West Roxbury, Mass.— A Holocaust survivor offered a harrowing lesson inside an online classroom at Catholic Memorial School this May.
Mr. George Elbaum, author of the book Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows, recounted his childhood inside the Warsaw Ghetto on a Zoom call with a group of Catholic Memorial School history students during his online visit to CM’s virtual campus.
During his talk, he answered student questions about the atrocities he witnessed over the course of World War II and made sure to remind each student of the need to identify and stand up to injustice in today’s world.
“I’d like to tell you about the world that I was born into,” Mr. Elbaum told the students.
“A dangerous world that I survived but only because of major luck. A world that I hope none of you will ever have to experience.”
Mr. Peter Hill, the International Student Coordinator at CM, organized and facilitated the Zoom call for students in his Western Civilization Honors class.
“For students, nothing can replace hearing a first-hand account of a historical event,” Mr. Hill said.
“Hearing directly from someone who experienced the event provides an increased understanding and connection to it and further humanizes those from that time.”
Months ago, CM History Chair Mr. Vincent Bradley had originally arranged for Mr. Elbaum to visit CM’s campus. He arranged the visit through the Brookline-based non-profit, Facing History and Ourselves. However, when CM closed its campus and transitioned to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Hill decided to arrange for a Zoom call instead.
“Despite having to complete the talk via Zoom, Mr. Elbaum provided an engaging talk and thoughtfully answered questions with transparency,” he said.
“For the students, they now have a personal connection with Mr. Elbaum, and through him, the Holocaust.
Mr. Hill said his Western Civilization course encourages the use of primary sources to provide a variety of viewpoints on historical events. So, after finishing a unit that focused on World War II and the Holocaust, he saw Mr. Elbaum and his book Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows as a perfect primary source for his students to learn from.
In his book, Mr. Elbaum details his memories of living in Poland during the Holocaust. The book details how, within a few years of Germany invading Poland in 1939, Nazis had killed 10 of his 12 Jewish family members. Only Mr. Elbaum – a one-year-old boy at the time – and his mother had survived. He and his mother managed to escape the Warsaw Ghetto in the middle of the war and migrated to America years after the war ended.
In America, Mr. Elbaum attended high school in Oregon and studied Aeronautics & Astronautics and Nuclear Engineering at MIT. After he graduated from MIT, Mr. Elbaum set off on an accomplished career in the aerospace industry.
He told Mr. Hill’s students that his interest in flying actually stemmed from one of his earliest memories inside the ghetto. He said that, through a hole in the roof of a shed he hid in, he remembered watching a Nazi airplane fly overhead.
“At that time, I didn’t understand that there was a Nazi airplane and that the black crosses were Nazi insignia,” he read from his book.
“It just looked so beautiful to me against the blue sky. It wasn’t constrained in a dark shed as I was.”
Mr. Elbaum’s candid nature kept the students engaged throughout the entirety of his talk. He even disclosed why he waited until 2009 to share his account of the Holocaust with the rest of the world.
“The reason I said ‘no’ every time was that I saw what the memories of the Holocaust did to my mother,” said Mr. Elbaum.
“She was a very successful businesswoman in America, but she was haunted by the memories [of the Holocaust] to her dying days.”
Such insight left a profound impression on the mind of each student. In fact, Mr. Hill believes his students left the talk with a deepened sense of understanding and empathy, especially as it relates to history.
“While I might talk about how tragic events in history should inspire us to stand up to injustice and for oppressed groups, hearing it from George makes it more tangible and meaningful,” Mr. Hill said.
“I believe that this talk will resonate in the minds of the students who attended throughout their lives when they think about the choices they have to make in the face of injustice.”