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Most young people have never heard of Auschwitz. Here’s a way to make sure they will

A guard tower was illuminated at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on Monday, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp near Oswiecim, Poland. Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Getty Images

On Monday, a hazy sun lingered over the survivors who walked slowly into the old concentration camp in Poland, 75 years after Auschwitz was liberated.

Some wore scarves with numbers printed on them, replicas of numbers tattooed on their forearms.

It was as solemn as it was horrifying to remember that more than a million people, most of them Jews, died behind those gates.

But remember we must, because 75 years after this kind of murderous hate was supposedly ended with something as simple as an international cry of “never again,” it seems like the “never” part has been jettisoned and all we’re left with is “again.”


American Jews are being slaughtered in their temples and their grocery stores. Punched in the face as they walk the streets.

You don’t have to go to Poland or Jersey City to see how pernicious anti-Semitism remains. In Massachusetts, anti-Semitic incidents are at all-time highs.

Last March, 59 gravestones in Fall River’s Hebrew Cemetery were vandalized, covered with swastikas and graffiti such as “Hitler was right.”

Michael Rodrigues, a state senator from Westport, was among those who attended a vigil at the cemetery, and noticed a paucity of young people in the crowd.

Rodrigues, the Senate Ways and Means chairman, and Representative Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat, filed the Genocide Education Act, which would require that schools teach about the Holocaust and other genocides, including but not limited to the genocides of Armenians, the Holodomor in Ukraine, the Pontic Greek genocide, and the post-Holocaust genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan.

It would make Massachusetts the 13th state with such mandatory teaching. Seems like a great idea, given that two-thirds of American millennials don’t even know what Auschwitz is and presumably fewer know what happened to Armenians before the Holocaust or Rwandans after the Holocaust. Or what was done to Native Americans.


The bill leaves discretion for schools to choose what to teach, which is one of the reasons the state’s school superintendents and school committees support it.

Nearly half of the 200 members of the state House and Senate have signed on as cosponsors.

The bill, however, is stuck in committee and will not be voted on if it doesn’t get reported out by Feb. 5, according to Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL and Armenian National Committee are leading a coalition advocating that teaching about genocide should be mandatory.

Many advocates say the bill is bottled up in the Education Committee because the committee chair, Representative Alice Peisch, is not in favor of mandates and doesn’t believe teaching about genocide will reduce hateful acts.

Peisch was not available for an interview, but in a statement said her committee is continuing to “research and review” the bill.

She said her committee is “trying to determine if the legislation as filed is sufficient to achieve the bill’s objective, and will be considering alternative language that could do more to address the concerns of many parents, advocates, and legislators.”

Peisch has other reservations.

“Simply mandating that certain items be taught will likely be insufficient given that, sadly, we see incidences of anti-Semitism and other hostilities even in those districts that have had a robust curriculum in this area for many years,” she wrote.


Teaching about the civil rights movement has not made racists go away, either. But it has produced generations of young people who know who Martin Luther King Jr. was, who recognize that this country used to be segregated and that prejudice and bigotry were codified, generations who reject that kind of hateful thinking.

Trestan said just as teaching about the civil rights movement produced future civil rights leaders, teaching about genocide will produce similar leaders.

“The purpose of the bill is to ensure that future generations have an understanding of the impact of genocide, to recognize it, and to have the moral compass to fight it,” he said.

Presumably, each of those old women and men who walked into Auschwitz on Monday would heartily agree.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com