Should Holocaust education be mandatory? This Oregon 9th-grader tries to make it so

Claire Sarnowski, a high school freshman in Lake Oswego, Oregon, is lobbying for her state to require grade school Holocaust education.
Claire Sarnowski, a high school freshman in Lake Oswego, Oregon, is lobbying for her state to require grade school Holocaust education. KATU screenshot

Just 10 states have laws requiring grade school Holocaust education, but a Lake Oswego, Oregon, high school student is hoping to make her state the 11th.

On Sept. 25, Lakeridge High School student Claire Sarnowski and concentration camp survivor Alter Wiener will testify before the Oregon State Senate Education Committee in favor of a law requiring that K-12 students receive education on genocide in general and the Holocaust — which claimed millions of victims, including Jews, Roma, prisoners of war, people with disabilities and gay men — in specific.

There are 10 states where Holocaust education is mandatory: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Rhonda Fink-Whitman, who helped spearhead the law in Pennsylvania and now coordinates a nationwide effort through her Facebook group Campaign to Make Holocaust Education Mandatory in All 50 States.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Fink-Whitman said she was surprised to learn teachers weren’t required to teach about the Holocaust in her home state of Pennsylvania.

“I was afraid that it was really falling through the cracks,” she said.

After the Pennsylvania law went into effect, Fink-Whitman said she took her campaign nationwide.

“I’m constantly looking for advocates in all 50 states,” she said.

That includes in Oregon, Fink-Whitman said.

She said she learned of Claire and Wiener’s mission when Claire’s mother posted on the Facebook group.

In announcing the hearing on Facebook, Oregon State Sen. Rob Wagner praised Wiener and his harrowing story.

“This past spring, I had the opportunity to meet Alter Wiener — and he has forever touched my life,” Wagner wrote.

Wiener’s father was killed by Germans during the 1939 invasion of Poland; he was sent to the forced labor camp Blechhammer, according to his biography.

“Alter Wiener is one of the very few Holocaust survivors still living in Portland, Oregon vicinity. He moved to Oregon in 2000, and since then he has shared his life story with more than 850 audiences,” his biography says.

When she was in fourth grade, Claire attended one of Wiener’s talks, according to the Lake Oswego Review, and then she and her mom sought Wiener out to know him better.

“Of course I felt awful, and wanted to spread all of the love that I could to him. But I also just wanted to connect with him because he seemed like such a fascinating person, and he was so grateful for life,” she said, according to the Lake Oswego Review.

Wiener and Claire’s mission comes at a time when memory of the Holocaust, now 73 years’ past, is rapidly fading.

A recent survey found two-thirds of American millennials did not know about Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, and another 23 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust or were unsure if they had, according to The Washington Post.

For Wiener, 92, the Holocaust is still a painful memory, he said, according to KATU.

“Every day when I take a shower, and I’m telling you exactly what I feel. And I look at the shower, and I ask myself, ‘What did my little brother feel when they pushed him into a gas chamber at the age of 10? Instead of water, Zyklon B has choked him to death, how much did that little boy suffer?” Alter said, according to KATU.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of states where it’s mandatory to teach about the Holocaust in grade school. It’s mandated in 10 states.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler