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Holocaust survivors mentor students to link past

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For years, Wolf Elston has shared his experiences as a refugee of the Holocaust with audiences throughout the American Southwest.

The Albuquerque resident and semi-retired geologist has spoken at museums and at remembrance events as he recalls the horrors of losing his family to Nazi death camps. But as Elston and other fellow Holocaust survivors and refugees face declining health in Southwest cities, they are in a race against time to share their experiences with a new generation and a population far removed from event 70 years ago— young Latino and black students.

New mentor programs seeks to pair Holocaust survivors with minority students as a last effort to keep memories alive as survivors fade away in New Mexico, Montana and parts of California, where the survivor and refugee populations are smaller. Some cities and towns are losing a dozen or so Holocaust survivors a year, dwindling the number of survivors to just a handful in areas that have seen a growth in new Latino residents.

Renee Firestone, 88, a survivor who now lives in Los Angeles, said that's why survivors and refugees see their final important act as eyewitnesses as reaching out to students whose families know little or nothing about the Holocaust. "This is no longer a Jewish story," said Firestone. "We're trying to pass our stories to the next, diverse generation so maybe they will retell them to their children."

Under a new mentorship program in the Albuquerque area, for example, the New Mexico Human Rights Projects pairs Holocaust survivors and refugees with students in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. The students spend time at the homes of survivors, interview them about their past and then share the stories with fellow students, parents and teachers.

Elston said he's been spending time with Adrianna Barrera, a high school student at Sandia High in Albuquerque. "She keeps asking me 'why did this happen? Can it happen again?'" he said. "So we discuss events from then and compare it to current genocides in places like Darfur. It's important for students like her to recognize how this could happen again if we are not mindful of the warning signs."

On Sunday, Barrera is schedule to read a report about her interview with Elston at a special Holocaust remembrance day known as Yom HaShoah. The Albuquerque event, slated for the Holocaust & Intolerance Museum of New Mexico, will feature a speech by Firestone and presentations by other students who have spent time with area survivors.

Regina Turner, executive director of New Mexico Human Rights Projects, said few survivors remain in cities like Albuquerque and most rarely get out due to health reasons. "That's why mentorship programs like these are so important," Turner said. "They get to hear for the survivors directly. Others will never get that chance."