by George J Elbaum
Oceana High School is a small public high school in northern 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%. It has accomplished this by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students.
This was my third visit to Oceana since 2015, and it was again organized by Humanities teacher Coreen Hartig with support from Leigh Poehler, Roisin Madden, and David Roberts. 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 many staff members including Principal April Holland, Wellness Counselor Nico Storrow, Gregory Lukens, Paul Orth, and many others.
In addition to thanking teacher Coreen Hartig for organizing the presentation, I definitely want to thank Marlon, who I believe is a long-time member of Oceana’s maintenance staff. When I turned off from Paloma Avenue much too early and came upon a dead end, he happened to be working there and “steered me right.” Then, when after my talk I wandered around school grounds taking photos of student art (see below) and wound up on the opposite side of the school from where I parked my car, Marlon appeared out of nowhere and once again “steered me right”. 😊 So, thank you, Marlon!
On my previous visits to Oceana I was quite impressed with the colorful student art on its concrete walls, and now I did recognize some paintings which I photographed and included in my previous visit web post. This time, however, there were many more paintings, especially big, colorful, new ones, and when leaving the school after my talk I kept taking photos and more photos and more photos, to show to my wife Mimi who is a professional artist, and to post several of these (below).
Letters from Students
Every once in a while, especially around Christmas time, a mailed batch of students’ letters gets delayed (or lost), only to be delivered weeks (or even months!) later, which apparently happened to 122 letters from students attending my November 8, 2019 talk at Oceana High School. As has been our custom when getting a large batch of letters from students, my wife Mimi and I read these after our dinner, a couple dozen per evening, excerpting parts that resonate with us, and after several evenings when we’ve read all the letters I add the excerpts to the website post.
Two aspects of the letters and notes from Oceana struck us. First is the very, very large number (3 1/2 pages!) of statements that Mimi and I found sensitive or meaningful or touching, and thus excerpted from the letters, especially considering Oceana’s modest number of students. Mimi and I attribute this to excellent discussions that the teachers held with the students after my talk, evoking in them deeper thoughts and feelings about my story, and thus the human condition and themselves. Next is the large number of creative decorations and drawings on the students’ notes, be these artistic enhancements to the Thank You on a note or humorous sketches relating to my aviation history or love of sweets. Perhaps the students might be influenced by the extensive student murals on many of Oceana’s exterior walls.
Below are our excerpts from the Oceana students’ letters that I received two weeks ago.
- I think that hearing your story changed me, because after I got off work Friday I saw a man who was homeless and I gave him some cash I had, and said “if you need anything” and bought him some food, and I thought of your story and I felt good.
- I was able to both mentally and emotionally get an idea of what you went through, and sort of have a heart to heart connection with you in that way.
- My friends and I talked about how Nazis were more mentally unstable than the people they deemed to be so. How could a person look into the eyes of an innocent human being and stab them not moments later? What makes them think it’s ok? This only comes to show how power can manipulate a large population so easily and at such a rapid pace.
- Your speech taught me to be less judgmental because you truly don’t know what a person’s been through until you talk to them.
- There were many moments where my heart dropped and I really could not believe that I belonged to the same species that caused so much damage to its own kind.
- Your saying, “Be for something and not against something,” will always stay with me as sit’s a very simple but meaningful phrase.
- After your talk I learned to never take things for granted, like food, water, shelter, and basically everyday needs. When I went home I told my parents about your story and they were very interested in it.
- Thank you so much for telling us your story, and I hope you know that it has touched many of our hearts.
- It was the first school assembly in a long time that was truly interesting and impactful.
- You said some really important things about choosing to be kind and not thinking about the future or the past, but still being mindful of them.
- I hope you can continue to tell people your story and know that it does get through to younger generations. Thank you so much.
- Your speech was very inspiring and it touched me very much. This gave me hope that anything is possible. I hope life treats you well – you deserve it!
- Do you have any other ideas about what motivates one to share their story after all these years?
- It’s nice to see things as simple as a sugar cube be so valued during that time. Something most of us take for granted was one of the best things you’ve ever tasted.
- May your story never be forgotten.
- I can totally understand what it’s like to immigrate to the U.S. and be clueless about some stuff. I thought your story about learning to play baseball in school was really funny. It reminded me of when I first came to Pacifica. I didn’t know the culture here and it was really awkward for me to play games with the other kids. I made embarrassing mistakes when learning to plan football and kickball.
- I think it wasn’t luck that you lived through it. I think you are supposed to talk to kids and inspire them. Everything has a purpose and I think it wasn’t luck that you are alive today.
- Thank you for coming and telling us your story. I was upright in my chair the entire time, which doesn’t when I’m at school, and whenever you talked about the different times you were saved by luck, I was on the edge of my seat.
- I hope you still fly airplanes and that they make you feel free and excited, like how the airplane you saw from the shed made you feel.
- To the luckiest man alive, history shall be told and never to be forgotten. We shall learn from mistakes and never repeat them. THANK YOU for having the bravery to tell us about those horrible, inhumane times.
- Thank you for surviving to tell us History!
- I think you have very good ideals and you are a peaceful person – someone I would strive to be.
- That was probably the most enlightening moment I’ve had in my entire life. Thank you so much for that, and I hope you continue to spread your stories all around the world.
- The fact that you we able to find it in yourself to face it and even talk about it in front of hundreds of people is nothing short of AMAZING!
- Thank you on behalf of my school for not only informing and educating us but spreading positivity and kindness that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
- You’ve helped me develop a better understanding regarding how victims felt.
- A lot of my family is from Mexico. They face racism and discrimination a lot, and I’m always there for them to stand up for themselves. Your story helped me realize that I could do more now and when I am older, not just for immigrants but for everyone.
- I sent you a 3D printed airplane I modeled in Blender 3D.
- Hearing from you is so important for us kids, so we can hear from the victim and understand this event on a more emotional level.
- Thank you for sharing your story with us and making the events easier to grasp.
- Your whole life is one of a survivor.
- I also moved here at a young age and I can connect with a feeling of being uncomfortable, but I have adjusted.
- Your story gives me hope and inspires me to keep going, even when times get hard.
- I find it very incredible that you made it to MIT and proved everyone wrong. It inspires me to work hard to achieve my goals. It inspires me to go out of my way to follow my dreams.
- The story that you shared really inspired me to do great things in my life.
- Your story made me realize that you were meant to live to spread knowledge and understanding to the youth.
- Hearing a real story from a survivor really touched my heart. It truly saddens me to know that this was your reality, and I could never imagine the feeling of trying to hide and save yourself.
- Your talk really changed my perspective on my own life. It made me appreciate the things I have, and that tomorrow is not promised, and stay in the moment.
- When I found out a Holocaust survivor was coming to talk to us, I was ecstatic. I looked forward to hearing your story the whole week. When I went home, I told my parents your whole story.
- I feel that hearing someone talk about their experience is more effective and empowering compared to just learning about it through a textbook in class. Perhaps it is because a person speaking from their perspective makes understanding something more personal and easier to sympathized with.
- It really surprised me how many times you were so close to death, and how many times little decisions changed your fate. It also shocked me how of all 12 people in your family only you and your mom survived. I thought this was really sad and it helped me put into perspective how lethal the Holocaust was.
- You changed the way I think about the world and value my life and the life I was born into.
- Being able to hear from a person in real life who experienced and lived through the Holocaust affected me differently because it was your story, your journey; not just numbers and facts on paper.
- Your talk changed me because I want to make my life more meaningful at my age right now and when I’m an adult.
- We have been learning about genocide for months and we have never taken it personally or thought about its importance until you came.
- When we discussed what happened to your grandma in the hiding place, it made me think about how I should be grateful for my family & how I should never take them for granted because someday they will be gone.
- When learning about families being separated, children starving, Nazis torturing Jews, it made me realize how grateful I am because even though my parents are not rich, they still afford to give me a beautiful life.
- I understand why you felt that being Jewish was a burden. Being Muslim myself, I admit that even when I am proud to be part of my religion, it can be a burden to face prejudice or isolation at times.
- You also taught us the importance of hope and to look at the present and cherish it.
- One thing that really sticks out to me is how your mom was a very strong smart woman. It seems she always knew what to do. Your talk made me think that I am very lucky to live in peace.
- My only question is do you have a secret you haven’t said yet?
- What stood out the most to me in your talk was the comparison you made of the Nazis killing the same number of Jews every 8 months as the number of people who live in San Francisco. This really made me see the mass numbers.
- I have become more curious about how others see things from their perspective. I also want to integrate more sympathy for others because I don’t want to judge how others think or feel.
- You included so many details that make me feel like I was there.
- When discussing the Holocaust and WWII my previous teachers focused mainly on the war and the Holocaust itself, so your discussion on the pogroms in Poland, the Soviet occupation and the journey that many Jews took to Palestine were completely new to me.
- It truly terrified me how regardless of how well your mother or Polish families planned and worked to keep you safe, so much of your life still depended on sheer luck.
- You were the first Holocaust survivor that I have ever met, so meeting you and listening to your story added a reality and a true humanity to the Holocaust that history books and lessons were incapable of doing.
- I can’t begin to imagine how difficult the decision to share your story must have been, but I can tell you that what you have told us will most certainly stay with us throughout our lives.
- Your stories have enlightened us about the hate in humankind, but also the generosity of other Poles when they offered you a home to stay in.
- You were a young boy who was eating soup because you were hungry. While eating the soup, you saw a Nazi. Then out came your smile, but you mentioned you didn’t know why you smiled. It just came out naturally, and this is what I love about this story. Because of your innocence and natural kindness as a child, without knowing you saved yourself.
- I will keep in mind your path of fairness and truth that you mentioned as a personal guide to my everyday life. Thank you so much.
- Your story really shed a new light on my life; it made me start to try to treat everyone with respect and compassion, like you noted.
- I now understand more deeply the fear and depression that the Holocaust instilled in its victims, and the anger and hatred that it instilled in its perpetrators.
- Your story humbled and enlightened me, and I know now more than ever the importance of defending the innocent, and my sheer luck for being born into a life of luxury and safety.
- My teacher asked us if we thought society and people can change. This is really a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question, seeing as society teaches us how to be, yet people have to make the choice to change themselves. People can question what they’ve been taught and re-learn love, but it has to be their choice. That’s why people like you are so important. You teach us the truth while we’re not filled with blind hatred yet.
- It is easy to think about the tragedy objectively – numbers of people killed and amount of time – but when I heard how you explained it and all of your childhood memories, it brought humanity to the topic. Thank you for speaking to us.
- Thank you for opening my mind to a new and more personal outlook on the Holocaust. You have changed the way I will perceive it for the rest of my life.
- One last and most important messages for me was that sometimes we need trials in life, or we will never be able to grow.
- Hearing you speak made me feel like it was something that happened in the very recent past and not a distant history.
Letters from Teachers
- There are no words that can adequately express our gratitude for your coming to our school to share your story, your feelings, and your wisdom with us.
- Thank you for giving a part of yourself to us, so that our hearts and souls may be filled with compassion and a desire to make our world a better place.
- You have left your mark on us, and it is a mark that will remind us always to be better – to be kinder, to be wiser, to be more generous with each other.
- Even though I’ve learned about and studied the Holocaust often over the last 30 years, hearing your experiences helped deepen, clarify, and solidify much of my understanding.
- Your stories of the several close calls you experienced were excellent reminders of the role that luck has in all of our lives.
- I will use the information you shared with us to enhance my teaching in the years to come.
students and wall art
starting the talk
with April Holland, principal, and teachers Paul Orth, David Roberts, Leigh Poehler, Coreen Hartig, and Roisin Madden
with Nate and Liam
and more art
Students’ decorated notes