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Lawmakers Talk of Holocaust Legislation

April 10, 2013 By:
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Pennsylvania State Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (left) and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams spoke about the importance of Holocaust education as part of a memorial ceremony in Center City in April.

Glen Goldinger held a white flower in his hand and walked towards the stage, accompanied by the sound of a violin. 

The 17-year-old was in a line of young people participating in the March of the Children to honor Holocaust victims as part of a Yom Hashoah ceremony Sunday near the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs at 16th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

A few feet away on stage were Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony H. Williams and State Rep. Brendan F. Boyle, both of whom served as keynote speakers for the event. The legislators, neither of whom is Jewish, are trying to pass a law that would make Holocaust and genocide education mandatory for Pennsylvania students grades six through 12.

Goldinger supports that idea. His grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, liberated from Auschwitz, but he rarely talked about the experience and died before Goldinger was born. 

The student from Central High School had to learn about the Holocaust elsewhere. He met other survivors, and their stories made an impression. If students don’t learn what happened, he said, “there’s something really being left out.”

“Hearing the survivors talk, it makes you see life in a whole different way,” said Goldinger, a member of his school’s Jewish student Union. “It makes me want to hold on to my traditions even tighter.”

The legislation, which is under consideration at the committee level of both the House and Senate, would require education on the Holocaust and other genocides, such as that committed in Bosnia,  beginning with the 2015-2016 school year. New Jersey, New York, Florida, Illinois and California already have similar laws. 

In his remarks at the gathering, Boyle, who last month traveled to Israel on a mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — and this week declared he is running for the U.S. Congress, said requiring students to learn about the Holocaust helps ensure “that ‘never again’ can be said with meaning and with accuracy.”

Williams told audience members that he felt commonalities between his ancestors’ experience in slavery and that of Jews during the Holocaust.

He addressed the anti-Semitism that exists today and said that “what I am beginning to see on college campuses” and elsewhere scares him.

“If you travel into Europe and say that you are Jewish, you can actually be assaulted, not just verbally, but physically,” Williams said. 

He then tried to lead a “never again” call and response chant, but listeners failed to pick up on his intentions. He told the audience that he was a Baptist and gave more explicit instructions before, in a powerful voice leading the chant, he said: “Next year in Israel, my friends.”

Goldinger, who is a participant in the Satell Teen Fellowship for Leadership and Social Activism, said the proposed legislation is especially important for non-Jewish students. He recalled one occasion where a survivor spoke to a diverse class of students and mentioned that 6 million Jews were killed. There was little reaction from many of the students until the survivor said that 600,000 dark-skinned people had also been killed. That fact caused a stir.

Many students “don’t really think about all the other subgroups that were killed,” he said.

Josey Fisher, who teaches Holocaust studies at Gratz College, said a law mandating Holocaust education in New Jersey has had a significant impact since it was passed in 1994.

Once that was implemented, centers were established, many of them through colleges, “where there are educational opportunities for teachers and opportunities for students to learn,” said Fisher, who is also the director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz.

The proposed legislation calls for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to offer training programs for teachers on the Holocaust and to inform them about alternative programs. Fisher has taught a course since 1989 for educators on the Holocaust and thinks the law would prompt more teachers to enroll in such classes.

“I have a tremendous respect for teachers’ understanding,” she said, “that they need a good background in order to teach such a difficult topic.”

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