Angela King always had trouble fitting in. And as she got older, she became angry and violent.
So when several Skinheads welcomed her into their group, she latched on.
"What did it was the fact that I was so angry and so violent and I didn’t have to explain myself," she said. They still wanted me around. And I finally felt this little spark of hope. I finally fit."
The Miami Lakes and Miramar student dropped out of high school, shaved her head and joined violent extremist groups. But then she was arrested for robbery at 23 and spent nearly three years in prison. She started turning her life around when she was released in 2001.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
"Every single one of us has the ability to show kindness and compassion," she said, "especially to those we think deserve it the least."
King stood before about 800 high school students from about 20 Miami-Dade County schools and 50 Holocaust survivors on Tuesday and told her story about belonging to a hate group.
The event, during Holocaust Education Week and planned by the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, has been around for more than 30 years. But this year’s edition, at the Hilton Doubletree at 711 NW 72nd Ave. in West Miami-Dade, had the largest turnout yet, said education center president Rositta Kenigsberg, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She said the organization puts on the event about 12 times a year in various areas in Florida.
Other events this week include speeches by Holocaust survivors, film screenings and community-wide programming by Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, a committee of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
At the Hilton Doubletree, the visiting high school students sat at round tables with Holocaust survivors who shared their experiences and talked about hatred and racism today. The Holocaust survivors, who now live across South Florida, explained how their lives were taken away.
Society has learned what can happen if people remain silent, Kenigsberg said.
"We have to stop the hate and the bullying and the violence," she said.
The roundtable discussions were interspersed with speeches from King, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, the son of a WWII German tank commander, and Carl Arfa, a liberator.
Wollschlaeger told the story of how he, against all odds, became a Jew. Growing up in Germany, Wollschlaeger said he never learned about the Holocaust.
When Israeli athletes were killed during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, and the headlines told of Jews murdered on German soil again, he began to learn what happened.
His father, at first, said the headlines meant nothing. Then he said the Holocaust had to happen.
"And that was the last straw of trust that broke the camel’s back," Wollschlaeger said.
Wollschlaeger split from his family and went to Israel, where he converted to Judaism. He served in the Israeli Defense Forces before coming to the United States where he now works as a doctor in Aventura.
And he said he didn't revisit his past — where he came from — until his son asked about his grandfather.
Wollschlaeger said he wanted to share his story so that students learn not to judge people by where they came from but by who they are.
People need to look at history "through the prism of a magnifying glass that allows them to see the future in a better way," he said.
"Hatred is not an evil force," he said. "It's something that we create every single day."
Kenigsberg said the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center works to remember the Holocaust all year. Founded in 1980, HDEC is looking to open a South Florida Holocaust Museum, she said. During the year, the organization conducts interviews with survivors, liberators and rescuers to document the period for future generations, and puts on events for students.
At the end of Tuesday’s event, students were invited to speak about their thoughts on what they heard, which involved lessons and “soul-searching,” Kenigsberg said.
And Angela King, the former Skinhead, concluded her speech with a simple request of all the students.
“I use my voice to stand up for the human beings that for whatever reason can’t use their own,” she said. “I want to ask each and every one of you to be that human being, to do the very same thing.”