WHEELING, W.Va. — As Mary Haas stood before a crowd of 50 people Sunday at a Temple Shalom Yom Hashoa program, preparing to present a documentary on the life of Israeli poet Hannah Senesh, she made a pitch for money.
At two ends of the social hall were baskets in which people dropped one-, five- and 10-dollar bills.
And that’s how the West Virginia Commission on Holocaust Education, a state-created entity is forced to fund itself.
Haas, a professor at West Virginia University and the chair of the commission, says the state significantly underfunds the program. Last year, the commission submitted a $112,000 budget proposal in its annual report to the state. It got $15,000 in funding — the lowest level of funding of any state Holocaust education panel in the nation.
So, what can a Holocaust education commission do with $15,000?
“Not much,” Haas said.
The commission has no professional staff. Its volunteer director, retired WVU Professor Edith Levy, travels extensively around the state speaking to classes. She also started a foundation, which supports the commission.
But to bring speakers to the state, arrange for teacher training programs, schedule traveling exhibits or maintain an updated Web site takes money that the commission simply does not have.
Even writing grants to support these projects takes a level of expertise and time that the commission members — all volunteers — can’t always give.
The commission has sent four teachers in the state who teach the shoa, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for training. Still, achievements like those are few and far between for the struggling program.
Haas, who is not Jewish, urged those attending the Sunday’s program in Wheeling to contact Gov. Joe Manchin’s office and urge him to adequately fund the commission.
“You have to know how bad things can get and pick up the lessons of the Holocaust,” she said. “To know what can happen, some in depth understanding [of the period] is
Unlike Pennsylvania, West Virginia has a tiny Jewish community, barely a few thousand people who are scattered across the state, with small concentrations in Wheeling, Morgantown, Charleston and Huntington. So there is no natural constituency to lobby for funding.
In fact, Levy, herself a Holocaust survivor, is the only Jewish member of the commission.
It’s the lack of Jewish influence on the panel, as well the funding shortfalls that concern Levy.
“I worry,” she said. “I don’t know about the future; only a Jewish identity will keep it as a Holocaust commission. … It needs new Jewish blood.”
The West Virginia Legislature, which is currently in recess, will reconvene on May 26 to take up the new budget. Even so, Charlene Marshall, who represents Morgantown in the House of Delegates, said it could be difficult to find funding for the commission during a recession.
“That’s touchy with a lot of things, because of the economy,” said Marshall, who sits on the House Finance Committee. She left open the possibility that some federal stimulus money may be available for projects like the commission, and said she would look into it.
In response to lobbying by Levy, then-Gov. Cecil Underwood established the commission by executive order in 1998, but with just $5,000 in seed money.
The panel has been scratching for funds ever since.
“I have personally begged and pleaded,” Levy said. “When I first started this I went to the Jewish survival organizations, and they all helped me out, (but) it’s been scratching all the way.”
For now, the commission depends on private contributions, and Levy’s foundation, for support.
The commission was supposed to sunset in 2001, but the state granted it an extension. Its term comes due again this year.
“We may or may not be renewed [again],” Levy said. “It all depends on the economic situation.”
Without adequate funding, Haas said the commission can’t afford to reach the people most in need of Holocaust education — middle schoolage children.
“This is the age children are establishing their values. They need to be assisted in examining the values that are out there in history,” she said. “They see things on television; they hear things. The middle school age child is actually targeted by the hate groups. We have hate groups in the state; the number has grown to 14.”
Despite the struggles the commission faces, Haas denied there would be any diminution of its mission such as changing from teaching the Holocaust to teaching genocide in general.
“The way in which the law is written, it has to focus on the Holocaust,” she said,” and the Holocaust is so important because we have the information about it. You can’t really deny these things happened because there is so much information on it.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)