Push for change as only 18 states require Holocaust education

A majority of states don't require Holocaust history in education curriculum. Survivor family members and museum curators are trying to change that.

Push for change as only 18 states require Holocaust education
Scripps News

Auschwitz — the Nazi Concentration Camp where roughly 1 million Jews were murdered — was liberated 77 years ago Friday. 

But if you ask millennials and Gen Z about the Holocaust, odds are they might not know what you're talking about.  

In a 2020 study, only 44% said they could identify Auschwitz; 63% didn't know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; and nearly a quarter said either the Holocaust was a myth and did not happen, or that it happened but the number of Jews who died has been greatly exaggerated. 

Debora Steinerman is the daughter of two survivors who lost at least 23 family members combined. 

"As a child of a survivor, we have a responsibility to share this story, this knowledge, this education with children, because we're the witnesses to the actual witnesses, and there are very few survivors left," she said.

Steinerman found out shortly after her move to Vermont that the state did not require Holocaust education. 

"How can they not be taught this important part of history? It affects us to this day. It's timelier than ever now," she said. "The Holocaust didn't start with murder. The Holocaust started with words."

Steinerman went to work, creating the Vermont Holocaust Memorial, which organizes speakers going into schools, educator workshops, and putting out resources for teachers to use. It's a heavy burden for the all-volunteer team in a remote state. 

"We can't do it all," Steinerman said. "We can't be all the speakers and go to all the schools."

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, holograms forever preserve survivors
At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, holograms forever preserve survivors

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, holograms forever preserve survivors

Scripps News revisits the Illinois Holocaust Museum to hear from a survivor whose likeness and memories are preserved in holographic form.


And some state senators say they shouldn't have to. A resolution recognizing a Holocaust Education Week, which Steinerman helped design, is expected to pass both state chambers unanimously. It will give Vermont schools lesson plans and interactive opportunities to take advantage of. 

"If there's even one school that misses this opportunity, we should have something in place that puts this in place," Vermont state Sen. Ginny Lyons said.

But both Lyons and Steinerman say a resolution is just not enough. A resolution has no teeth; it doesn't require teachers to do anything or track progress. But a law would require this kind of learning. 

"I really think that it would be critical to have Holocaust education be a permanent fixture in the curriculum. But that then becomes another level of discussion," Lyons said. "Given the national climate right now, I would hate to see us wait too long."

But Vermont isn't the only state lagging in this type of education. Only 18 states require Holocaust and genocide education, meaning some students may not be learning about history's largest genocide. The reality is, the Jewish population in America is small, only accounting for 2.4% of the entire U.S. population. Thirty states have a Jewish population of 1% or less, and only two states and D.C. have above 5%. 

New York requires this educational program. The Museum of Jewish Heritage has worked with schools in the state to create lesson plans focusing specifically on 8th and 10th graders. 

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The world remembers the Holocaust as antisemitism rises in pandemic

The world remembers the Holocaust as antisemitism rises in pandemic

Commemorations are taking place amid a rise of antisemitism that gained traction during lockdowns as the pandemic exacerbated hatred online.


"We think that's an important time when many character traits are developed and many judgments and values are encouraged," said Jack Kliger, President and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. "We try a lot to make a lesson, something that encourages younger people to think, what would they do? How would they act?"

The museum has utilized the remaining, dwindling survivor population to speak to students. It's especially impactful, as most living survivors were in that age group when the Holocaust began. 

"There is an understanding that when you're talking to a 14-year-old, who is sitting in a class feeling safe and secure and not discriminated against — this person talking to them, when she or he was 14, was fighting for their lives and hiding and escaping," Kliger said. 

One other concern for Kliger — and frankly many Holocaust educators — is teaching the teachers, some of whom don't have detailed knowledge about the Holocaust themselves. We've seen this play out across the country, including in Texas where a school administrator suggested teaching the opposite side of the Holocaust and in Florida where a principal wouldn't call the Holocaust factual. 

"We have not well prepared many teachers, and their ignorance doesn't just stay at certain levels; there are ignorant people on many levels," Kliger said. 

He hopes more states will adopt laws before the entire survivor population is gone and denial and disinformation become even more prevalent.

"We're really in a race against time to make sure that we have sufficient teaching tools, teachers and the commitment to learn the lessons of history," Kliger said.