‘Empowering and emotional’: Holocaust survivor speaks about anti-Semitism, need for tolerance

Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff

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Content warning: Anti-Semitic and violent subject matter

Holocaust survivor George Elbaum discussed his experiences with anti-Semitism and the need to speak out against all forms of hate with a group of about 40 people Thursday.

Elbaum, who was born in Warsaw and was just 1 year old when Hitler invaded Poland, spoke about his life during and after World War II, read from his book “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows: Vignettes of a Holocaust Childhood” and answered questions from the crowd during the event, which was called “Conversation with a Holocaust Survivor.”

“I think that the only chance of making our country and our world a better place and a more fair and tolerant place is to (make) students more aware of the effect of prejudice and of what happens when an ideology excludes groups and uses them as scapegoats,” Elbaum said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

During the event, Elbaum described his early years growing up in the Warsaw ghetto, listening to the “clang” of carts in early winter mornings as they picked up frozen bodies from the street. In three years, Elbaum added, his extended family shrank from 12 to two — leaving his mother and himself.

“If my mom had come a few minutes later, I would not be here now,” Elbaum said during the event, recalling how Nazi soldiers rounded up everyone in their neighborhood to take them to concentration camps and his mother ran up to an officer with an official permit in hand, allowing their remaining family to continue living for a time.

He shared his memories of living with Polish-Catholic families, coming face to face with a Nazi soldier, reuniting with his mother after six months of wondering if he would see her again and crying after the war ended when he found out that he was Jewish.

“I was willing to defend Jews, but I didn’t want to be one,” Elbaum said during the event, explaining why he cried. “I knew what had happened to Jews during the war.”

Although he has told these stories more than 200 times, Elbaum said in an interview that he never knows at what point he might “choke.”

Elbaum also shared stories about moving to the United States when he was 11 years old, his later experiences with Holocaust deniers and the effects the Holocaust had on his mother throughout her life.

“She never let go of the Holocaust,” Elbaum said during the event. “My problem was that I treated her as a normal adult. … She was a wounded adult.”

Throughout his talk, he emphasized the need to never be against groups, as “all the ‘antis’ are always negative, and they always lead to destruction.”  He was not incredibly optimistic, however, about the world seeing an end to genocide anytime in the near future.

Campus students Marika Vigo, Huy Cuong Huynh, Prince Obah, Raffi Terteryan, Tatum Holdaway and Kendall Swenson hosted the event in light of the recent shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead. The team hosted the event as a part of a project for Undergraduate Business Administration 155, a course in leadership taught by professor Daniel Mulhern. They wanted to “address the hate that exists in America today and initiate discussion,” according to Huynh. Vigo added that Elbaum is a “spectacular” speaker and a “role model.”

“I think just sitting and listening to his experience and his trauma, and then his ability to move beyond everything that has occurred in his life and to have such optimism and hope for future generations … is probably the most empowering and emotional thing I have ever experienced,” said campus junior Maria Sanders, who attended the event.

Contact Boyce Buchanan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.