Holocaust education increasingly expanded to other genocides on U.S. state level

The Hall of Witness at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Credit: Alan Gilbert, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.
The Hall of Witness at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Credit: Alan Gilbert, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

By Michele Alperin/

If Holocaust education in U.S. public schools is to live up to the commitment of “never again,” some experts believe that teaching the subject hand in hand with other genocides is what truly enables such efforts to influence future generations.

Linda Milstein—a volunteer at CChange, one of the many Holocaust centers providing materials, consultations, resources, and training to educators in New Jersey—says state-level Holocaust education requirements in America can work to “hopefully prevent [genocides] from happening in the future.”

“If we want to try to prevent genocides and major abuses of human rights from happening, then the Holocaust becomes the exemplar of how a genocide developed and was carried out, and the effect that it had,” she says.

But simply having a state-level mandate does not ensure that this material becomes a substantive part of K-12 education. Individual educators are tasked with creating substantive classes, and funds must be allotted for pre-service and in-service teacher education, curricular development, coordination, and assessment.

Yet a public mandate still has symbolic value. A recent brouhaha in Pennsylvania highlights the passion of survivors and their children to ensure that schools teach the Holocaust, and how that meshes with political realities. Rhonda Fink-Whitman, daughter of a survivor, started a personal lobbying effort for Pennsylvania to mandate statewide Holocaust education when a legislator she met at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia told her about his problems passing a mandate bill.

For her effort, Fink-Whitman made a short video in which she interviewed college students from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. “The girl from New York and the girl from NJ were able to give me names, facts, figures, times, dates, places, and the kids from Pennsylvania couldn’t even form those sentences—because Holocaust and genocide education was mandated in New York and New Jersey since 1994,” she says.

Getting a state mandate is not so simple, as Hank Butler has learned. Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, says his organization had been working on Holocaust education for a couple of decades, and specifically on a mandate bill since 2009, when the state cut off the $60,000 in annual funding going to the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council. Opposition to the mandate throughout the education establishment centered on the fear of setting a precedent of the state requiring a course curriculum for schools to teach a subject.

Now, a recently passed Pennsylvania bill represents a compromise: the department of education will develop curricular options using Holocaust professionals, which will be distributed to all of the state’s public schools; for schools that decide to use these options, the state will pay for teachers to be trained, and they will get continuing education credits; then, two years after implementation, the state’s Board of Education will do a study determining which schools are teaching these subjects and which are not. If less than 90 percent of schools are teaching the subjects, then the Board of Education will require that all schools teach them.

New Jersey—the state that has probably had the greatest success in mandated Holocaust education—got an early boost from former governor Thomas Kean, whose father was one of the few U.S. Representatives who protested the ban on Jewish immigration to the U.S. from Nazi Germany. Kean set up New Jersey’s Holocaust Council through an executive order in 1982, and the state legislature funded it at $125,000.

But state mandates are not always actually funded by the state, nor do they always have a superstructure in place to ensure their effectiveness. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, says, “If you push for a mandate, there are arguments against it. Many educators felt that having a mandate would have people teaching a subject they weren’t familiar or comfortable with.” New Jersey law, therefore, stipulates that the state’s Holocaust commission will develop materials and train teachers.

“Just because there is a mandate, if there is no plan of action on how to implement and at least get it into the schools—just having a mandate is of no value in itself,” says Winkler.

New Jersey also decided to make genocide education a part of mandated Holocaust education. The greater inclusiveness, according to Winkler, has made it easier to get Holocaust education into venues like urban centers that previously claimed they had no Jewish connections and hence did not need to talk about the Holocaust.

Unlike in New Jersey, the Holocaust-education mandate in New York does not provide funding, and has no centralized organization to create materials and train teachers. Elizabeth Edelstein, director of education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, says, “There are multiple forums that bring together representatives from educational systems, cultural institutions, and institutions of higher education, all of whom create materials and offer courses for teachers in New York about the Holocaust.”

Illinois passed the first U.S. Holocaust education mandate in 1990, and in 2005 the education was extended to include other genocides. But the mandate is unfunded, leaving organizations like the Illinois Holocaust Museum—which was instrumental in getting the mandate passed—to do what they can to fill in the gap. The museum runs more than a dozen professional development trainings on the Holocaust and genocide, but needs to seek funding to cover the training cost as well as reimbursement to public schools for bringing in substitute teachers.

Speaking from her own experience and not on behalf of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Noreen Brand, the museum’s director of education, says, “My idea is that states shouldn’t have a mandate unless you have funding to do teacher training and you have a program for pre-service education that teaches teachers how to teach the mandated subject.” Not having adequate training, she adds, “causes people to do random activities, using poor literature and making poor choices.”

In Florida, Linda Medvin—who chairs the Commissioner’s Task Force on Holocaust Education for the state’s Department of Education—emphasizes the need to move Holocaust education from the Holocaust survivor community into the hands of educators.

“The dichotomy is teaching the Holocaust through memory or through context and history,” she says. “The importance now, 75 years later, is to teach through context so it moves forward.”

Florida’s Holocaust-education mandate was passed in 1994. Medvin says she is transforming the task force into an education organization by bringing in educational professionals to write curriculums, do research, and develop an online course providing background information for teachers about the Holocaust. Teacher professional development happens through nine—and soon 10—task-force sites, which receive $100,000 a year in discretionary funding that must be approved by the state legislature.

With the right leadership, even a state without a mandate can bring the Holocaust into public education. Michael Abramson, whose state has no mandate, chairs the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, headed by State Superintendent June Atkinson, supports the council to the tune of $35,000 annually. “[Atkinson] says every school [in North Carolina] has been asked to have a class on the Holocaust and genocide,” says Abramson, adding that Atkinson gives continuing education credit and pays for substitute-teacher costs for the council’s eight workshops, which each serve 60-90 educators.

Since North Carolina does not exercise significant central control over curriculum, Abramson carefully targets his message to both the politics and preconceived notions of his audience to get superintendents and high school principals on board for Holocaust education, often convincing them that the Holocaust was more than a Jewish event.

Regarding the possibility of a Holocaust-education mandate in North Carolina, Abramson says, “I don’t even know if that would work. I’ve noticed the only way to push this is the retail business of going into a school system, shaking hands, meeting [a] teacher, having a speaker.”

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