A Holocaust survivor and an Oregon student are calling on state lawmakers to require Oregon schools teach about the Holocaust, something not currently mandated.
If passed in next year’s legislative session, the Genocide Curriculum bill would require all Oregon high schools — public and private — to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides in world history. It would be part of the state’s graduation requirement for three years of social studies.
The idea was presented to the Senate Interim Committee on Education in an informational meeting Tuesday in front of a packed hearing room at the state Capitol.
The effort is being led by Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualitin, Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, 92, and Lake Oswego high school freshman Claire Sarnowski, 14.
The three said they want the legislation to be broad enough that educators can incorporate genocide curriculum into their existing coursework, but that some schools aren’t getting any right now.
Wagner cited a poll, saying one-fifth of high school graduates across the country can’t identify the Holocaust — in which millions of people, mostly Jews, were detained, tortured and killed.
The bill would be in keeping with a resolution passed by the United Nations in 2005.
The Holocaust Remembrance resolution calls on all nations to commemorate the memory of the Holocaust annually on Jan. 27. The resolution also urges countries to develop educational programs about the Holocaust to help prevent future acts of genocide.
Currently, 10 states in the United States have similar mandates to the proposed legislation in Oregon, Wiener said, listing California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
‘Horrific memories from the Holocaust are still fresh’
Sarnowski’s passion for Holocaust education began when she was in fourth grade and first heard Wiener speak at Crossler Middle School in Salem.
The experience made a lasting impact on her and hundreds of her peers, many of whom wrote letters about how Wiener’s story inspired them.
Wiener’s father was murdered by German invaders of Poland when he was 13 years old, Wiener said. At 15, Wiener was taken to a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. He recalled being tortured and starved; he was never reunited with his family.
“Horrific memories from the Holocaust are still fresh … I’m still in pain,” Wiener said to the committee. “Not all physical and mental scars can be healed with passing years.”
Wiener shares his story with schools, prisons and other populations across Oregon and Washington. Since his first presentation in 2000, he’s presented more than 980 times and received nearly 88,000 letters of appreciation.
Wiener said after reading those letters and hearing the support from students, he felt more obligated to share his story.
Sarnowski is an example of that.
“I recall thinking to myself (during his presentation), ‘How could such a wonderful man exhibit so much kindness after going through the horrors he had to endure?’ ” Sarnowski said.
Sarnowski has become a close family friend of Wiener’s and, since first seeing him in fourth grade, has seen him speak more than 15 times.
“Although not every student has had this opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor’s story, or watch documentaries or movies in which genocide (is) portrayed, the impactful knowledge stems from the conversation,” Sarnowski said.
“As a student, I see bullying, prejudice and stereotyping both inside and outside the classroom every day,” she said. “Learning about genocide teaches students the ramifications that come with prejudice of any kind in society.”
Sarnowski brought this issue to light after seeing anti-semitic drawings and racial discrimination around her school two years ago. She spoke with Lake Oswego School Board chair, Bob Barman, who recommended she also speak with fellow board member and senator, Wagner.
“As my dear friend, Alter Wiener, once said, ‘There are two ways to fight the cold — put on a fur coat to be warm or light a fire so that others can be warm too,’ ” Sarnowski said to the committee, pausing after to wipe away tears and catch her breath.
If passed, this bill wouldn’t be the first time culturally-specific curriculum was passed by Oregon lawmakers.
For example, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 13 in 2017, which requires the Oregon Department of Education to develop curriculum exploring the Native American experience and provide professional development to teachers and administrators relating to the curriculum.
“Learning about the Holocaust is not just a chapter in recent history,” Wiener said, “but a derived lesson how to be more tolerant, more loving and that hatred is, eventually, self-destructive.
“Remember, be better, rather than bitter.”