Editorial: Pa. schools should teach about Holocaust

Pennsylvania Holocaust Mandate
Central High School Holocaust Symposium, April 2019

Pennsylvania does not require schools to teach about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations in general. It should not only require such teaching, but it should also set a baseline for a meaningful amount of instruction, enough to make it meaningful to students.

A 2014 law called on the state Department of Education to “establish curriculum guidelines” addressing the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews during World War II, the anti-Semitism that fueled it, racism and other genocide and human rights violations including the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The curriculum guidelines are excellent, calling for teaching aimed at raising students’ awareness of atrocities based on race, ethnicity or religion. The guidelines, for social studies and language arts classes, are age-appropriate, and the department offers sessions for teachers to gather knowledge and resources to offer instruction about large-scale hate-inspired murder.

The legislation called for mandated Holocaust education only if fewer than 90% of schools were offering it. A state study released in November 2017 found 93% of school entities were providing such instruction.

The Legislature’s call for action was probably a bit late. Most living Holocaust survivors are in their 80s or older now, and they are the best people to deliver the message that students need to hear: My family and I were targeted because of our religion. Innocent of any crime, we were sentenced to die by our government.

Chuck Feldman, President, HAMEC

And those messages are effective, according to Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that sends Holocaust survivors to schools to tell their stories.

Feldman described student reaction to the center’s programs as “nothing short of amazing. They’re mesmerized.”

According to what school administrators and teachers tell him, “Our survivors make a tremendous impact on their students.

“They mob these survivors like they’re rock stars. They have their pictures taken with them. The most frequent phrase we hear made to the survivors is ‘You changed my life.’ And that’s what education is supposed to do.”

Amanda J. Hornberger, coordinator of the Lakin Holocaust Library and Resource Center at Albright College, said school districts in Berks County offer instruction on the subject but that she doubts many of them provide more than a day of such teaching per year. And more than that is needed urgently, she said. Given recent acts of violence driven by racial and ethnic hatred, “I think it’s important to teach students about this right now.”

While we often wish to think American society has moved beyond ethnic and racial hatred, it clearly has not.

The man who opened fire Aug. 3 in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and injuring dozens more, wrote a manifesto saying that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

In October of last year, 11 worshipers were shot to death in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The criminal complaint against the suspect in that shooting, Robert Bowers, 46, says he told a SWAT officer he wanted all Jews to die and that “they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people.”

Twelve states mandate Holocaust instruction. Pennsylvania is not one of them. Feldman makes a good case for changing that.

“Obviously we would like 100% of schools to do it (offer Holocaust and genocide education),” he said. “And it is unfortunately still necessary. … Hate never takes a vacation and neither can we.”

Pennsylvania school districts understandably dislike mandates, but this is one the state should impose and educators should embrace.

It’s hard to say never again regarding the Holocaust if we don’t ensure our children understand what Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime did during World War II. Hitler was an elected official. He carried out a terror campaign that targeted Jews and other minorities. The U.S. government ignored evidence of these atrocities and refused to adopt what could have been a lifesaving easing of immigration restrictions on European Jews.

The steps taken by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2014 through 2017 to provide curriculum and instruction on the Holocaust and genocide are positive. More needs to be done. Pennsylvania should adopt a mandate to raise awareness to what can happen if hate is allowed to fester or is ignored.

Via The Reporter
August 30, 2019