Teenage members of the Aguila Youth Leadership Institute were given the ultimate history lesson as they met face-to-face with seven Holocaust survivors to hear their stories.
More than 100 student members of Aguila attended the organization’s summer symposium to learn from Holocaust survivors at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society on Thursday, July 18.
Aguila is a college preparatory program that just celebrated 15 years of service, with students from its program all over the world. The institute’s CEO and founder, Rosemary Ybarra-Hernandez, said that the organization tries to offer more than just preparation for higher learning. “We want our students to go to college with a purpose.”
The annual summer symposium is a three-day themed learning event. This year’s theme was “Taking the Lead.” The AZJHS incorporated that concept into their all-day learning event, “Taking the Lead — Remembering the Past to Create a Future.” This was the first time Aguila and the AZJHS collaborated.
“How are we going to make sure our kids remember the Holocaust if we don’t teach it?” Ybarra-Hernandez asked. “Our first priority is to help our students become engaged in our communities and feel that they can contribute to them.”
The executive director of the AZJHS, Lawrence Bell, wanted the students to learn from people who have experienced one of the worst events in human history.
“Not only did they survive, but they found ways to overcome these tragedies and have transformed their lives because of it,” Bell said during the symposium’s introduction. “I really hope that you get a message that regardless of race or religion, we are all Americans. We need to live together in this society and that’s what makes this country strong, is that we are made up of everybody in the world.”
Estrella Mountain Community College adjunct educator of social and behavioral sciences Anthony Fusco helped create the daylong event. He selected the speakers he felt would have the most impact on the visiting students. At the beginning of the event, five speakers addressed the students with detailed stories of their personal experiences. The speakers consisted of two World War II veterans, one Afghanistan war veteran, one 9/11 survivor and a Holocaust survivor.
The Holocaust survivor, Oskar Noble, thanked the veterans for their service and said that he doubted he would be there to share his story if not for them. He also encouraged the students to be aware and vigilant because, he said, what happened in Germany could happen anywhere, even in America.
“Believe it or not, but you are the future of not just this country but also the world,” Noble said. “And you must change it so that democracy can prevail. Evil should not be allowed to come to power ever again.”
After the speaking engagement, AZJHS volunteers led students through the exhibit “We Remember: The Liberators,” which followed the stories of WWII veterans who liberated concentration camps. Students also watched a documentary about the liberators.
Aguila students then had the opportunity to meet with the five speakers and six additional Holocaust survivors who attended the event. Huddled around tables, the students were able to ask questions and learn from firsthand accounts.
“Life is so unpredictable and you have to be sure in life to not take things for granted,” Holocaust survivor Charlotte Adelman said. “To have the students listen to stories like mine, I think, gives them more strength and understanding.”
Aguila member and Centennial High School student Valerie Tuday was inspired by Adelman’s story.
“I feel like she made me learn a lot about how to push through, and she made sure to relate her life story to us,” Tuday said. “It’s important for us to take those instances and events and apply them to what’s happening now. Even though it’s not happening quite the same as it did back then, it’s still important to consider those dark moments in order for us to make a better future.”
Tuday added that the Holocaust survivors and veterans helped her understand that a leader needs to represent everyone, not just a select few.
Valley Vista High School student Marcos Gutierrez said the event was eye-opening. It was his second year at the Aguila summer symposium and he had never had a learning experience like it.
“Aguila has given me a lot of information to take that next step beyond high school,” said Gutierrez. “But it’s also given me a lot of unique learning opportunities like this, where we got to listen to different stories we would not have heard otherwise.” JN