Isn’t This Already Happening?
by Kathie England
A study released last year showed that twenty-two percent of American millennials had not heard of or weren’t sure they’d heard of the Holocaust. Two-thirds could not identify what Auschwitz is.
In sharp contrast to this disappointing statistic, the unlikely friendship of a high school freshman in Oregon and one of Oregon’s last survivors of the Holocaust resulted in passage of Oregon Senate Bill 664 on March 12. This bill requires school districts to provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.
Claire Sarnowski first heard Alter Weiner speak about the Holocaust when she was nine. She heard him again when she was a seventh grader. During their friendship, which Claire acknowledges was unlike any other she had, they talked about stereotypes, anti-Semitism, prejudice, racism, and hatred. Weiner’s dream was for Oregon schools to adopt mandatory curriculum for teaching about the Holocaust and genocide. Though Weiner, who died last year at the age of 92, didn’t live to see his dream realized, Claire worked tirelessly with Oregon State Senator Rob Wagner to make it happen.
During this process Wagner said he was often asked the question: “Isn’t this already happening?” The answer is “no.” Oregon becomes only the tenth state to mandate curriculum that provides resources for teachers to engage students in conversations not only about the Holocaust and genocide, but also bullying and hate speech.
How ironic that the dream of a Holocaust survivor to teach about hatred and prejudice passed the Oregon Senate during the same week that a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand espousing white supremacy massacred 49 Muslims in a mosque during their Friday prayers.
In his book In the Shadow of Statues, Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, describes the impact of his visit to Auschwitz when he was barely twenty. Seeing the unspeakable horror of Auschwitz triggered this realization in Landrieu: “We had done something like this in America with slavery.” He resolved that if he were ever tested by the power of evil, he would have the courage to stand for what was right. His resolve ultimately resulted in the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans, “striking a nerve nationally, forcing into the open a reckoning with the institutional racism that shapes us today.”
How we can replicate the courage of Alter Weiner, Claire Sarnowski, Mitch Landrieu, and the survivors in New Zealand?
What small steps can we take today to stand up to hatred?