As survivor population dwindles, we must ensure Holocaust education for all
Guest columnistSchools, teachers still need to promote Holocaust education

As survivor population dwindles, we must ensure Holocaust education for all

The success of legislation that encourages the teaching of the Holocaust suggests that teachers no longer require training and the work is completed. But this suggestion is false.

(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)
(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Eight states in the United States have mandated that Holocaust education be included in the curriculum in schools — California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. In 2014, Pennsylvania appeared to be on track to join this list.

Upon its passage that year, Pennsylvania’s Act 70 strongly recommended the teaching of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights in grades 6 through 12. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh was on the front lines of lobbying for this legislation and creating the curricula and resources that were promised in it. But most of all, we provided Act 70 certification to teachers across Western Pennsylvania to indicate that they were familiar with the legislation and its recommended practices.

The implementation of Act 70 began in academic year 2015-16, coinciding with my arrival as director of the Holocaust Center. We held a summer institute for teachers in July 2015 and we rented the cafeteria at Community Day School to accommodate a large crowd.

Our experience has been that teachers, new and seasoned alike, wanted to engage more deeply in the history and literature of the Holocaust. For that first year of Act 70’s implementation, our teacher training offerings were oversubscribed, with school administrators supporting teachers in furthering their knowledge about the Holocaust. This was true in 2015, 2016 and the first half of 2017.

As mandated in the legislation, the state conducted a survey of “schools” in the summer of 2017 to find out how many were complying with Act 70. The goal was to reach 90 percent compliance. If the results came in at under 90 percent, Act 70’s “strong recommendation” would become a mandate.

On Nov. 9, 2017, the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an announcement came from Harrisburg via conference call that 93 percent of schools were complying with Act 70. While it is true that the state made a valiant effort to train teachers in every county of the state, 93 percent seemed implausible and indeed improbable.

Thou shall not be a victim; thou shall not be a perpetrator; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.

Although the details of the state’s survey and its findings were not released — if they were, they are not easily accessible — it was described in the conference call last November that the survey was conducted at the level of the school district or Intermediate Unit, which might include hundreds of schools. If one teacher among those schools said yes, they were regarded as having participated in Act 70 training.

Did Act 70 work? Even though it fell short of being a mandate for Holocaust education, the act inspired school administrators and superintendents, school boards and classroom teachers to invest in studying the Holocaust in order to teach it well.

While there was vigorous debate in Harrisburg about mandating Holocaust education, the message coming from the capital that Act 70 is a success suggests that students are indeed learning about the Holocaust, that teachers don’t require training and support, and that the work is completed. But this suggestion is false.

At the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, we live with the fact that teaching about the Holocaust well requires ongoing effort and dedication from the entire secondary education system.

The relevance of the Holocaust to genocide, human rights and to the events of today must be taught in schools to be understood. Ongoing education is the only response to the Claims Conference survey that so clearly indicates the dearth of knowledge about the Holocaust.

Teachers still need the support of administrators and organizations like the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. While we are deeply rooted in the Jewish community, our audience extends well beyond to reach the thousands of people who do not have a personal connection to the Holocaust but who nevertheless must learn about the ongoing potential of man’s inhumanity toward man. As Father Patrick Desbois so powerfully stated: “Genocide is a human disease.”

We must also understand personal responsibility. As historian Yehuda Bauer so strongly commanded: “Thou shall not be a victim; thou shall not be a perpetrator; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

The educational mission of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh has never been more critical to the health of this community. During the Days of Remembrance — and every other day — we affirm that we will never forget! PJC

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather is the director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

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