New York lawmakers stump for bill focusing on Holocaust education

Jeff Bessen for LI Herald

May 06, 2021

Originally published in Long Island Herald on May 06, 2021.

Supported by a 2020 study that shows a shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among New York state residents ages 18 to 39, several state lawmakers, including State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, are backing legislation that aims to ensure that schools are teaching students about the historical event as required by an existing state law.

New York had the worst numbers nationwide in three categories of knowledge, based on findings by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The nonprofit organization represents Jews across the globe in negotiating for compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.

Some 58 percent of 18- to 39-year-old New Yorkers could not name at least one concentration camp; 28 percent said they believed the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated; and 19 percent said they believed Jews caused the Holocaust.

“By ensuring our children are taught about one of the most horrific events in history, we can foster a more tolerant society and stamp out the spate of anti-Semitism that has infested our state and nation,” said Kaminsky, a co-sponsor of the state legislation, adding that the study’s results are “deeply troubling and [call] for immediate action.”

The proposed law, which is currently in committee, authorizes the state commissioner of education to conduct a study to determine which school districts are offering instruction on the Holocaust that complies with Section 801 of state education law. As part of the Dignity for All Students Act, the law mandates education in civility, citizenship and character education.

The new legislation would require a report on the study’s findings by the first January after the bill becomes law, and would direct the education commissioner to publicize the rules to ensure that school districts are offering the proper Holocaust instruction.

“Anti-Semitism is a serious threat to our communities, and we must tackle it head-on with bold solutions,” Kaminsky said. “It is imperative for us to ensure our students learn the dangers of hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism. Our collective future demands nothing less.”

According to a nationwide 2020 study by the American Jewish Committee, 90 percent of those surveyed considered Holocaust education “important or somewhat important.”

For more than 25 years, the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC in the Five Towns has offered Holocaust education to more than 100 public and private schools, colleges, synagogues, libraries, churches and other institutions, said Cathy Byrne, the Gural JCC’s associate executive director for older adults and special needs, adding that in 2001, four of the center’s Holocaust survivors traveled to Whitwell, Tenn., a town where there were no Jewish residents. The town’s middle school became famous for its Paper Clips Project, which used paper clips to symbolize the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

“It is our moral obligation to teach these lessons to the younger generation so that history will never repeat itself,” Byrne wrote in an email. “Personal accounts from a Holocaust survivor brings a human dimension to the study of the Holocaust, seeing events from the victims’ point of view. Survivors’ testimonies are used in the classroom to humanize individuals. Holocaust studies in the schools promotes understanding of the Holocaust as a complex historical event but also invites us to understand the negative impacts of racism and antidiscrimination in contemporary times. It promotes the need to reflect on the moral responsibilities of individuals, groups and nations when confronted with the abuse of power, civil and human rights, violence and genocidal acts.”

Cedarhurst resident Carola Schiff, a native of France, was born in 1941, shortly after her father escaped from one prison camp and her mother was released from another. “[The Holocaust] should be taught, as it would show to the younger generation what evil can do and hopefully, if they knew about it, they could stop the evil,” said Schiff, who underscored her point by offering one version of a famous quotation by the German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (who was known to vary it depending on his audience):

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

“I don’t think anyone could say it better than he did,” Schiff said.