Seventy-five years after the atrocities of Auschwitz, memories of the Holocaust are fading for younger generations who learn little about genocides in school, according to education advocates who believe they have the answer: Make it Arizona law to teach about the horrors of the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”
After a 2018 study showed that two-thirds of millennials couldn’t identify the Auschwitz death camp or that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, survivors and supporters expressed concern.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise, survivors are aging and younger generations are either unaware of the Holocaust or are forgetting the lessons it taught.
“This is soon going to be about cultural memory produced and reinforced by people who are not eyewitnesses or witnesses to the time,” said Arizona State University history professor Volker Benkert.
Dozens of Holocaust survivors crowded into a hearing room in January at the state Capitol to support House Bill 2682, which would require the State Board of Education to add a genocide curriculum to the hundreds of middle and high schools in Arizona. It would have to be taught at least twice from seventh grade to senior year.
The House passed the measure with only one member, Republican John Kavanagh of Scottsdale, not voting. It is awaiting final Senate action.
Holocaust survivor Oskar Knoblauch, 94, often tells the story of one of the “upstanders” who helped him survive when he was a scrawny, starving teen forced to work in the ghetto of Krakow, Poland. A Polish Roman Catholic man, noticing how weak Knoblauch was, risked his life to sneak bread to him.
“Would you have saved a skinny, dirty Jew like me – risking your lives and your families’ lives because if you were to be caught, you would have been shot?” Knoblauch asked lawmakers.
It’s essential, he said, to teach young people to stand up for others.
Educators and community leaders said it’s also important to teach lessons about such atrocities as the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides and the erasure of indigenous people in America to prevent them from happening again.
But teachers often don’t have the time or resources to spend on in-depth lessons.
Advocates want teachers to get training to teach with sensitivity, thoroughness, and consistency at the state level so they can connect younger generations to a past that can better explain the turmoil of the world today.
That means showing the lingering effects of slavery, the mistreatment of indigenous people and the tragedy of racial and religious intolerance that destroyed millions of people.
Dobson High School senior Maritza Sanchez said she was naive when she first stepped into a year-long course on Holocaust literature.
“It’s crazy to think that stuff like this actually happened,” said Sanchez, 17.
She was determined not to be a bystander to bias. She joined the Anti-Defamation League at Dobson High School.
“We learned now in our club that if someone tries to offend someone by saying, ‘Oh, that’s gay,’ ask them what do you mean by that,” she said. “It’s just trying to stop those little comments that can hurt someone a lot.”
Michael Beller and Josh Kay, co-founders of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust, an online petition to require Holocaust education in schools, raised more than $5,000 and collected a growing number of online signatures to urge lawmakers to require students in upper grades to learn about genocides. The State Board of Education would establish the curriculum.
Kay said he learned about the Holocaust from a survivor – his grandfather.
“We thought that this was a good place for us to say, ‘We should try to teach as much as we can about the Holocaust, about genocide, about all the things that people can do to each other that should be prevented,’ ” he said.
The petition was started after the Phoenix Holocaust Association and advocates worked last year with Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, to create House Concurrent Resolution 2032.
The resolution encouraged schools to teach about the Holocaust from eighth grade to senior year of high school. But it ground to a halt in the Senate.
Sanchez said the Holocaust was discussed in a one-day lesson in her history classes.
“The main point we learned in history is that the U.S. joined World War II because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor,” Sanchez said. “They don’t get into depth on that millions of people were shot and killed in camps.”
John-David Bowman, a social studies teacher who teaches U.S. history and Advanced Placement world history at Deer Valley High School, said state standards mean he does not spend a lot of time teaching students about genocides.
He said he’s supposed to spend only five minutes on the Holocaust in U.S. history class because it’s not U.S. history.
However, in a world history class, “we spent about a week on the Holocaust and other genocides,” he said.
That’s in contrast to Kim Klett, an English teacher who teaches Holocaust and genocide literature at Dobson High School to seniors like Sanchez over two semesters.
She said the quality of teaching is as important as the amount of time spent. She recommends funding for teachers to take professional development classes.
“If it’s not required, a lot of teachers are not going to teach it. If we have something in place that says you have to teach it, they’re going to,” she said, adding that investing in training will make a difference.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect supports a 50-state Holocaust and genocide education initiative.
Arizona would become the 13th state to require educating students on the Holocaust and other genocides, according to Pew Research Center.
Oregon was the most recent state to enact the mandate when a 14-year-old girl came up with the idea after befriending a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor.
Beyond calling for the teaching of the “Holocaust and other genocides” in the bill, Arizona advocates don’t offer recommendations on the approach or details of such lessons.
Lawmakers across the country often ask what the curriculum should look like, said Elisa Rapaport, the chief operating officer for the Anne Frank Center.
“Some of them don’t want it to be just about Holocaust education. They would appreciate it if it were more general, about humanity and inhumanity throughout the past,” she said.
“Every single week, we receive requests from people writing to us saying, ‘How can I help? This is so important,’” Rapaport said. “We know that the majority of people believe that Holocaust education should be taught in schools. It’s just the matter of getting the work done and making it happen.”
At the federal level, a bill called the Never Again Education Act passed through the House in late January and is now headed to the Senate. If enacted, the bill would expand the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s education programming to teachers nationwide.
Klett has been teaching Holocaust literature since 2001 at Dobson. She took a similar class in college, which inspired her to teach the course.
“I saw how it connected to our own world and taught lessons beyond history,” she said.
During the course, students read books, hear the stories of Holocaust survivors and go to events dedicated to the remembrance of genocides.
Students complete a listening activity where they go out into the hallways and listen to how students talk to one another about race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
Klett said students notice a lack of civility, kindness and how people don’t think before they speak – characteristics that span generations.
Klett also shows genocides aren’t limited to 1945. In class one day, Klett held up a newspaper about the 1994 massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda.
Langille, the university lecturer in Jewish studies, also said the Holocaust focuses a lens on other fraught times.
“Something that I’m teaching now to my students is how Jim Crow, here in America, informed Nazi Nuremberg laws. We’re not separated from this in the past, let alone the present,” he said.
Klett said she’s been working with Bosnia teachers who are using the Holocaust as a module to make connections to the Bosnia War in the 1990s, where nearly 8,000 Muslim boys and men from Bosnia were killed in a mass movement of “ethnic cleansing.”
“I think it’s important to look at what’s happened on our own soil by looking at slavery, looking at Native Americans – looking at these different areas where we’ve seen inhumanity and genocide,” she said.
Benkert said the Holocaust affects the modern “political landscape.”
“I think there’s an enormous danger. There’s a presence of the far-right movement that I didn’t think possible,” he said.
Langille said a decade ago he wouldn’t have imagined seeing anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia in 2020. He said the problem is when deniers and public officials are given a platform to voice some of these ideologies.
Some people link the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust to anti-Semitism. Benkert said that’s not the case.
“It’s a threat to people, particularly Jewish people but more generally to people who don’t conform to their ideals,” he said. “This is not for a lack of education – these guys know exactly what they’re doing.”
The Phoenix metro area has about 50 Holocaust survivors and about 25 survivors live in Tucson, according to Anthony Fusco, the education coordinator at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
This year marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, where nearly 1.1 million Jews lost their lives.