Aaron Elster was honored for his contributions to the Stevenson High School community Friday night by more than 100 people who attended the Heritage Award celebration.
For more than 10 years Elster, of Lincolnshire, has spoken to the junior class of Stevenson, providing a firsthand account of his experiences during World War II while sharing his hope for the future.
When his ghetto in Sokolow was destroyed in 1942, Elster, who was then 9 years old, fled to escape being placed into a concentration camp. He lived in an attic for the last two years of World War II.
In his opening remarks for the celebration, District 125 Superintendent Eric Twadell explained the award was given by the Board of Education to notable members of the Stevenson community who had a positive impact on the school.
Students, staff and members of the community attended the invitation-only event, with students comprising a significant portion of the audience.
A 12-minute video sharing Elster’s impact on students and staff played during the celebration. History teachers Seamus Campion and David Elbaum interviewed more than 20 students and five staff members about what Elster’s message meant to them.
“Look at all the students who came here tonight, on a Friday,” Elbaum said when introducing the video. “There are many second-semester seniors here, and they’re all here on their own free will. They’re here to thank Mr. Elster because his message still resonates today.”
Some of the students featured in the video said “thank you,” while others emphasized the importance of Elster’s message. “He made a strong picture of what happened in my mind,” one student said. Others discussed being bullied and that they felt a special connection to Elster’s message.
The video also included parts of Elster’s speech to Stevenson's junior class. “Words have the ability to destroy,” he said in one clip. “Be careful with how you use words. Stand up and speak out if someone is being unkind.” As the video played, some members of the audience wiped their eyes.
School Board Member Terry Moons presented Elster with a plaque commemorating his contributions to Stevenson. “We want to recognize and celebrate that Mr. Elster has made a positive impact to the Stevenson culture by providing an authentic learning experience to students,” Moons said. “It’s one thing to read about history in a book, but it’s another to hear it from someone who lived it.”
“My belief and my hope is in young people. I love you all and feel you can make a difference,” Elster said after receiving his plaque. “I am touched.” He also called receiving the plaque one of his “proudest moments.”
Elster received a standing ovation from the audience after receiving his plaque. After the celebration, audience members formed a line to shake Elster’s hand and thank him for his talks. A few hugged him, and several requested that he sign copies of his book, I Still See Her Haunting Eyes.
“I’m here tonight because I saw Elster speak to my class,” Stevenson High School junior Chloe Brim said. “I was so inspired by what he said that I felt it was appropriate to come to the celebration tonight.”
Since the 1985-86 school year, the Heritage Award has been given every year to a member of the Stevenson High School community who has a positive impact on the school. Recent recipients of the Heritage Award include former teacher Chris Franken in 2010-11, area residents John and Dottie Westerberg in 2009-10 and former employee Oscar Muniz in 2008-09.