Holocaust Survivor George J. Elbaum Tells His Life Story
During third period on April 13, 2015, Holocaust survivor and author of the book “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows,” George J. Elbaum came as a guest speaker to American High School. In two hours, he traced his journey from a Jewish child in Nazi-controlled Poland to an aeronautical engineer in America to where he is now, and left students with his approach on life based on these experiences.
Six million Jews were killed during World War II. Ten of those people lived with Elbaum in a house in the Warsaw ghetto. Only two people survived- Elbaum and his mom. Unaware that one of the darkest periods in history was unfolding around him, three-year old Elbaum was smuggled out of the ghettos and hidden among Polish families by his mom, who was disguised as a Catholic Polish woman and took on various jobs in households. “My mom was smart,” Elbaum said. “For me, it was all luck.”
Never given the chance for a normal childhood, Elbaum took the wartime hardships for granted. He was always hungry, but people were starving to death on the streets. He could not live with his mom. Neither did he remember having a father. At the first sign of danger, he was whisked to another house. This continued for the next four years.
In 1944, the Soviets were closing in, and issued a call to arms through the radio that resulted in the tragic Warsaw Uprising. As the Polish resistance fought with the Nazis, the Soviet army watched from the opposite river bank without lifting a hand. On the brink of this slaughter, Elbaum’s adoptive family packed them all in a rickshaw and peddled them away to a farm in the countryside.
Just before leaving, Elbaum found a curious-looking object which he tossed into a ditch. A moment later, it exploded. “Leon [head of the family he was staying with] heard the grenade and went even faster than before. Either I would have died or the Nazis would have killed us for having a weapon. Again, double luck.” One day, Elbaum’s mother appeared in the middle of the night, crying as she embraced him. “How she found me- I have no idea. I never asked,” Elbaum said. Then, with the marvelous sweetness of a sugar cube spreading through his mouth, his mother told him, “You are saved.”
However, danger still lurked in Warsaw. Polish mobs were going around beating up Jews. Poland became a Communist satellite. Once again, Elbaum’s mother sent him away, but to Palestine this time. When an accident landed Elbaum back in Poland. From there, his mother worked for the Polish Communist government in France before they both defected to the United States.
At the age of 11, Elbaum was introduced to a new culture, new language, and most importantly, new opportunities. He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. His counselor told him that at best, he could be a mechanic. “Don’t let anyone discourage you. I didn’t,” Elbaum said. Elbaum went on to attend MIT, graduating with a bachelors and masters in aeronautics and astronautics, and a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering.
Despite a successful career in the United States and abroad, Elbaum kept silent about his past for more than sixty years. “I saw how it affected my mom, and I became emotionally detached,” he said. Even now it is hard. “Every time I speak, I don’t know when my voice will break up,” he said, “but I know there is value in my memories. People have to learn about the Holocaust so that they know human cruelty and prevent it. Always choose truth, justice, and fairness over anger and hate.”
His message resounds throughout the generations. “I thought that the point he made about growing up in the South spoke to my experience,” Jane Lin, a volunteer in the AVID program, said, “The Holocaust is horrible since people are targeted for who they are.During the Vietnam War, I moved from Taiwan to Tennessee, where Asians were targeted. The same happened with 9/11 with my Indian relative.”
For students, guest speakers like Elbaum provide that crucial connection between book learning and the world. “We learned facts from books and history lessons,” said Aditi Gopalan (12). “From guest speakers like Elbaum- experience. Being put in their mindset and to feel what they feel is invaluable,” .
More than a historical reference, he is also an inspiration. “A German plane inspired him to be an engineer. What he escaped from became a positive goal for him to work for,” said Rex Tse (9). “I think we need to bring in more people like him to talk to students.”
“Don’t dwell in yesterday, but don’t ponder on future that might not happen,” Elbaum explained concerning the title of the book, but also challenged students saying, “Imagine twenty years from now in a foreign country. If the government is persecuting a small minority, and you could save a person by taking them in, would you do it?”
Edit: The organization Facing History and Ourselves coordinated with Mr. Weinstein to bring Mr. Elbaum to American High School. The AVID classes and Mr. Creger’s class attended t