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Seniors Give History Class an Eyewitness Look at Past

May 14, 1987|AURORA MACKEY | Mackey is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

North Hollywood High School history teacher Edward Kaz was so frustrated when his students flunked a simple assignment, he figured there had to be a better way to teach the subject.

There was.

These days his students walk three blocks from the high school's campus to the Joel Wachs Multipurpose Senior Center and learn about the Depression and World War II from people who lived through those historic events.

"Other societies have known for ages about the value of oral history, the passing on of information from one generation to another," said Kaz, who has taught history, government and social studies at the school for last six years.

The people at the senior center, many of whom are part of a weekly men's rap group, "jumped at the chance" to talk about their struggles through the Great Depression, Kaz said.

'Stay in School'

"All of them had these stories about how tough it had been, and each story had the same moral: Stay in school," Kaz said. "It was as if suddenly all these people had instant grandchildren to give all this good advice to."

Last week at the center, the subject was World War II.

Moderated by Morris Goldin, who has led the weekly rap group at the center for the last six years, the seniors took turns responding briefly to questions asked by students.

Where were you the day Pearl Harbor was attacked? asked one.

"I was shopping in a furniture store where a radio was on," said one man. "My first thought was that it was a gag, like 'War of the Worlds.' "

"My brother-in-law and his friend, both of whom were unmarried and in their early 40s, had come for breakfast that Sunday morning," recalled another man, his white hair protruding from under a baseball cap. "One year later, those same two men were sitting in sergeants' uniforms at my table."

Trying to Serve

While a handful of the men said they had fought in Europe or the Pacific during the war, many had remained in the United States--sometimes against their wills. One man who was born deaf in one ear, for example, said he tried unsuccessfully for two years to be allowed to fight overseas.

Another student wanted to know what the women did.

"I didn't work in the factories because I had small children at home," one woman said. "But every night I got together with a group of women to make sweaters that we sent to men overseas. We were doing our part."

Opinions frequently differed, especially over the bombing of Hiroshima.

"Thousands of Americans had died already, so don't think we weren't overjoyed when we heard the news," said 67-year-old Irving Good. "We were glad the bomb was dropped."

"I'm sorry, but I have to take a different stand," replied Lillian Kohn, 66. She told the students she vowed at the time to oppose all atomic weapons.

"Dropping the bomb wasn't about ending the war, it was about revenge. It was known already that Japan would surrender," she said.

When a student asked how the seniors felt about "nothing being done" by the United States to help the Jews, the atmosphere inside the center grew more intense.

'Little Was Known'

"Very little was known and much wasn't believed," said a small, white-haired man who stood up and spoke softly.

"I was in a synagogue when a man came in and told us what was happening to the Jews in Germany, and he was hooted off the platform. It was only toward the very end of the war that I began to believe these stories were true."

From the back of the room, a woman's voice rose sharply. "You were a minority then."

The man stood up again.

"Excuse me, but I was a large minority," he said and sat down again.

After an hour, the students walked back to the high school and to their next classes. Some senior citizens remained at the center, while others started toward home.

In the days to follow, however, both groups had time to reflect on the experience.

'Excess Baggage'

"For the six years I've led the Tuesday morning men's rap group, I've gotten the strong sense that when these men retired, it was as if a wall came down on their lives that put them in isolation and boredom--as if they felt they were excess baggage in our culture," said Goldin, who worked with CBS as an engineer for more than 30 years.

Goldin's group, made up of 120 men aged 65 to 95, meet to discuss political, social and philosophical issues.

"The teen-agers aren't the only ones without the contact. Seniors are also lacking in intergenerational communication," he said. "When they stood up there and talked about their lives, it was as if they were saying, 'I've had experience. I matter.' "

In Kaz's history class the following day, the students commented on the changes that have taken place in certain attitudes, how dropping the atomic bomb "changed war forever," and the diversity of opinions expressed by the group.

"Seniors have so many things inside them, and it's wrong for them to just take it all away with them," said 16-year-old Jose Cohen, whose sentiments were echoed by numerous classmates. "We could get a lot from them if they could pass it all on to us."

Kaz's affection for history--and in remembering--is not difficult to see. On the front lawn of the school stands a cement marker, dedicated by the teacher's 1985 current-history class: "In memory of former North Hollywood High School students who died in the defense of their country during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War."

Next year, the 31-year-old teacher's goal, along with returning to the senior center, is to bury a time capsule. The school will be celebrating its 60th birthday.

"I'd like to have it opened on the school's 100th birthday, since I figure I'll still be around then," he said, smiling. "I want to be that old guy who comes back and says, 'All right you little so and so's, let me tell you what it really was like.' "

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