WASHINGTON — Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is among four U.S. senators who introduced a bipartisan bill recently to establish a special fund in the Department of Education to provide teachers with resources and training needed to teach about the Holocaust.
The sponsor of the “Never Again Education Act” is Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Other co-sponsors are Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Introduced earlier this year, a companion bill in the U.S. House has more than 200 bipartisan co-sponsors.
“The story of the Holocaust must always be taught so that the experience of the Holocaust may never be repeated,” Cramer said in a news release. “With antisemitism on the rise in certain parts of the country, even among some elected officials, increased education about this terrible tragedy is as important as ever.”
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said: “We worry greatly about the rise of antisemitism” in this country.
Hunegs issued a public statement last week titled “Deploring the rising tide of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia poisoning our politics.”
Holocaust education is “critically important,” Hunegs said in an interview. “It informs consequences of bigotry and hatred — and because of the rise of bigotry and hatred, people need to know what that can lead to.”
He noted that a poll commissioned by the organization Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that two-thirds of millennials cannot identify Auschwitz or name a single Nazi concentration camp.
“So if you want to look at a baseline of need, there’s a pretty stark illustration of the need for education," he said.
With the passage of time, fewer survivors and witnesses can attest to the horrors of the Holocaust, Hunegs said.
“Our single most important teachers are our survivors," said Hunegs, noting that about 80,000 Holocaust survivors are living in the U.S.
Educating young people
Students generally know about the Holocaust, but “they don’t know the details of it,” said Kevin Carney, a social studies and psychology teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks.
“They do not know about the organized, methodical way that Hitler and the Nazis went through this whole bureaucracy of gradually stripping people of their rights, gradually taking their property, and eventually (imposing) work camps and death camps,” said Carney, who has 20 years of high school teaching experience.
He and his colleagues “try to fill in the specifics of what happened, and the numbers and how it was widespread throughout Europe,” he said. They also expose students to what Hitler meant by the term, “Aryan race.”
Parts of the World War II-themed television series “Band of Brothers,” shown in classrooms, include scenes of “when (American soldiers) come across the camps,” Carney said. Those scenes have more impact than statistics and numbers.
“Whenever you show them the visual elements, the stories (of the Holocaust), that’s what moves them," he said.
Students are first exposed to the horrific campaign, perpetrated on European Jews by the Nazis beginning in the late 1930s, in ninth grade in world history classes, Carney said.
“Students cover geographical areas in that course, so when they cover Europe they get a general background of the Holocaust,” he said.
The Holocaust is covered in more depth over a three- to four-day period in 11th grade U.S. history classes, Carney said.
“We conclude with a map of the work and concentration camps spread throughout Europe and the percentage of the Jewish population that died in each country the Nazis controlled,” he said.
Carney and his colleagues emphasize the dangers of mindless conformity.
“When good people don’t do anything, then there’s trouble — when people turn a blind eye and say, ‘I was just following orders,’” he said.
‘History repeats itself’
“We always work under the assumption in history that history repeats itself,” Carney said. “And I think that if people don’t get involved and if people don’t take an active role in the way society is run or the way they think society should be run, then before you know it, they don’t have a say anymore, and then it’s too late.”
In light of the proposed Never Again Education Act, Carney said Grand Forks teachers would welcome support for Holocaust education.
“You’d draw from a multitude of grade levels and a multitude of disciplines,” including English, history, current events and other subjects, he said. “There are so many facets to it.”
If passed, the Never Again Education Act would establish a fund for training educators, textbooks, transportation and housing for teachers to attend seminars, transportation for Holocaust survivors to visit schools and field trips.
The bill would direct experts at the Department of Education to train Holocaust educators to conduct regional workshops to help teachers incorporate the sensitive subject into their classrooms.