherd also had a cameo appearance on the Zoom photo matrix 😊.)

On my previous visits to Oceana I was quite impressed with the colorful student art on its concrete walls, and since this visit was by Zoom only I asked Stephanie if there was any art that I could add to the post on this virtual visit.  Stephanie contacted Graham Cruickshank, Oceana’s Visual and Theatre Arts teacher, whom she described as “responsible for all the student creativity around our school” and was the key to placing student art in Oceana’s hallways.   Furthermore, because “we are running out of space, he is now having students paint on wooden pallets and he hammers them around the school and rotates them out.”  Per my request, Graham supplied the art shown below.

Arrangement for this event were made and carefully guided by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves – thank you, Brian!

Letters from students

A week or so after our session at Oceana I received 3 packs of letters from the students.  As I was very busy with business matters into early February, it was only afterwards that I with my wife Mimi started reading the 110 letters, excerpting statements or phrases that resonated with us by the feeling or thoughtfulness they conveyed, and these many, many excerpts are shown below.

  • I would have liked to meet with you in person and talked after class more, but that connection was lost over Zoom.
  • It’s always interesting to hear how people saw things when they were children.  Kids have a completely different perspective than older people do, and your story is so important in understanding the Holocaust in its entirety.
  • These days, I feel like there are so many people trying to rewrite history in order to erase their bigotry.
  • I apologize for not being able to come to your presentation because I had to go to work and provide for my family.
  • You shared how your mother was brave and intelligent, and how she wanted to protect you, even if it meant sending you away. I made sure to give my mom a big hug after because your story helped me realize how important family is.
  • It makes me sad knowing that there are so many people who cannot see the evil that can be a result of hating others for no reason.
  • I want you to know that what you said is so important to me, I promise you I will always remember what you said and I will carry those words that you spoke to me with me forever.
  • I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with different families than your own.
  • Your message of working hard and putting your all into something that you’re passionate about, it really means a lot and inspires me to do the same.
  • You describe the settings that you lived in in such great detail that I could really feel myself situated in a room filled with strangers that I did not know, hurriedly coming into my house with fear and confusion.
  • After coming to the US you worked hard and kept inspiring yourself. This really encourages me to keep persevering in my goals.  I learned that we have to believe in ourselves even when others keep trying to tear us down.  
  • I was thinking of mainly talking about this with my Grandma because she probably knew he most about effects of the war had on people with my Grandad, because he was one of the children who were evacuated from London when the bombing happened.
  • What really stood out to me was when you said you saw a Nazi warplane fly above you and at that moment you knew you wanted to learn about aviation.
  • Your talk has changed my thinking about life on how you should love your family and spend time with them as much as you can in the moment because anything can happen at any time. I have already told my mom about your story, specifically the parts about the ghetto
  • I was talking to my parents after you talked to our class and we were just saying how grateful we are that survivors like you are willing to share their stores so that this horrible tragedy is not forgotten and we can remember those who lost their lives. Your talk helped me understand how damaging something so traumatic really is and how it stays with someone forever.
  • I shared with my family about how touching and real your story was.
  • I find it uplifting how you wee able to use your story to inspire so many people of all ages and how it has impacted so ma people.
  • Your story made me realize that you did all of this as a young kid. It made me think of my little cousin who is about the same age and if he would be capable of doing the same thing.
  • I am also a boy of Jewish descent, and your story inspired me and gave me hope that our people can stay strong even through the toughest challenges across the world.
  • Your recounts as living as a child really struck me, as the lives of the individual don’t really come to mind when thinking of such an event. It always seems about the bigger picture, but often times we forget about the smaller details.
  • Your talk inspired me to look at life in a different way. I’m thankful to just be here, to be free in whatever I do.  I’m grateful for what I already have, even if it may not seem like much to me.  I’ll be sure to tell my family and friends all about you and your story, so that I may be able to touch their lives in the way you touched mine.
  • You went through a horrible time and enlightened me more so, feeling-wise. I am sure to tell my family your story, specifically my mother.
  • Something you said that really stuck in my head was that it’s better to be for something than against something and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
  • Your talk gave me a new appreciation for the importance of speaking out against hate and oppression around the world, as well as in my life.
  • Your story helps us understand what happened as well as make an emotional connection to it. Thank you so much for sharing.
  • Taking the time to share with us your experience of the war, what you do, educating people about the horrors of what happened is very noble, reliving your experience so that we can make sure it never happens again.
  • I am thankful that I was able to learn about such a serious and important point in history from somebody who experienced it so that I can make sure I never forget about what happened. Once again, thank you for speaking to us yesterday.
  • I truly feel that your talk changed my way of thinking, and I will remember your talk for the rest of my life so that I may recall your experiences to my children so that they understand the history of our world.
  • Your talk made me understand that being for things and not against them can change the outcomes of our lives forever. Your talk also helped me realize that I need to cherish my moments with my family and friends, especially now more than ever.
  • (Your story) showed me that I need to talk to my parents more and bond and connect with them before they are gone. I’ve already told my family about your story and they’re so glad people like you are still alive to carry on history.
  • Right after your talk was over, I immediately had a more positive mood. It made me appreciate what I had, and showed me how much value every little thing had in my life.  I will definitely be telling others about your baseball story.  It played out like something straight out of a comedy show!
  • What really stuck out to me was what your mom did for you. She was your hero.  She timed everything perfectly, and what she did for you shows how much she cared about you.
  • Your talk has made me believe that there is still hope out there.
  • Your story brought me to tears and helped me understand the holocaust emotionally from a child’s perspective.
  • Before, I was a person who would always live in the past or worry about the future, but I have never tried to live and cherish the present. Throughout your seminar I learned the importance of living in the present.
  • After your talk with us, I learned to appreciate and cherish everything that I have, including those around me. I began to live in the present and I began to share your story with my parents and my sister.
  • My mom works at the Jewish Home of San Francisco and takes care of many other Holocaust survivors. While listening to your talk, I reflected on your story and some of theirs that my mom has shared, and it gave me a whole news perspective into the generational impact the Holocaust has left on the world.
  • My mom and I are extremely close and I cannot imagine being separated from her for years, and I admire your strength for persevering through this. Thank you so much for sharing you unfortunate experience, and for continuing to do this very important work during this challenging time.
  • Your talk left me thinking about a variety of things, like how much you would need to push someone to commit certain things to harm others and or survive. For some people, it doesn’t take a lot to harm others or commit things so unimaginable.
  • What do you think gave you the drive to keep going? I was listing possible answers like maybe it was your naivety as a child that kept you sane or maybe you were a lot more sophisticated and understood what your end goal was, I’m still not sure.  (At first it was naivety, later it was focus on the goal.)
  • What struck me is that you smiled toward a German soldier; that was crazy, and what’s even more crazy is that smile protected you from death. Your talk gave me an inspiration to believe even more in faith.
  • Right after the zoom call I went upstairs and told my mom your story. She said, “Wow, I wish I would’ve have been on that zoon.
  • Ultimately, your story has really taught me that being hateful and negative will get me and anyone else nowhere in life, rather it will cause more unneeded destruction to this fragile world.
  • Despite everything you went through, you are here today alive and healthy, you are living proof that anything is possible. … It inspires me not to give up on anything I want to do, and at the end of the day I have no excuse to give up.
  • After the webinar I talked to my friends about it and we all collectively agreed it was such a great experience and something we are proud to be able to grow up and say we experienced. I hope one day my class will be able to possibly see you in person so we can all have a group hug.

 

Leave a comment

Bentley School, Lafayette, CA – December 14, 2020 via video

by George J Elbaum

For several years I’ve been speaking at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) as part of their program of student tours organized around a current exhibit and paired with talks by Holocaust survivors, which were arranged by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS)  Holocaust Center.  These talks offered the students an opportunity to connect art, architecture, and history, to humanize historical events and cultivate empathy, and to strengthen links between past and present. This year Covid-19 has prevented conducting museum tours and this program, so CJM’s Educator & Tour Coordinator Ron Glait organized a virtual program called Holocaust & Resistance, including a virtual tour for students, focusing on the Nazis’ rise to power and on the work of particular artists who were engaged in resistance.  The CJM virtual tour brings students through the artists’ photographic journey, showcasing the work of Claude Cahun, Roman Vishniac, and others, as a way to learn about Holocaust history.  These students would also attend a virtual presentation by a Holocaust survivor, such as mine.

My presentation via Zoom was to 60 9th-grade students from the Bentley School in Lafayette, CA, taught by English Instructor Melina Mamigonian.  The students have previously studied World War II in their World History class and will read both Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman as a literary complement to that instruction.  Later, students will read Macbeth and Kindred by Octavia ButlerLast year, students staged a dramatic production of The Diary of Anne Frank and mounted a campus-wide, interactive historical exhibition in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust.  Students will also be interviewing their own adult subjects who have made significant impacts on their own lives in order to produce comics of their own in emulation of Art Spiegelman’s project.  In the past, these projects have also borne witness to the experience of genocide and internment, providing students with means of resistance to hatred and discrimination. 

Bentley School is a highly rated private K-12 independent day school celebrating its 100 years of quality teaching, with campuses located in Oakland (K-8) and Lafayette (9-12)  Arrangements for my presentation today were made by JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator Penny Savryn in partnership with CJM’s Ron Gliat.

 
Leave a comment

Forest Grove High School Class of 1955 Reunion, Forest Grove, OR – November 10, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Several years ago I received a phone call wherein the caller identified himself as Rodney Goff and said that he was looking for a Jerry Whiteman who had attended Forest Grove High School (FGHS) in Forest Grove, OR.  I indeed attended FGHS 1951-1955 and my name then was Jerry Whiteman (which I changed legally in Boston while at MIT in early 1960’s), and I remember Rodney because of the conversations we had while walking together from school occasionally.  “Rodney, how did you find me, and why?” I probably blurted with surprise.  Rodney replied that he was organizing a reunion of our graduating class and took upon himself a personal mission to find me to invite me.  After exhausting various computer searches he found a reference to me in Boston, then remembered that I had gone to MIT after FGHS graduation but nothing further.   As the last resort, he checked the available Boston court records in case I had changed my name, and there he found that Jerry Whiteman changed his name to George Elbaum in 1963.  Brilliant, yes?!  We then launched into a long conversation about our histories since graduation, and he asked me to attend the reunion he was planning.  I congratulated Rodney on his detective work and thanked him for the invitation, but could not accept it because I had a perfect record of zero reunion attendance: high school, MIT, organizations, etc, and I didn’t want to break it!  He then asked my permission to write a short article about his successful search and my story in the reunion handout, and I agreed.

Fast forward to summer 2020, when I received an email from Josie Ward Heath, asking if I remember her as Josie Ward from FGHS (I did), describing an online reunion she was planning for our class’s 65th graduation anniversary, and after viewing my website she had an idea to discuss with me.  She obviously got my contact info from Rodney, and while I had no interest in breaking my “perfect record” of not attending reunions, I was curious about her idea as I remembered her as someone who was always organizing something, so I phoned her.  Her idea for the reunion was for me to give my talk via zoom, followed by Q&A, and then followed by reunion chatting via zoom…. which I wouldn’t have to attend if I felt it besmirched my “perfect record.”😊  After much friendly conversation we agreed that rather than giving my talk I would provide all attendees with a link to its video recording which each person could view independently prior to the reunion, and the reunion would start with introductions, followed by Q&A about my talk, and finally the reunion chatting.  Re attendance, Josie thought it might be about 20 as over half of our small graduating class have passed away.

And so it happened!  The screen print of attendees’ photos (below) shows a dozen who attended with zoom video, plus several more participated by audio only, and the Q&A and chatting were lively and brought many, many memories to each of us.  In fact, Rodney was so committed to participating in the reunion that he can be seen in the Zoom photo in his hospital gown…but with a projected background of the Golden Gate bridge! 😊  The smiles on our faces on the photos show that we all enjoyed it.  Thank you very much, Josie, for arranging it. 

Leave a comment