Student Leadership Board, Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – November 4, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity launched its Student Leadership Board (SLB) 6 years ago, and its mission is “Developing Compassionate Leaders through Education and Action.  Get involved and make a difference.”  Selected through an application process, the SLB this school year (2020-21) consists of 62 motivated and passionate students from 41 schools in the state Washington (grades 7-12), with diversity in backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, coming together twice a month via the internet to learn, listen, and lead. Through project-based learning, SLB students develop skills for leadership and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.  At the same time they gain a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and make a positive difference in their schools and in their communities.  Having committed to the SLB through the end of the school year, student teams work together to carry out meaningful projects that support the Holocaust Center’s mission and provide real-world leadership experience.  The students also provide feedback on the Holocaust Center’s other programs and serve as ambassadors.

The SLB is guided by Ilana Cone Kennedy, Holocaust Center’s Director of Education, and for SLB’s November 4 meeting Ilana asked me to participate by having the students review my Holocaust background and prepare questions for an extended Q&A session with me.  I readily agreed, since answering student questions is my favorite part of my talks – Q&A allows the students to air their real world concerns, and via the dialogue to consider and hopefully absorb my message of tolerance and compassion vs. prejudice and hate as they mature. 

I was pleased by the students’ many questions, some deep and insightful and some simply humane.  Answers to questions asked during our online session and also those  emailed to me afterwards via the Holocaust Center are listed in the front part of Student Questions (300+ total) category on my website

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Lakeside School, Seattle, WA – October 30, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Lakeside School is a private school for grades 5-12 with a current enrollment of 838 students with a very strong focus on quality education as reflected by its student-to-teacher ratio of 9:1 vs. a national average of 17:1.  As a result, the 2021 NICHE school ranking rates Lakeside as #1 Best Private high school in Washington, also #1 in STEM and #1 in College Prep.  To earn these rankings, NICHE rates Lakeside A+ in Academics, Teachers, College Prep and Clubs & Activities, and A in Sports and Diversity.  As such, majority of its courses meet or exceed the rigor and depth of the AP curriculum.  In addition to academic requirements, Lakeside also requires of students a minimum of 80 hours social service (which typically is almost doubled by most), and participation in one week of Outdoor Education. 

My talk was attended by some 20 students, mostly seniors, enrolled in an elective course entitled “Genocide in the Modern World” taught by History teacher James Nau, who organized the event.  The students have recently concluded a unit of work on the Holocaust, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and doing a project using interviews from the book Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich. This was supported by other coursework around Nazism, historical context, and some discussion of related current events.  Since finishing that first unit, students viewed a film about Cambodian genocide (First They Killed My Father) and will soon begin work on the Rwanda genocide.  The students’ questions impressed me by their perceptiveness, one of which had never been asked of me before, and another one had been asked only once in my 270+ talks.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator, Holocaust Center for Humanity

Letters from students

A week after my Zoom “visit” to Lakeside, teacher James Lau forwarded to me several Thank You emails from the students.  I was deeply touched by these, especially some of the statements therein, and I have excerpted these and listed them below.  For your emails and these statements I thank you!

–Throughout this Genocide course I’ve felt my faith in humanity get buried beneath every statistic, every story, and every crime.  However, your story was different.  Although it began with the horrors you and your relatives experienced, I felt that it ended with hope, a concept that I didn’t think I would find in this class.  Your talk was one of the first times I’ve left class feeling inspired, and I know I’ll carry some of your words with me for the rest of my life.

–Your story is one that will stay with me forever, and I will never forget the beauty in your words and the power in your message.

–For me, your talk was inspirational.  Even though I obviously wasn’t involved in the Holocaust, the themes of perseverance, belief, and hope in your talk really spoke to me.  I am extremely grateful to have heard your talk and to have heard your story.

–While reading about genocide is one thing, being able to talk to someone who has lived through it makes it so much more real.

–Please keep telling your story as there are so many in this world who need to hear it, especially the younger generation.

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MIT Department of Physics, Cambridge, MA – June 25, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Along with other schools and universities, my alma mater Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) closed its campus in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it moved online those operations which could be conducted online, such as lectures, seminars, consultations, planning meetings, etc.  My 8 ½ years studying at MIT were in Aeronautics & Astronautics and in Nuclear Engineering Departments from which I received my PhD in 1967.  When I reconnected with MIT in 1999 to start “giving back” for having benefitted from its education, it was to support the Physics Department.  My logic for this choice is questionable since after getting almost all A’s in high school, the shock of getting a 20 out of 100 on my first MIT Physics test was truly an “unforgettable” experience which started a hate-love relationship with Physics.

Thus for the last 20 years I’ve maintained close personal ties with the Physics Department, and a month ago Peter Fisher, the Head of the Department and a friend, asked whether I would give my talk at the weekly lunch which he hosts via Zoom for the Physics community of faculty, staff, and students.  His reasoning was the same as for my March 20 talk to the staff of the American Technion Society: “It would be good for many in the Department to hear that others have faced adversity before.”

My talk to 45 faculty, staff and graduate students was organized by Peter Fisher, with Zoom and my PowerPoint ably managed by Ryan Higgins, Events and Development Assistant, and attendees included personnel from the Department, the School of Science, and the Administration.  As the thumbnail photos of attendees started to appear on the screen before the talk, I was very pleased to see dear and familiar faces and exchange comments with Elizabeth Chadis, Nergis Mavalvala, Erin McGrath Tribble, Alan Guth, and Claude Canizares.  During the Q&A Bolek Wyslouch’s question took me on a memory trip to my childhood in post-war Poland, and I was truly, deeply touched by Ibrahim Cisee’s response to my talk.  Also attending were Dan Kleppner, Dave Pritchard, Bob Jaffe, Bruno Coppi and others.

MIT Zoom - Blurred - 06252020

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Forum for Dialogue, Warsaw, Poland – June 17, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Forum for Dialogue is the largest and oldest Polish non-governmental organization engaging in Polish/Jewish dialogue.  Since the future truly belongs to the young, in its School of Dialogue program the Forum educates Polish teenagers about local Polish/Jewish heritage and inspires them to act.  Aimed at students of secondary schools, it acquaints them with the history of Jews in Poland and especially in their own towns, with focus on their contribution to the social, cultural and economic development.  Since almost all Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the role that Jews played in their town’s local history is often completely unknown to today’s students.  Thanks to this program, Jews cease to be ”others” and again become neighbors who, despite having perished, are not forgotten.  The School of Dialogue program is held throughout the country and reaches around one thousand students annually, and it is as part of this program that I’ve been speaking at these schools in recent years.

Closely associated with educating the students in the School of Dialogue is supporting their teachers and enhancing their knowledge through seminars, workshops, and other educational activities.  While the School of Dialogue workshops are led by Forum’s especially trained educators, the success of young people’s commemorative efforts often hinges on their teachers at school, who encourage and advise them. The teachers are also there to help students continue the work of bringing back memory of the local Jewish community once the program itself is over. My presentation today was aimed at these teachers, who were the majority of the audience.

Forum’s educators who conduct the School of Dialogue workshops are especially trained not only in Jewish history and culture in the local region but also how to react to difficult situations such as responding to anti-Semitic comments during workshops, overcoming resistance in the local community, etc.  They, too, were invited to join the session.

Also attending the presentation were participants in the Forum’s other programs.  Leaders of Dialogue is a program aimed for local activists, typically outside large municipal centers, who are involved in Polish/Jewish dialogue, combating anti-Semitism, teaching about Jewish history and culture and preserving local Jewish heritage.  For them, Forum for Dialogue has created a platform for exchanging experiences and best practices, broadening their knowledge and honing their skills.  Attending also were participants of the Shared Heritage program: Christian leaders and activists committed to fostering understanding between Christians and Jews in the context of Polish/Jewish history.

My presentation via Zoom was organized and moderated by Forum’s coordinators Julia Machnowska and Maria Sokolowska and translated by Maria Piekarska.


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Methuen High School, Methuen, MA – June 2, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Methuen High School (MHS) is a public secondary school serving grades 9-12.  It has an enrollment of 1950, of which 46% is minority and 47% from low-income families.  The Holocaust is taught at MHS as part of English Department studies by teacher Jackie Rubino, who organized my presentation at MHS and uses educational materials from Facing History and Ourselves and other sources..  Approximately 80 of MHS’s 9th grade students attended today’s presentation via Zoom, and the materials they have already studied include much of the Holocaust and Human Behavior book from Facing History, “Schindler’s List,” selections from the The World Must Know, Night by Elie Wiesel, plus   supplemental materials.

In the 10 years of presentations I have noticed that the quality of students’ questions during the Q&A depends on the quality of student preparation, and thus the quality of teaching.  Enthusiastic teachers such as Jackie Rubino result in enthusiastic students, and that resulted in our Q&A lasting 40 minutes after my almost an hour presentation.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of her students’ questions, and some of their most thoughtful ones had been asked of me only once or twice in the 260+ talks I have given to date.  I’ve long felt that the Q&A is often the most important part of my talks because it represents our 2-way communication, and I was very pleased and moved by today’s session.

Attending the presentation (by Zoom) were also 13 MHS teachers and the head of the English Department.  My participation was arranged by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History.

Letters from students

Two weeks after the Zoom “visit” with Methuen, I received two memorable packages: the first was a box of wonderful sweets from teacher Jackie Rubino, visually colorful and oh-so delicious!  Kept in the refrigerator and partaken judiciously, it will keep my sweet tooth happy for some time. 😊

The second package was an envelope with a pack of neatly typed letters from the students.  As has been our habit, my wife Mimi and I read these letters, highlighted the sentences or sections that resonated with us because of their thoughtfulness or sensitivity, and these excerpts are listed below.

  • Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and sharing it with the world too.
  • Even though I don’t know you personally, I feel as if I do after learning so much about you and your childhood and early adulthood.
  • It’s very inspirational that you were able to look back on your past and accept that it was a part of you despite all of the terrible things that have happened to you. I hope that you live for many more years and that you continue to spread your story.
  • I feel very much influenced by your good energy and positive attitude. Over the past few months our country has been hit with a lot of terrorizing news changing everyone’s lives.  Change for me is never easy.  Subconsciously, I chose to make the worst out of it.  I wasn’t doing any of my school work. I hadn’t talked to my friends for weeks.  I was surrounded in a bubble of negativity and I didn’t know what to do about it.  About two weeks ago I realized I was tired of living this way.  I finally realized I have to make the best out of a bad situation.  Your presentation gave me a sense of clarity.  The way that you make the best out of a negative experience is truly inspiring, and it’s because of people like you that I continue each and every day with an optimistic outlook on life.
  • Your story was really touching and when I could really feel your pain, especially when you started to tear up, I felt more touched.
  • I loved the reasoning behind your book title “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.”
  • It was very special to see you talk about your mother. It was very visible that you are proud of her, and hearing about her strength to keep you and herself safe during the Holocaust was very inspiring.
  • I will use your message of standing up against discrimination to face situations that may need it in my future.
  • I love the fact that you didn’t let him (a vocational counselor) discourage you and instead thought, he’s probably discouraging you because that happened to him. That really stuck with me and showed me that I should never let anyone discourage me from something I really want to do.
  • It was very inspiring to hear you, who has gone through so much in their life, to be so determined and not give up on what you wanted to pursue. Even though the odds were against you, you worked hard and got to where you wanted which is something I will definitely remember and hope to do that in my lifetime.
  • Even in dark times you were able to find joy by looking at the airplane flying in the sky through the hole in the roof, and now you are doing what you love.
  • I feel very relieved that you didn’t have to go to concentration camps, but I see that you still go through pain from the tragic events that you’ve seen and felt. You have inspired me in many ways from your story.
  • Your words about never letting anyone tell us we cannot accomplish something or go into a career we chose are very motivational. It showed me that if I put my mind to something, I can make it happen.  Even though you grew up in such a difficult position, you still made a wonderful career and life out of it.
  • Overall, your words made a huge difference in my understanding of the Holocaust and how I think about discrimination of many kinds.

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JFCS Holocaust Center – Israeli American Council Summer Learning Series, San Francisco, CA – May 26, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center 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 Holocaust Center provides educational programs on the Holocaust for teachers, students, and community members.  Their recently-launched Summer Learning Series includes virtual programming open to anyone in the world.  My talk, the first of the series, was organized by the JFCS Holocaust Center jointly with the Israeli American Council (IAC) and was followed by several breakout sessions for reflection and discussion.  Approximately 85 guests participated in the event, which was organized by JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator Penny Savryn in partnership with Sharona Israeli-Roth, San Francisco Regional Director of IAC.  Morgan Blum Schneider, Director of the JFCS Holocaust Center, welcomed attendees and all three of them, in turn, introduced me .

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Islander Middle School, Mercer Island, WA – May 20, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Islander Middle School (IMS) is the only public middle school (grades 6 thru 8) on Mercer Island.  Its enrollment is approximately 1100 students with 28% minority.  IMS utilizes district-adopted curriculum as the foundation for its core classes as well as offering a variety of engaging learning electives, and it clearly succeeds in this task as it’s ranked an impressive 10th of 441 Washington middle schools.  The school’s mission statement, “We strive to ensure a challenging, relevant and engaging experience where every student is able to advance to a greater level of understanding, ability and performance,” clearly extends beyond only academics, as it prepares its students to “thrive in today’s cognitive, digital, and global world while sustaining their passion and inspiration for learning.”

In addition to academics, IMS has a strong social and societal focus, presenting and promoting subjects such as race and equality, civil rights, and other current issues of our society.  The monthly Principal’s Message on its website also includes down-to-earth advice for students, such as use and misuse of social media, and a monthly Character Trait Dare, such as honesty, forgiveness, etc, with specific suggestions for students to test themselves on that trait.

As part of the school’s societal focus I was invited to speak about my Holocaust childhood to the 8th grade class (approx. 200 students) as I did the previous 3 years.  Unlike the past years, however, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to switch from in-person to online teaching, and my talk also online via Zoom.  All went according to plan until Zoom crashed several minutes before the end of my presentation and the start of Q&A.  I therefore lost the opportunity to encourage students to speak up when faced with bullying, antisemitism or racism, and also to address the list of 28 questions that they assembled before my talk plus an equal number submitted during the talk via Zoom’s chat feature.  Since I feel strongly that the Q&A is a critical part of the talk, I committed to answering these questions via email.

The event was again organized by Language Arts teacher Joseph Gushanas and attended by Principal MaryJo Budzius and English teachers Aaron Miller and Weston Lucas.  My participation was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Research Coordinator, Holocaust Center for Humanity.

The event was again organized by Language Arts teacher Joseph Gushanas and arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Research Coordinator, Holocaust Center for Humanity.

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Catholic Memorial School, West Roxbury, MA – May 18, 2020

by George J Elbaum

Catholic Memorial School (CM) is an all-boys college preparatory school (grades 7–12) with an attendance of 732 students (650 in grades 9-12) and a stated purpose to “prepare boys for college, manhood and a world full of unknown challenges, ambiguity and complex problems and the importance of relationships.”

In addition to academics, Catholic Memorial prepares its students for community leadership roles through its speech and debate program, and nearly every student participates in “forensics”, or speech and debate, at one point in his academic career.  CM faculty teach students public speaking skills through various classroom activities.  In the Speech and Debate club students perform and compete inter-scholastically as they recite speeches, dramatic acts and original oratory.  The school’s Speech and Debate program has produced over 25 state and three national champions, and its Forensics program has won two straight Massachusetts Speech and Debate league championships in 2017 and 2018.

CM’s mission also includes the mandate to teach young men to “lead through service”.  CM students participate in numerous domestic and international trips each year, and these build a community among the students and immerse students in service experiences.  Additionally, a required 60-hour senior service program begins at the start of each year, with seniors serving at inner-city grammar schools, hospitals, non-profit agencies, clothing distribution centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens.  Volunteers from all grades and CM’s ten community service clubs contribute thousands of hours of service each year.

Athletics is also a strong focus at CM, and its ice hockey program is regarded as one of the premier high school ice hockey programs in the country.  As such, its team has been ranked #1 team in the United States several times and won the Massachusetts Super Eight Tournament 17 times.  CM has also produced state champions in wrestling and lacrosse.

My talk at Central Catholic via Zoom was organized by Peter Hill, its International Student Coordinator and member of the Social Studies Faculty.  The audience was the 10th grade Western Civilization Honors class that was currently in the midst of studying WWII and the Holocaust, using materials developed by Facing History and Ourselves.  Attending also were Vin Bradley, Social Studies Department Chair, and Michael Kotsopoulos, Theology teacher and Assistant Director of Communications. Over the years I’ve come to believe that the quality of students’ questions reflects the quality of teaching, and thus their teacher, and these students asked some very important & perceptive questions, several that have never been asked of me in my 260+ talks.  Bravo!

The talk was arranged by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves.

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

by George J Elbaum

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

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

Letters from students

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

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

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

by George J Elbaum

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

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

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

Emails from students

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

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

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