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Danielle Wirsansky: Is 'Holocaust' a band? Despite education mandate, too many Florida students ignorant

Walking across the gravel, I stopped in front of a slab of stone and gently placed a flower on its surface. After another moment of contemplation, I placed a stone atop it with my left hand, a custom of mourning. The words on the wall behind it were repeated over and over again, in many languages: “Never again.” However, this wasn’t a recent death. It was April 29, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “Never again” is the echoing phrase of the Holocaust.

Never again

Never again

Well, “never again” do I want to be asked – as I once was on my Florida State University campus – “The Holocaust? What’s that? A band?”

It always shocks me when I encounter people who know very little about such an important part of history, not just for Jewish people, but for us all. As a time of great evil, death and genocide, I wonder how the events could be forgotten when those who are survivors or have experienced its effects are still alive today.

The impetus behind my own travel to Dachau on its anniversary was, in fact, an interview I conducted with an American WWII veteran, George Aigen, who was a liberator of Dachau.

But encountering such ignorance on Florida’s campuses was astounding to me. This is because Florida is one of now six states (Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, California, New York, and Pennsylvania) that have an actual law, an education mandate, that requires public schools to teach about the Holocaust in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In Florida, the mandate has been in effect since 1994, which means that current college students from Florida have spent their entire educational careers supposedly being educated on the Holocaust.

The fact they haven’t been is disheartening. We live in a state with a specialized law centered on generating informed students. Now 20 years have gone by. This generation has much fewer connections and ties to the Holocaust than those of the past. Fewer survivors, liberators and people present during this time are left as a resource to new generations.

Since FSU has such a large and diverse student body, I thought perhaps the students I encountered who were ignorant on the topic came from states that were not required to teach about it. But according to FSU’s Office of Institutional Research, as recently as the 2013 Fall Semester, 82 percent of its students were Florida residents. At some point, they should have been taught about the Holocaust.

And yet, I still find students on campus who cannot list basic Holocaust facts. As an intern for the Holocaust Education Resource Council of the Big Bend (HERC), I began a research project to see just how much Florida students knew about the Holocaust. The process included interviewing random students asking sample questions such as: Which country did Hitler lead? How many Jewish people were killed? What kind of people were targeted? Though the project is still in progress, many students were hard-pressed to answer those questions and others.

Pennsylvania was the sixth state to add Holocaust education to the curriculum, an addition that only occurred in June 2014. The initiative was spurred by 94 Maidens author, Rhonda Fink-Whitman, who went to the Penn State and Drexel University campuses and asked random students basic questions about the Holocaust similar to those I asked and inspired my own project on the campuses of colleges in Tallahassee.

Those who are educated about the Holocaust can only cringe as they hear students give answers like, “100,000 people were killed?” and “Hitler led the country of Amsterdam, right?” These young adults, high functioning and exemplary students at renowned institutions, were missing basic facts about an incredibly important event.

After this video aired, Pennsylvania passed the bills on Holocaust Education.

So what does it mean when students interviewed in a state that does have the mandate are just as unable to answer Holocaust questions? If students in Florida who are supposed to be covered by the mandate are so ignorant, one can only imagine the absence of knowledge for those who live in states that are not required to teach about it.

Lack of funding is one reason that Florida students know so little about the Holocaust despite the mandate. In 2011, Holocaust education received $100,000. In 2012, that dropped to $41,000. With that budget allocation, each of the nine task force sites doing the groundwork to implement law would get only $4,500, which is not enough to even host one teacher training workshop, which usually costs more than $7,000.

It may be argued that Florida’s education system has suffered all around, with extreme budget cuts affecting every district. What little money is available should go to core subjects. Knowing about the Holocaust isn’t going to help a person who can’t read, write or do basic math.

However, Holocaust education is more important than ever before. Aside from revealing to us the dark and evil side of humanity, stories of this time also highlight the best qualities of people from faith, resilience and forgiveness. Most of all, these stories breed empathy in their listeners, a defining characteristic that is what makes us human.

And what is most important about Holocaust education is remembering, because it is only by doing so that we can avoid it happening again. As horrible and mind boggling as its occurrence was, to forget it is almost akin to denying it, and to deny it is to let it happen again. As Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

And with recent events like the rise of anti-Semitism and the escalation of ISIS, empathy is something people definitely need.

Since the Gaza conflict started in early summer of 2014, Jews are once more being castigated for their religion. Anti-Semitism rose over the past months in European countries, causing Jewish people to flee and immigrate to Israel. Yom Hashoah reported earlier this year an unprecedented 400 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 as compared to 2013. And a new report from the Pew Research Center released in February 2015 found that while overall social harassment toward religious groups decreased worldwide in 2013, anti-Semitic harassment has reached a seven-year high.

Even if you do not consider the plight of the Jews, genocide is beginning again as members of ISIS, an Islamic terrorist group, have been indiscriminately slaughtering and beheading people who are Christian and Yazidis throughout 2014 and 2015. Again, groups of people are being targeted and systematically murdered for having different beliefs.

America has its own national conflicts, with issues of police brutality, gun control and racism raging at the forefront, most recently in Baltimore. And while the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore are not on the same level of violence and hatred as the Holocaust or the genocide perpetrated by ISIS, they still act as reminders that no country or group is perfect, and that it takes vigilance and learning from the past to keep from repeating others mistakes.

George Aigen, the WWII veteran whose stories inspired me to travel all the way across the globe, did not share his stories about the Holocaust for many years. They were difficult and emotional to tell. But after a certain point, when he realized there were people who did not know about or even denied the Holocaust, he knew he had to speak out. And he began traveling to schools and different events to share his stories. Even though it is difficult for him to speak, he still does it, because it is our duty to remember it.

Few events in history can rival the scope of the Holocaust, so we must make the most of what cannot be changed and use these stories to educate future generations to make sure that it happens never again.

Danielle Wirsansky is a fourth-year student at FSU pursuing a dual degree in theatre and creative writing with a minor in history. She is in Israel, interning for the English National Theatre of Israel. She was an the intern for the Holocaust Education Resource Council of the Big Bend and a research assistant for Prof. Nathan Stoltzfus, a Nazi Germany expert. Wirsansky has received multiple grants to research the Holocaust. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

 

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