Two-thirds of American millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was. Countering anti-Semitism in the long run hinges on addressing a shortcoming in our education system: Only 12 states mandate Holocaust education in secondary schools. All 50 should. Massachusetts has the chance to become the 13th. It shouldn’t miss that opportunity.
Expecting young Americans to lead the fight against hate without knowing about the Holocaust ties a hand behind their back.
On Monday, the Joint Committee on Education will hold a hearing on An Act Concerning Genocide Education, a bill that would mandate genocide education statewide. “No child should go through K-12 education in Massachusetts without being exposed to genocide education,” said state Representative Jeffrey Roy, who introduced the bill.
Holocaust education was ingrained in me early. In fourth grade, a survivor spoke to our classand I’ve never forgotten his face. Or his story.
In the absence of a state law, the decision to teach the Holocaust at all — never mind effectively – falls to school districts. Some administrators are ill-suited to this task, such as the Florida principal who recently told a parent that he couldn’t say whether the Holocaust was a “factual historical event.” In states without a mandate, instruction can be fleeting and ineffective. “When curricula are voluntary, this is not at the top of people’s list,” Roy said.
Almost a quarter of millennials aren’t sure they’ve heard of the Holocaust. Forty-one percent think that fewer than 2 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust (the number is 6 million). Schoen Consulting uncovered these findings last year.
Troubling hate crime trends render this ignorance especially worrisome. Anti-Semitic assaults in the United States more than doubled last year. In Massachusetts, anti-Semitic incidents reached historic highs in 2017 and 2018.
It’s natural for history to fade from memory as generations pass. We might expect more Americans in 1870 than in 2019 to know about the Battle of Gettysburg. But for millennials to be 25 percentage points less likely to know about Auschwitz than the adult population overall defies reasonable expectations.
For extraordinary topics, there is precedent for state legislatures o shape curricula. Some states have laws requiring schools to teach subjects including the Great Irish Famine, Native American history, and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
And Massachusetts can create momentum for other states. In Maryland, state Senator Ben Kramer is pushing his state to reconsider the Lessons of the Holocaust and Genocide Act, which it declined to vote on earlier this year.
“For us to be sitting on the sidelines when other states have realized we need to do something about this, it’s embarrassing,” Kramer said. “This subject raises the bar to the point where we have to get involved.”
If you’re a young American in a state that doesn’t mandate Holocaust education, you can get involved too.
Rhonda Fink-Whitman is the daughter of a Bergen-Belsen survivor. In 2013, she walked around Philadelphia colleges asking students basic questions about the Holocaust. Many students couldn’t answer.
So Fink-Whitman lobbied for a Pennsylvania state law mandating Holocaust education. In 2014, the effort succeeded. She has since launched a grass-roots campaign to pass mandates in all 50 states.
She’s found a few young ambassadors in that effort. One is Claire Sarnowski. Claire recently started 10th grade outside Portland, Ore. Auschwitz survivor Alter Wiener, a fellow Oregonian, spoke at Claire’s school five years ago. Claire isn’t Jewish, but she was so moved by Alter’s talk, she befriended him. She promised Alter she would help fulfill his dream to mandate Holocaust education in Oregon. Claire started with the local school board, then worked her way to the legislature. In July, Governor Kate Brown signed the bill into law. Because of Claire and Wiener, all Oregon schools will now be required to teach the Holocaust.
“Before the mandate, my school’s Holocaust education was one poorly put-together slide show,” Claire said. “There are districts in Oregon where students get zero Holocaust education. Imagine how many students have gone through those districts? There have been anti-Semitic incidents at my school and nearby schools.’’
After Alter spoke at her school, racist and anti-Semitic incidents declined there, Claire said. “Before that, students didn’t care, because it hadn’t been taught to them.”
Fink-Whitman worries there aren’t enough young advocates like Claire. “It would be ideal if we had a Claire in every state,” she told me. “Legislators listen to these kids. They want to know what direction they want to go. Millennials and Gen Z are the future. Young people will have to step up to the plate and get it done.”
The Massachusetts Legislature has a duty to pass the bill before the committee so that the lessons learned from the Holocaust aren’t lost to another generation of students.
Judd Olanoff is an MPA student at Harvard and an MBA student at Stanford University.