My high school taught about the Holocaust in English class. It was part of the unit on Elie Weisel’s Night, which is required reading for students entering tenth grade. I remember the Holocaust was nothing more than a picture of Jews in a concentration camp with an explanatory caption in my AP European history textbook. This bothered me at the time, but I justified it to myself thinking they must just assume that by the time you’ve reached a 12th grade college-level history course, you’ve already spent hours of class time on it in years past. I know about the Holocaust, I figured, so surely everyone else does, too. The fact that I was thinking this as one of less than ten Jews in my high school of about 750 never occurred to me. How naïve I was.
The truth is, I was educated in Pennsylvania public schools. Since the debut of Rhonda Fink-Whitman’s horrifying video of my fellow Pennsylvania students failing to know the answer to the most basic questions about the Holocaust, admitting I was taught in Pennsylvania public schools feels like admitting to having learned biology from evangelical Christians.
Knowing the answers to questions like “What was a concentration camp?” “Who were the Allies?” “Who was Winston Churchill?” and “What other groups besides Jews were targeted in the Holocaust?” is more than memorization of rote facts. Holocaust education should be mandatory not because it’s history but because it’s not history. Millions upon millions of human beings have been and continue to be systematically slaughtered since the end of the Holocaust because people haven’t learned. If done well, genocide education has the potential to motivate students to stand up against injustice and discrimination in their own time like very little else. “We want to grow informed, tolerant adults in this county and that can only happen through education,” Ms. Fink-Whitman said in an interview. As evidence, she told me how she was recently invited to speak at a high school and brought a survivor along with her. “Most of the kids had never heard any of this before and were very moved,” she said.
To students themselves, the relevance of Holocaust and genocide education is obvious. “These were all sweet, smart kids in the video, and they all told me they were deeply embarrassed that they didn’t know more. They all wanted to know more…As a mother, it broke my heart. I feel like we failed them.”
As the video points out, right now only 5 states have mandatory Holocaust education: Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, California, and New York. It can’t be a coincidence that these also happen to be five of the states with the largest Jewish populations. Pennsylvania also has a large Jewish population, and, if the measure currently going through the state’s legislature concerning Holocaust education passes, its influence will be a large reason why.
But Jews aren’t alone in calling for this. The video has become a wake-up call in many other states. Ms. Fink-Whitman says people all over the country have contacted her asking how to get similar legislation on the table in their states. Activists in Massachusetts and Utah have already begun lobbying state senators.
I say Holocaust and genocide education needs to be on the books in every state, especially those with low Jewish populations. Growing up in a world inundated with references and comparisons to Hitler, Nazis, and the Holocaust, students are going to learn about the Holocaust no matter what. The question we have to ask ourselves is: From where should they get their information?
Derek M. Kwait graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is editor in chief of New Voices.