Keeping History Alive

Last Tuesday, the Oregon House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would require the state’s schools to teach students about the atrocities committed by Germany and its allies during the Holocaust.

If signed into law by Democratic Governor Kate Brown, as expected, Oregon will be the 11th state — joining California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island — to develop a law mandating Holocaust education. Several other states have also recommended including Holocaust education themes in standing school curricula.

The Oregon vote came mere weeks after Washington Governor Jay Inslee passed legislation “strongly encouraging” schools in his state to add Holocaust education to their curriculum.

Under the Oregon measure, high schools in the state are mandated to incorporate “specific references to the Holocaust and genocide” into their social studies curriculum.

The legislation was inspired by a Holocaust survivor, Alter Wiener, who spent three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Mr. Wiener, sadly, will not see the bill become law, as he was killed in a traffic accident this past winter.

Mr. Wiener had enlisted the help of 13-year-old Claire Sarnowski of Lake Oswego, who brought the idea to the attention of state legislators. The young woman, in a statement after the bill’s passage, said about Mr. Wiener, “Although he is not here with me today, he prepared me to carry on this mission and to persevere in making this a reality. … We need to ensure these atrocities are never forgotten nor ignored.”

Miss Sarnowski is wise beyond her years. Her generation is still within personal reach of actual survivors of Churban Europa, but, sadly, not as many as in the past, and she seems to realize that, as a result, education about the horrors of last century is so very urgent today.

A sponsor of the legislation, Representative Janeen Sollman, echoed that concern, explaining that “As we lose our lived history from that era, it becomes even more important to have Holocaust and genocide education in our classrooms… This bill is about keeping history alive.”

Many if not most public school students, unfortunately, are largely unaware of things beyond their own personal lives and experiences, and the very idea of what they likely perceive as ancient history having pertinence to the present would strike many of them as absurd. The few who may have academic interests might educate themselves about the Holocaust. But the vast majority of American school-age children would be unlikely to do so. Including Holocaust education in curricula is thus something much needed.

What is more, and deeply disturbing, Holocaust awareness in general has fallen precipitously. A 2018 survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or the “Claims Conference,” found that 22% of millennials “haven’t heard” or “are not sure if they have heard” of the Holocaust. (Leave aside what those who “heard” of it might know, if anything, of those terrible years.) The survey also found that 31% of all Americans believe that no more than 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

What is more, along with ignorance about the Holocaust, acts of Jew hatred have been rising too, evidenced not only in attacks like the two recent deadly ones in Pittsburgh and Poway but in other attacks on individual Jews, and in incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism, which have become almost commonplace.

On the federal level, in January, New York Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat, and Elise Stefanik, a Republican, introduced legislation into Congress that would create a grant program to provide teachers across the U.S. with resources to teach about the Holocaust in their classrooms. The bill has not yet had a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. It should, and should be passed resoundingly.

In our own community, of course, awareness of the Holocaust is stronger. Our young people have much closer personal connections to the events of 1933-1945, whether through their grandparents or their children-of-survivors parents. But there remains much yet to do to help ensure that our young people have a keen and well-informed awareness of what transpired during that tragic era. Parents, of course, must do their part, but a great responsibility lies with our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, who are the “front line” of the chinuch of our children.

A powerful means for them to utilize is Project Witness’s multimedia efforts. In particular, its book Witness to History offers groundbreaking resources for Holocaust education, not only by recounting the historical happenings themselves but, most importantly, by exploring the spiritual, ethical, and intellectual responses of Holocaust victims and survivors. The book’s teacher guide and related materials are a trove of educational opportunity that can and should be harnessed to, as Representative Sollman put it, keep history alive.