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Maryland Considers Requiring Holocaust Education in Schools

Rachel Baye

Irma Pretsfelder was born in 1926 in a small village in Germany. She was 11 years old in November 1938, when the synagogue where she went to school was burned, during what is known as Kristallnacht.

“The next morning, policemen came and said to my father, ‘I have to take you into custody,’” she told the state Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Wednesday afternoon. “‘But why are you taking me? What have I done?’ He said, ‘I have to obey orders. I have to take you to the next town.’”

She told the committee that her father was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

“He was eventually released from Buchenwald, and he came home not the same person that left home. He came home a sick person, and as a result, he died at the age of 54,” she said.

She had a plea for the committee. Educate young people, she said, so that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.

Her testimony occurred during a hearing on a bill that would require all public middle and high schools, as well as some private schools, to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides. The bill was inspired by a study, commissioned last year by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, that found that one in five millennials in the U.S. and one in 10 adults have never heard of the Holocaust.

“It was once believed that the sheer magnitude of this mind-numbing event and the cries of, ‘Never forget,’ would keep the lessons of the Holocaust seared into our memories,” said Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor. “Yet here we are.”

He said he was shocked when he learned of last year’s survey. He rattled off some of the statistics during Wednesday’s hearing.

Nearly half of those surveyed couldn’t name any of the 42,000 concentration camps or ghettos the Nazis used to imprison and murder Jews and members of other groups they wanted to systematically eradicate. Two-thirds of millennials — who the survey defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 — didn’t recognize the name of the most infamous camp, Auschwitz. And 41 percent of millennials didn’t know that six million Jews died during the Holocaust. They thought the number was less than two million.

Meredith Weisel, director of Government and Community relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, drew a direct link between a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and a rise in anti-Semitism.

“We get calls at the Jewish Community Relations Council on a daily basis — not weekly, not monthly, a daily basis — of schools, both public and private, that have swastikas scratched into the desks, painted on football fields, painted outside on the brick buildings,” she said.

But she said maintaining the collective memory of the Holocaust is only going to get harder.

“If there are gaps in awareness while our Holocaust survivors are still here, can you imagine how hard it’s going to be when they’re no longer with us to tell their stories?”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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