Holocaust memorial unveiled at New York State Capitol

Ashley Hupfl

Originally published in WAMC Northeast Public Radio

A new exhibit on the Holocaust was unveiled Tuesday at the New York State Capitol. The exhibit, on view through Friday, is reminding viewers of the crisis in Ukraine.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Courage to Remember” exhibition features 40 panels displaying nearly 200 original photographs and facts detailing the Holocaust. Downstate Democratic State Senator Anna Kaplan coordinated the exhibition’s arrival in Albany.

"In order to forget something, you need to learn it in the first place and the stats show us that we're not doing a good job teaching the next generation about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews who were murdered by Nazis," she said.

SWC Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper says the travelling exhibit has been seen by tens of millions of people on six continents. Cooper dedicated the opening to 96-year-old Boris Romantschenko, a Holocaust survivor recently killed in Ukraine.

"Hitler couldn't kill him. Nazi commandants in four different concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, they couldn't kill him, but Vladimir Putin's troops just did," he said.

Democratic Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin attended the unveiling and expressed concern about the rise of anti-Semitic crime across the state and nation.

“What we're doing today could not be more timely,” he said. “Disinformation and anti-Semitism is alive and well on our streets and we must continue to send New Yorkers and the rest of the world a very simple message: hate has no place here. Not against our Jewish siblings, not against our Asian American siblings and not against any New Yorkers. Because, hate, in essence, is not who we are as a people.”

Tuesday afternoon, Cooper gave an invocation at the start of the Senate’s session.

“So, let us use a moment of silent prayer to awaken our conscience to stiffen our resolve to inspire each of us to action on behalf of our families of our neighbors, and on behalf of millions of innocent people suffering at the hands of tyranny. Amen.”

Along with the new memorial, the SWC is also endorsing Kaplan’s “Holocaust Education bill,” which would authorize the state’s education commissioner to conduct a study on how New York’s schools teach about the Holocaust. During the press conference, Kaplan cited a 2020 national study that ranked New York at the bottom of Holocaust knowledge.

“Among New Yorkers ages 18 to 39, 58 percent can't name a single concentration camp, 19 percent believe that Jews caused the Holocaust and 28 percent believe the Holocaust is a myth or a story that has been exaggerated,” she said. “Let that sink in for a minute.”

The legislation stalled at the end of last year’s legislative session, despite broad bi-partisan support.

Multiple media outlets reported recordings of an Education Committee meeting last May show Committee Chair Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat, did not want the bill to pass.

During the meeting, Benedetto argued the state is already doing a great job teaching students the Holocaust and also said the state cannot bear the costs of the study. A majority of committee members still voted in favor of bringing the bill to the Assembly floor for a vote, so Benedetto requested a vote to either hold the bill or send it to the Ways and Means Committee for a vote, where it stalled late in the session.

The state Assembly began to livestream committee meetings during the pandemic as lawmakers began meeting virtually, but it does not archive video as the state Senate has done since 2014.

The legislation’s fate remains unclear this year. The state budget is due April 1st and the last day of session is scheduled for June 2nd.

The display can be seen leading to the Legislative Office Building. It features pictures of Nazi Germany and mass arrests of Jews doomed to concentration camps. Some are even more jarring – including one picture that shows eight people hanged by soldiers.