House Overwhelmingly Passes Holocaust Education Bill

The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. (ushmm)

The House of Representatives on Monday passed the Never Again Education Act, which provides $10 million in funding over five years for the U.S. Holocaust Museum to provide Holocaust education materials to teachers across the country.

The bill, which had around 300 co-sponsors, was passed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“As we recommit ourselves to the promise of ‘Never Again,'” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the bill’s sponsor, “ I am reminded that the lessons of the Holocaust do not just apply to anti-Semitism – but to all forms of hate and bigotry. And I can think of no better way to honor the memories of those murdered than to make sure our students know their names and their stories. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”

Maloney first introduced the Never Again Education Act 20 years ago. As recently as the last Congress, the bill had just 53 co-sponsors. But support recently grew, as Jewish and educational groups called for its passage as anti-Semitic attacks have soared, and the bill passed Monday evening 393-5.

“As we continue to condemn horrific acts of anti-Semitism across the world,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a leading co-sponsor, “we must also take proactive measures to educate and provide states and schools with the resources necessary to incorporate Holocaust education into their classrooms, ensuring that all students understand the evils of Holocaust and its impact.”

At a press conference Monday prior to the vote, Esther Peterseil, a 95-year-old survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, described her experiences in the Holocaust.

Peterseil was raised in a Polish town of 50,000 inhabitants, half of whom were Jewish. One day in 1942, the occupying Nazis told the religious men in the town that they could go to shul for Shabbos services. Once the men had assembled inside, the Nazis locked the doors and burned the shul to the ground.

“All that remains to this day,” said Peterseil, “is a memorial plaque at the site.”

In August of 1943, her family was deported with all the town’s remaining Jews, in cattle cars to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each car had 200 people, and many died en route.

Those in the morning transports were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Esther was lucky to have arrived in the afternoon; with the gas chambers at Birkenau at full capacity, the new arrivals went through a selection, which some were able to survive.

She and her mother were sent to separate sides; Esther went over to be with her mother.

“But she pushed me back,” recalled Peterseil. “Her last words to me were, ‘Take care of your younger sister, so she will survive, hope G-d will save you, and you will tell [the world] what happened to all of us.’”

“Why I survived the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” said Peterseil, “was because I and the many like me dreamed of a time when we would be free and the world would return to its senses, when the word ‘Jew’ would not be an excuse to beat up my people and destroy synagogues and cemeteries.”

Ester and her late husband Joseph “lived a wonderful life in America, and made the American Dream a reality.”

But “the worst thing that can happen,” she said, “is to have your dream turned into a real-life nightmare.”

“Today these dreams are under attack,” she said. “They are slowly being taken away from us as Jews, from us as Americans. Jews today are afraid to walk, wear religious symbols in public and on many campuses, they feel unsafe … at synagogues, armed guards stand at the entrance.”

Ester had the number 52058 tattooed on her left arm as she entered Birkenau. “But now I am Ester Peterseil again, that is the American Dream,” she said.

People say a Holocaust could never happen in America, but “I am here to tell you that we cannot let even the germs of bigotry hold sway in our country.”

Peterseil called on elected officials “to close the gates to hate and bigotry and to put an end to anti-Semistim, to fight to keep America as I know it and I loved it … the Never Again Education Act can make it happen.”

The funding in the Never Again Education Act is to be used for the U.S. Holocaust Museum to provide education programming to teachers across the country; support and expand a website where educators can find curriculum materials; expand the museum’s professional development programs, through activities such as local, and national workshops; and engage with local educational agencies and schools.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), another leading co-sponsor, noted that studies show an ignorance of the Holocaust among young Americans.

“I see today as continuing the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower,” said Bacon, referencing the Allied commander who was present during the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. “He insisted that we bring in political leaders from United States, fly them in, military leaders, media leaders … to see this, and they brought in German citizens, as witnesses, because he feared that one day, there would be a cynical denial of the truth. Today, we continue that legacy of Dwight Eisenhower to ensure that this will never happen again.”

Passage of the bill, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), will ensure that “’never again are simply not words but a solemn sacred pledge to be fulfilled with action.”

The House bill had originally called for the funding to be given to the Education Department rather than the Holocaust Museum. Companion legislation pending before the Senate is similar to the original House bill.

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