Holocaust education reaching nearly all Pennsylvania schools

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Ninety-three percent of Pennsylvania school districts are incorporating education on the Holocaust and related topics in their curricula, exceeding the goal set in 2014 legislation encouraging such coursework, according to a report approved Thursday by the state Board of Education.

“I’m encouraged that so many schools are including Holocaust, genocide and human rights” in coursework, said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which helps to train teachers and hosts student field trips to support such efforts.

“We still have a lot of work to do” to improve such education, she said.

The survey was done at the direction of Act 70 of 2014, in which the General Assembly encouraged the teaching about the Holocaust and related topics.

The act prescribed age-appropriate education into history of anti-Semitism and the Nazi rise to power in Germany, with attention to the “national, ethnic, racial or religious intolerance” involved. It also called for teaching on genocide elsewhere, including in Rwanda in 1994.

Act 70 would have mandated Holocaust education after 2017 if less than 90 percent of school entities, which includes school districts and charter-school units, were doing so on their own.

Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, said future goals include training more teachers and getting voluntary participation by 100 percent of districts. Organizations such as the Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League provide free curriculum materials, he said.

The survey results were released coincidentally on the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom throughout Germany in which Nazis destroyed synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses and homes and arrested up to 30,000 Jews. It was the decisive turning point into the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II.

On Thursday evening, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh hosted a presentation at the Heinz History Center, telling a German Jewish family’s story through the letters exchanged between an immigrant who settled in Pittsburgh and the relatives left behind in Berlin.

Telling such stories is crucial to educate new generations even as the population of the last living Holocaust survivors dwindles, Ms. Bairnsfather said. The Holocaust Center also recently digitized old tapes of oral histories of Pittsburgh-area Holocaust survivors.

“It is our wish that these stories continue to be told by survivors long after we don’t have survivors,” she said.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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